Perceiving and Reasoning: When a Pair of Glasses on a Museum Floor is an Artwork (Until It’s Not Anymore)

This presentation will analyze “Contemporary Art pranks”, in which somebody, intentionally or not, places a mundane object (like their pair of glasses or a hydrant) in an art gallery or museum. The visitors perceive the object as if it is part of the exhibition – until they discover that it is not. We will explore the relationship between perception and inquiry in this scenario taking into consideration: (i) the abductive process that regards the construction of a hypothesis upon the habits of manipulation of the space in which those objects are placed (such as museums and art galleries); and (ii) the deductive/inferential process concerning how the viewer’s reaction to the object might further constrain other viewers into assuming the same hypothesis that the given object is, indeed, an artwork. 

Peirce’s three inferential modes (abduction, induction and deduction), are based on his notion of scientific inquiry. The scientific method of inquiry, according to him, consists in a process of continuous creation and further experimentation upon hypotheses. These hypotheses regard the judgment of something, which is perceived – namely, a perceptual judgment, “the first judgment of a person as to what is before his senses” (CP 5.115). The hypothesis in this scenario could be roughly formulated as a question as such: “is this object an artwork?”. This question is triggered by the first abductive reasoning process that takes place in the immediate multimodal encounter involving an agent and an artifact placed in the environment. This hypothesis finds further conclusions and generalizations (either confirming the hypothesis or not) through deductive and inductive processes that take into consideration the bodily reaction of further visitors in relation to the given artifact. In this process, the visitors become part of the multimodal physical space of the museum/gallery, and are interpreted in relation to their habits of perception and social interactions with the space and the artifact. 

We conclude that such “pranks” are a very good example of discussing the ontological and epistemological boundaries of art in relation to the experience that artworks might afford us. They also highlight how the change in the habits of something is not an instant transformation and is directly dependent the on the embodiment of such habits constrained by the physical space, and on the perceptual judgments that arise from such a multimodal environment. 


The concept of “manipulation” is here understood both as an experimental practice of reasoning that encompasses several different processes of thinking (Stjernfelt 2007, Pietarinen & Bellucci 2016) as well as any sensorial activity that one must perform to get in touch with the experience or phenomena in question.

Peirce, C. S., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. 1–6, eds. Hartshorne, Charles, Weiss, Paul, vols. 7–8, ed. Burks, A. W., Cambridge: Harvard University Press. In-text references are to CP, followed by volume and paragraph numbers.
Pietarinen, A., and Bellucci, F., ‘The Iconic Moment. Towards a Peircean Theory of Diagrammatic Imagination‘, Epistemology, Knowledge and the Impact of Interaction, Cham: Springer, 2016, pp. 463–481.
Stjernfelt, F., Diagrammatology: An Investigation on the Borderlines of Phenomenology, Ontology, and Semiotics, Cham: Springer, 2007.

Letícia Vitral

Independent researcher

Doctor in Comparative Literature. Her PhD was awarded in 2020 by the Linnaeus University. She is member of the Iconicity Research Group (Federal University of Juiz de Fora, Brazil), of the Intermedial and Multimodal Studies research group (Linnaeus University), and of the International Society for Intermedial Studies. Her main research interests are semiotics, philosophy, the arts and intermediality. Her research develops around philosophical matters regarding both the theoretical connection between Epistemology and Aesthetics through Pragmatist Semiotics, and the empirical practice of introducing Pragmatist inquiry methods to the studying and learning about/with artworks and media.

João Queiroz

Federal University of Juiz de Fora

professor at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (Institute of Arts/Faculty of Communication Studies), and coordinator of the Iconicity Research Group. He is member of the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS) and associate researcher at the Linguistics and Language Practice Department, University of the Free State (South Africa). His research interests include Cognitive Semiotics, Peirce’s Philosophy and Pragmatism.

contemporary art
scientific inquiry
perceptual judgment