Friday, 9 March 2012

Why you should watch a horror film before going to the art gallery

A proun by El Lissitsky
If you're looking to enhance your experience of abstract art, you may want to consider spending some pre-gallery time watching a horror film. Kendall Eskine and his colleagues Natalie Kacinik and Jesse Prinz have investigated how different emotions, as well as physiological arousal, influence people's sublime experiences whilst viewing abstract art. Their finding is that fear, but not happiness or general arousal, makes art seem more sublime.

Eighty-five participants were allocated to one of five conditions prior to looking at the art work. Some of them watched a 14-second scary video clip; others watched a 14-second happy video clip; some did 30 jumping jack exercises (designed to induce high physiological arousal); some did 15 jumping jacks (low arousal); whilst the remainder acted as controls and simply looked at the art without any preceding activity or intervention. The participants were questioned later and the different conditions had the desired effect - for example, the scary film left the participants in that condition feeling scared, and the happy film left others feeling equally happy.

The art work was four paintings by the Russian abstract artist El Lissitsky, each made up of simple geometric shapes and lines. Each painting was shown for thirty seconds and participants rated their experience of the art in terms of how inspiring it was, stimulating, dull, exciting, moving, boring, uninteresting, rousing/stirring, imposing, and forgetful. These factors were intended to tap into Edmund Burke's conception of the sublime: "that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended ... so entirely filled with its object."

The main result is that participants who'd watched the scary video clip tended to rate the art as more sublime than did participants in all the other conditions. By contrast, ratings given by participants in the other conditions didn't differ from each other. This suggests fear plays a special role in the sublime experience of art. Arousal may have played a lesser part - across conditions, participants' arousal scores correlated with their sublime ratings of the art.

Why should feeling afraid enhance the sublime power of art? "The capacity for a work of art to grab our interest and attention, to remove us from daily life, may stem from its ability to trigger our evolved mechanisms for coping with danger," the researchers said. "Art is not typically described as scary, but it can be surprising, elicit goose bumps, and inspire awe. Like discovering a grand vista in nature, artwork presents new horizons that pose challenges as well as opportunities." They added that future research is needed to explore the aesthetic effects of other emotions and to test emotional effects on different types of art.
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  ResearchBlogging.org
Eskine, K., Kacinik, N., and Prinz, J. (2012). Stirring images: Fear, not happiness or arousal, makes art more sublime. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0027200

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

7 comments:

  1. The caption to the image is incorrect. That's not "A pronoun", it's a Proun piece. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Lissitzky#Proun

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    Replies
    1. thanks Gruff, that's now corrected.

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  2. Anonymous8:23 pm

    Hmmmmm..... Not sure! I own a contemporary art gallery.... Come visit us the way you want! The emptiest, the better! We will help you!

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  3. Makes sense to me, and it reminds me of the fact that it seems to be easier for people, who survived a trauma, accident or sickness to reach this certain understanding that you need Ideals to live a meaningful life.
    But I am not a fan of horror movies and I hope they are not necessary. But it's interesting where all the zombies and vampires come from these days. I saw a documentary called "The American Nightmare" which examines the nature of 60s and 70s American horror films and how they reflected contemporary American society. You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLcbgz1oJJs Tough stuff...but very interesting. "All that bad karma , it has to go somewhere."

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  4. Anonymous7:58 pm

    Awesome! I've been suspicious of this all of my life, specifically as it pertains to music.

    Seeing the 'One' video by Metallica while in the 3rd grade was pretty jarring for me...and opened my mind to a whole new world of music. And throughout all of my years growing up, I found myself enjoying music on a different, higher level if there was element of fear in it (whether it be the music itself, or even just the band's persona, etc).

    Perfect example: the band 'Ghost' (flavor of the month these days) plays 70's tinged rock music, nothing over the top. They do, however, sing about Satan and hide their identities behind hooded robes (save for the singer's 'dead pope' costume).

    I would credit their appeal solely to this element of darkness and fear. I think this element suspends the propsensity to judge, and opens you more to experience.

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  5. This seems a little bit like cognitive dissonance to me. The people who were scared are coming down from that anxiety, and falsely attribute it to the art instead of the passage of time / removal of the aversive stimulus.

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  6. How are we looking at the paintings of Mark Rothko these days?
    Is he old hat, replaced in America by more contemporary concerns? Looking at his minimal canvases and their enticing floating squares of subdued paint live at the MOMA recently, I had to stop to wonder whether he still communicates to a modern and younger audience.
    Wahooart.com, the site that sells good canvas prints to order from their database of digital images, has many Rothko prints. I ordered this one, Blue and grey, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8BWU7F
    , that I have now hanging in my study. I can spend a long time looking at this elusive image that takes me to some other place not in this world.

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