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.

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.
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