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Features : Editorial Last Updated: Jan 9, 2013 - 9:19:16 AM

Fear, happiness or arousal: Which state is best for appreciating art?
By Steve Ferber
Jan 9, 2013 - 9:17:55 AM

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Apparently it’s fear, according to researchers from the City University of New York who have now drawn an uncommon link between danger and art appreciation. One review of the findings spawned this provocative headline (from Research Digest): “Why you should watch a horror film before going to the art gallery,” but fear not, the film doesn’t have to be of mega-length. Apparently a short video clip will do.
In recent years, researchers have confirmed a link between one’s emotional state and their perception of artwork. But this was the first study, according to its authors, that examined which emotional state (fear, happiness or physiological arousal) provides the most juice for enjoying abstract art.
A Research Digest review of the study asked: “Why should feeling afraid enhance the sublime power of art?” And the researchers, quoted in this same review, explained: “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 . . .. 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."
In the study, participants were asked to evaluate a series of abstract works of art, but before the rating began, they were assigned to one of five conditions, designed to induce emotions of fear, happiness and/or arousal (via physical activity). The chief finding, according to the study abstract: “Only the fear condition resulted in significantly more positive judgments about the art. These striking findings provide the first evidence that fear uniquely inspires positively valency aesthetic judgments.”
Bob Duggan, in a piece published by, explained that study participants were asked to evaluate the abstract art on how “inspiring, stimulating, dull, exciting, moving, boring, uninteresting, rousing/stirring, imposing and forgetful” they were. And Duggan pointed out that “to control for subject prejudices either for or against a certain artist or art movement, works by the relatively unknown Russian geometric abstract artist El Lissitsky were shown.”
The study is titled “Stirring images: Fear, not happiness or arousal, makes art more sublime” and is co-authored by Eskine, Natalie Kacinik and Jesse Prinz.

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