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Fear Helps You Appreciate Abstract Art, Study Finds

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The next time you're having trouble appreciating Jackson Pollock, try seeing a horror movie first.

According to a new study, feeling fear may actually help people to better engage with abstract art.

In the study, which used 85 Brooklyn College students as a sample, participants were assigned randomly to one of five conditions: fear, happiness, high physiological arousal, low physiological arousal or a control group.

Fear was induced with a video of a screaming, zombie-like face, happiness with a clip of a baby and dog interacting, and high and low physiological arousal by having participants complete 30 or 15 jumping jacks, respectively. Participants were then shown four paintings by abstract artist El Lissitzky.

When results were tabulated, fear was the only factor shown to significantly increase the strength of viewers' reactions to the art. "Art’s allure may... be a byproduct of one’s tendency to be alarmed by such environmental features as novelty, ambiguity, and the fantastic," the study concluded.

"I wanted to focus on how our body literally shapes the way we think. The body is not just a vessel for the mind, it is the mind, it's all the same stuff," said Kendall Eskine, the study’s lead author, in an interview with The Huffington Post

Eskine, a research psychologist at Loyola New Orleans, is interested in the field known as embodied cognition, which explores the ways that physical states can influence the way that people think. Eskine is particular interested in how people process abstract concepts like beauty, truth, or morality.

One study in this field showed that participants holding a hot cup of coffee had more positive first impressions upon meeting a stranger than those holding a cold cup of coffee. Another study, run by Eskine, highlighted the connection between eating bitter food and increased feelings of moral disgust.

In the case of abstract art, Eskine explained, fear might stimulate viewers to the painting in front of them, in part because of the emotion's evolutionary basis.

"When you're in a fear state, it promotes fight or flight," he said. "When you're scared, [you focus on] the object that is involved in your fear state in a very special way. You couple the physical, visceral experience of fear with this object that has taken over your mental world -- a way of describing the sublime."

Eskine's definition of the sublime is taken from 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke, who believed that a truly great work of art should inspire both fear and pleasure. Though 18th century philosophy might seem out of place in a contemporary psych study, taking old philosophical ideas and testing them with empirical evidence is one of Eskine's passions.

"People for centuries have had provocative and interesting ideas and it doesn't hurt to see if they work," he said. "It's a great way to disseminate information to people who aren't scientifically trained."

Eskine plans to continue researching different aspects of aesthetic experience, including dance, film, music, and more. In one recent project, which has not yet been published, Eskine had participants sit on the edges of their seat. Afterwards, they expressed "more excitement/anxiousness," according to Eskine.

Eskine also pointed out that the results of his study could even be applied in reverse.

"Whenever you're asking people to look at art, if they're trying to get a sense of whether they like it, they could consider how it physically makes them feel and use that information as a cue to understand what it meant," he said.

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Fear Heightens Appreciation of Abstract Art