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Don't 'get' Pollock or Picasso? Maybe you need a good scare

A museum goer looks at an abstract piece by Frank Stella

REUTERS/Vincent West

"Harran II" by Frank Stella may be more compelling to a terrified observer.

If you’re heading out to the Walker or the Weisman art museum this weekend, you may want to first watch “Psycho” or “Halloween.”

For, as science writer Tom Jacobs reports in the online magazine Miller-McCune this month, a new study has found that people react to abstract paintings with more emotion and interest after they’ve just had a good scare.

That's right. Terror apparently makes us appreciate abstract art more.

The study, which was posted online earlier this month in the journal Emotion, was led by Loyola University psychologist Kendall Eskine, who is interested in embodied cognition, an intriguing area of psychology that explores how the physical embodiment of our everyday experiences shapes the way we think.

Eskine’s inspiration for this study came from the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke. In his treatise on aesthetics, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” Burke proposed that “terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.”

Burke would have been pleased with the study’s results.

Here’s Jacobs’ description of how Eskine and his colleagues devised and conducted their experiment, which involved 85 Brooklyn College students:

Participants were randomly assigned to one of five conditions: fear (which was evoked by viewing a brief frightening video); happiness (evoked by a watching a brief pleasing video); high physical arousal (they performed 30 jumping jacks); low physical arousal (15 jumping jacks); or a control group.

All then viewed images of four paintings, described as “simple geometric abstract pieces from the artist El Lissitsky.” [This Russian’s work was chosen because he is relatively unknown, and thus the students’ reaction to his art would be less likely to reflect any pre-existing art biases.] During the 30 seconds each painting was visible on their computer screen, participants rated (on a scale of 1 to 5) whether their reaction to it matched a series of descriptive words, including “inspiring,” “stimulating,” and “imposing” [words that “convey components of sublime experiences, as conceptualized by Burke,” according to the study’s authors.]

The students’ ratings of the paintings were then combined into a single “sublime score.”

Once the ratings were compiled and analyzed, the researchers discovered that only fear enhanced the participants’ reaction to Lissitsky’s work.

"Art’s allure may ... be a byproduct of one’s tendency to be alarmed by such environmental features as novelty, ambiguity, and the fantastic," Eskine and his colleagues concluded.

You can read Jacobs’ full report on the study on the Miller-McCune website.

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Comments (5)

What I don't get is why the

What I don't get is why the photograph accompanying this article is not of a Pollock or a Picasso painting? And they are not mentioned in the article either.

Not to be picky

But Picasso isn't abstract art.

I'd disagree with Burke. I don't think that terror is the ruling principle of the sublime, I think that the sublime is the ruling principle of terror (and beauty). I'd guess similar results would have been obtained by elevating ("irritating") viewers' imaginative faculty through any form of existential emotion-heightener, of which fear is just one.

"sublime the ruling principle of "terror"?

This is an interesting study. Worthwhile too because it addresses that seldom used notion of the "sublime". I'm thinking that "sublime"is too "sublime" for American culture which only respond to extremes like "terror' and laughs at "nuanced" responses to events. "Sublime" is not for morons, I'm afraid.

perhaps the relief following a fearful experience may be the key

Although it is true the group who experienced "fear" rated the artwork higher, they were not actually experiencing fear at that moment (nor were the others performing jumping jacks while viewing the art).

Instead, they had *recently* experienced fear and were then in a recovery period, experiencing a sense of relief. There are all kinds of physiological and emotional changes occurring when someone is no longer fearful. It is during this post-fear state that the people viewed and appreciated the art.

Being relieved of one's fears: truly sublime.

The ruling principle of the sublime

I appreciate the results of this study indicating “terror” as a basis of one’s aesthetic senses to take a rain check; however, to believe something aesthetically unpleasant, then suddenly pleasant after a terrorizing encounter does seems a bit far reaching.

But then too, I am curious as to the “terrorizing” video’s shown, and also the abstract paintings by Lazar Markovich Lissitzky utilized for this study; as many of his paintings (and graphic designs though abstract in nature and some postmodern abstract as well) do represent familiar objects; for example his “book cover for Chad Gadya” visually represents familiar numbers and shapes with pleasantly colored aesthetics (reds, grays, whites and blacks) and, in my humble opinion, is especially trendy with an international appeal. And this is not the only one, but most of his paintings and graphic designs exhibit these same qualities—“postmodernism” is largely a reaction to scientific or objective efforts to explain reality and its relativity, and as is art, it is different to each person; i.e., postmodernism = relativism.

Conversely, sensitivity can be altered by exposure, just as exposure to violence makes one hypo-sensitive to violence, being exposed to "terrorizing" images would certainly cause one to become hypo-sensitive to anything aesthetically “terrorizing”, or in the case of Picasso, “grotesque”—or specifically, “grotesque abstract art” in which real and fantastic figures are mixed, and which most of Picasso’s art portrays; and likewise, “abstract art”—such as Pollock’s which doesn't aim to depict an object but is composed with the focus on internal structure and form, especially those which are aesthetically balanced which for the most part, we view as “sublime”.

The exact definition of “the sublime” changes from author to author, but most agree that sublimity is marked by grandeur, vastness, incomprehensibility, and the power to cause an intense pleasure in the observer, a pleasure that has transcendent qualities (Stone, 2007). Immanuel Kant’s explanation of the sublime as purely subjective—that is, sublimity “is not a quality residing in the object, but a state of mind awakened by an object” (Monk, 1960).

For example, upon viewing “Convergence” by Jackson Pollock, how does it make you feel? What do you see? Perhaps we all will have different opinions, but here is what I see: On the surface the foremost colors (orange and yellow) rising to the surface representational, if you will, of immediate action, a rapidity of force, energy, stimulation; thereby representational of strength, power, vigor, and motivation, and the blue reveals where energy has weakened; however looking through the surface and into the depths it is relaxed and peaceful as the off white background represents a calm passivity, and black in the shadows representing thought and emotion; the outward appearance within the composition completely differential from its inward appearance, however somewhere in between, the two must converge.

If the qualities of the sublime and beautiful are sometimes found united, does this prove that they are the same; does it prove that they are any way allied; does it prove even that they are not opposite and contradictory? Black and white may soften, may blend; but they are not therefore the same. Nor, when they are so softened and blended with each other, or with different colors, is the power of black as black, or of white as white, so strong as when each stands uniform and distinguished (Burke, 2007).

And so, whenever we judge anything according to its aesthetic/visual appearance, the general rule—which I believe to be the “ruling principle of the sublime” in which Burke was referencing—is that we first compare its aesthetics to what we believe or possibly what we are “conditioned to believe” is beautiful and/or grotesque. And so still, it is subjective to relativism.

One of my favorite quotes:
“Clarity is of no importance because nobody listens and nobody knows what you mean, nor how clearly you mean what you mean. But if you have vitality enough of knowing enough of what you mean, somebody and sometimes and sometimes a great many will have to realize that you know what you mean and so they will agree that you mean what you know, what you know you mean, which is as near as anybody can come to understanding any one.”—Gertrude Stein


Burke, Edmond. (2007). Harvard Classics, Vol. 24: Edmund Burke, Essays & Reflections; On the Sublime and Beautiful, by Edmund Burke. Retrieved November 1, 2012 from Harvard Classics, Vol. 24, Part 2

Monk, Samuel H. The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960.

Perry, Susan. (2012). Don't 'get' Pollock or Picasso? Maybe you need a good scare. Retrieved November 1, 2012 from Minn Post at

Stone, Jandy. (2007). The Importance of the Sublime in the Romantic Aesthetic. Retrieved November 1, 2012 from