"I scared myself with paint"

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.

BPS Research Digest

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