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.
When I wrote about the pernicious fascination of images and the Islamic suspicion of them and how that might perhaps have influenced some Iranian films, I hadn’t been to see Shirin: a whole film that rests on denying the image. Not to say that there isn’t plenty of eye candy in all that raven hair, shining, almond eyes, chiselled cheekbones etc, not to say that watching emotions ruffle beautifully lit faces of any kind isn’t fascinating, but there’s no forgetting that we’re watching a film that is about not watching a film; if you want to really engage your imagination, the audience of which you are part is in the position of the screened film that the screened audience in the film you are watching is watching. The complications don’t stop there. The film whose place in space you share never existed except in your actualization of that place, behind your eyes and the eyes of other audience members like you, because the women on the screen were, reportedly, actors sitting in Abbas Kiarostami’s living room looking at dots above the camera, and the narrative they are apparently following so avidly was chosen afterwards. It goes to show what a great thing Lev Kuleshov‘s editing experiment was. I wonder if Kiarostami was also thinking of Salaam Cinema, made by his intriguing counterpart Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a film made of filmed auditions for a film that turns out to be the film we’re watching, in which the director is shown insisting that his would-be movie stars must be able to cry on demand. Makhmalbaf is already implicated in Kiarostami’s hall of empty mirrors in Close-up, about which it would be wrong to give too much away, except to say that it features an impostor and their impostee both playing themselves.
The comparison with Andy Warhol’s Blow Job
– what’s really going on down there? Does it matter? – and Screen Tests might be obvious, but I’m going to make it anyway: we just love looking at other people, that’s what nearly all paintings and photographs and films are for, and if you take away the frame of context and narrative we expect in a film, we still love it. On that subject, if you ever ever get a chance to see Tim Etchells performing Down Time, do. I wonder how he would now remember what he was thinking.