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Fear Makes Art More Engaging

A recent study finds that when people are stimulated by fear, they tend to be more engaged with art. Christie Nicholson reports

Emmanuel Kant spoke often about the sublime, and specifically how art becomes more sublime when beauty mixes with terror. Now research provides some support for this philosophical viewpoint.

Scientists had 85 subjects experience one of five different things. One group watched a brief scary movie, another group watched a happy movie, and two other groups performed either 30 or 15 jumping jacks. The control group did nothing.

Then all the subjects looked at four abstract paintings, for 30 seconds each, by a Russian artist, El Lissitsky.  And they rated the art—based on qualities of how inspiring, stimulating, rousing, boring, forgetful or uninteresting the piece was for them.

The group that watched the scary movie rated the art as more sublime and positive than any other of the groups. In fact the other four groups did not significantly differ in their ratings.

We might not think of describing art as frightening. The researchers note, however, that art can “…be surprising, elicit goose bumps, and inspire awe.”

Who knew that pairing The Walking Dead with a trip to the Museum of Modern Art would make the entire experience more sublime.

—Christie Nicholson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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