MoMA might want to take some cues from haunted house designs next time it renovates its galleries: according to a new study viewers are more interested in and receptive to abstract paintings after they've been scared. Results of an experiment conducted with 85 Brooklyn College students and four El Lissitzky paintings suggest that fear—rather than happiness, physical activity or a neutral state—enables greater aesthetic appreciation.
For the experiment, whose results have just been published by researchers Kendall Eskine, Natalie Kacinik and Jesse Prinz, 85 students were shown works by Lissitzky. Some had just seen a scary short film, others "a brief pleasing video," some had just done 15 jumping jacks, while others did 30, and a control group did no specific pre-art activity. They were then shown images of the paintings, each for 30 seconds, and asked to rate how strongly their reaction to the work corresponded with a series of descriptive words like "inspiring," "stimulating" and "imposing."
The results, Miller-McCune reports, suggest that certain art's appeal may by "a byproduct of one’s tendency to be alarmed by such environmental features as novelty, ambiguity, and the fantastic," Eskine says.
"Fear was the only factor found to significantly increase sublime feelings," according to the researchers. Watching the frightening video, they wrote,
resulted in significantly higher sublime scores than all other conditions, which did not differ significantly from each other. [...] At its core, fear is an emotional mechanism that increases survival chances by motivating fight, flight, or freezing responses to threatening situations. [...] Fear seizes one’s attention, halts current plans, and increases vigilance.
Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt