Monday, October 29, 2018

Ellen Winner's "How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration"

Ellen Winner is Professor of Psychology at Boston College and Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. She directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children as well as adults. She received the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Research by a Senior Scholar in Psychology and the Arts from Division 10 in 2000.

Winner applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration, and reported the following:
On page 99 of How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration, I pose a paradox. Why do we enjoy experiencing pain in art, but seek to avoid it at all costs in “real life.” Why are we drawn to paintings like Picasso’s Guernica, which depicts the horrors of war? Why do we read tragic novels and listen to sad music? And why do we go to movies that make us cry, or movies that shock and terrify us? Page 99 comes after I have explained the studies that psychologists have carried out to answer this question.

Here is part of page 99:
Key to why we seek negative emotions in art, yet avoid them in life, is that art provides a safe space to experience these emotions and to turn inward to savor them— safe because we know it is art, not reality. This knowledge allows us to observe the art and our negative reactions with a kind of disinterestedness, to use the words of Kant.

Art with negative content invites us to introspect about our negative emotions, and to imagine how these responses are shared by others responding to the same work of art. While it’s appropriate to focus on how moved and empathetic and horrified we feel looking at a tragedy on stage, responding this way when witnessing an actual tragedy would be inappropriate— indeed, narcissistic.

The explanation for our attraction to negative themes in art applies across art forms. Knowing that it’s art and not reality makes all the difference.
The evidence shows that when we enter a fictional, make-believe world about pain and suffering and tragedy (and so much art is about pain and suffering and tragedy), we experience both negative and positive emotions. Oddly, the more negative the content, the more it is that positive emotions are evoked in combination with the negative ones. And the positive emotions are due to the feeling of being moved -- and feeling moved is pleasurable. We feel moved by tragedy in art. We do not feel moved when tragedy strikes us personally, and hence we feel nothing positive. Psychologist Paul Rozin has referred to this effects as “benign masochism” in a safe context.

This is an example of one of the many puzzles about the arts that I discuss in the book. Most of the puzzles discussed are ones that philosophers have debated (and have reached no agreement): e.g., Does reading fiction make us more empathic once we close the covers of the book? What’s wrong with a perfect forgery? If I say that Agatha Christie is a greater writer than Shakespeare, could you prove me wrong? To answer these questions, I turn to the growing field of empirical aesthetics – a field in which psychologists are applying the tools of social science (observation and experimentation) to find out how ordinary people untrained in art respond to these age-old questions. And some of the answers about how art works on us may surprise you!
Learn more about How Art Works at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue