Basharat Bashir

Art and emotions

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By: Ghazala Fatima

How can an expression or a dialogue bring tears in many eyes, one phrase of a song gives goose bumps to many listeners, a single joke brings laughter to many audiences and an image can evoke feeling of resistance or encourage spirits of many? Artists have a beautiful ability to evoke such emotions in their perceivers through their artworks and it is considered as a very strong weapon which does not need technology but art. There is a very strong and unbreakable connection of art and emotions, and the relationship between them has newly been the subject of extensive study in psychology of art. Emotional or aesthetic responses to do art have previously been viewed as basic stimulus response, but new theories and research have suggested that these experiences are more complex and able to be studied experimentally. Emotional responses are often regarded as the keystone to experiencing art, and the creation of an emotional experience has been argued as the purpose of artistic expression.

While looking at any image or other artwork, we use different parts of our brain to process the information before our eyes. Identification of subject matter is the first step in understanding the visual image. Being presented with visual stimuli creates initial confusion. Being able to comprehend a figure and background creates closure, triggers the pleasure and centres the brain by remedying the confusion. Once an image is identified, meaning can be created by accessing memory relative to the visual stimuli and associating personal memories with what is being viewed. In fact, it looks like art and emotion have always had a strong association to each other. Other methods of stimulating initial interest that can lead to emotion involves pattern recognition. Symmetry has often featured prominently in works of art, and the human brain unconsciously searches for symmetry for various reasons. Potential predators were bilaterally symmetrical, as were potential prey. Bilateral symmetry also exists in humans, and a healthy human is typically relatively symmetrical.

Often, people have a difficulty in recognizing and explicitly expressing the emotions they are feeling. Art tends to have a way to reach people’s emotions on a deeper level and when creating art, it is a way for them to release the emotions they cannot otherwise express. There is a professional denomination within psychotherapy called art therapy or creative arts therapy which deals with diverse ways of coping with emotions and other cognitive dimensions. Art forms give humans a higher satisfaction in emotional release than simply managing emotions on their own. It allows people to have a purifying release of suppressed emotions either by creating work or by witnessing and pseudo-experiencing what they see in front of them. Instead of being passive recipients of actions and images, art is intended for people to challenge themselves and work through the emotions they see presented in the artistic message. For example, people being able to listen to and dance to music for hours without getting tired and literature being able to take people far away to imagined lands inside their heads.

There is debate among researchers over what types of emotions works of art can provoke; whether these are defined emotions such as anger, confusion or happiness, or a general feeling of aesthetic appreciation. The aesthetic experience seems to be determined by liking or disliking a work of art, along with a range of pleasure and displeasure. However, other diverse emotions can still be felt in response to art, which can be sorted into three categories: Knowledge Emotions, Hostile Emotions, and Self-Conscious Emotions.

Knowledge emotions deal with reactions to thinking and feeling, such as interest, confusion, awe, and surprise. They often stem from self-analysis of what the viewer knows, expects, and perceives. This set of emotions also spur actions that motivate further learning and thinking. Interest in a work of art arises from perceiving the work as new, complex, and unfamiliar, as well as understandable piece. Confusion can be viewed as an opposite to interest, and serves as a signal to the self to inform the viewer that they cannot comprehend what they are looking at, and confusion often necessitates a shift in action to remedy the lack of understanding. Surprise functions as a disruption of current action to alert a viewer to a significant event. The emotion is centred around the experience of something new and unexpected, and can be elicit by sensory incongruity. Art can elicit surprise when expectations about the work are not met, but the work changes those expectations in an understandable way.

Hostile emotions towards art are often very visible in the form of anger or frustration, and sometimes these can result in censorship, but these emotions are difficult to be described by a continuum of aesthetic pleasure-displeasure. These reactions centre around the hostility triad: anger, disgust, and contempt. These emotions often motivate aggression, self-assertion, and violence, and arise from perception of the artist’s deliberate trespass onto the expectations of the viewer.

Self-conscious emotions are responses that reflect upon the self and one’s actions, such as pride, guilt, shame, regret and embarrassment. There are numerous instances of artists expressing self-conscious emotions in response to their art, and self-conscious emotions can also be felt collectively. the experience of the sublime, viewed as similar to aesthetic appreciation, which causes general psychological arousal. The sublime feeling has been connected to a feeling of happiness in response to art, but may be more related to an experience of fear. Another common emotional response is that of chills when viewing a work of art. The feeling is predicted to be related to similar aesthetic experiences such as awe, feeling touched, or absorption.

“Paul on the road to Damascus” by Caravaggio is one of the most emotionally powerful painting.  He is showing the moment when the zealous Saul, later renamed Paul was blinded and called to become a disciple. This former Roman soldier was mighty wherever he went, above all, his word was like gold. Here we see him on the ground, a man on the ground is not equal to one towering over others when he sits on the horse. His feared red cape and sword symbolizing the belonging to the mighty Roman Empire is now on the dusty ground, and he, as helpless as a newborn child, stretches out his arms, but it seems that his horse, and the man holding the reins having experienced Saul’s feisty personality are in no hurry to help him up. The horse even raises his hoof, ready to crush his master, but shows him mercy by sparing his life. A truly powerful painting of a human condition, of defeat, mercy, a game changing event of a giant of a man.

Parzania, a movie by Rahul Dholakia is also a good example of hostile emotions that cut open the wounds of Gujarat’s scarred past, and received backlash and appreciation in equal amounts. The film was based on a superb plot which revolved around a boy called Azhar who goes missing during the Gujarat riots in the year 2002. Even though the film won a National Award, its cinematic excellence was not considered enough for political parties to let it screen in Gujarat, where it was fiercely banned.

Art as being a strong tool to invoke emotions has also been used by many to promote propaganda. Powerful people and rulers have extensively used art either to boast about themselves and their ideas or to derogate opponents by distorting and twisting factual reality. In some serious cases the rulers use art to divide people in most of the cases emotionally enraging majority towards minority, deliberately using art as tool to split people on the basis of religion, caste or ethnicity. Leaders of our time are using cinema to promote propaganda that favours their position and ideology. Recent movie based on the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits has been in discussion for several reasons including one that suggests that the film shows only half truths.

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