What if perceiving images as art makes us process them differently?
What if art can help us engage in human suffering instead of looking away?
What if art can make us better people?
There’s no shortage of atrocities, injustice, and suffering in this world. We see vivid instances of it nearly every time we access the news. Some of us may even regularly encounter it up close as we go about our normal lives.
In such everyday contexts, our instinct is probably to turn away and distance ourselves as quickly as possible. Of course, there are exceptions. Some of us may feel such outrage at what we see that we look for a way to get involved and make a difference. But, more often than not, most of us pull back on our emotions. “It’s just too depressing,” or “It’s sad but there’s not much I can do,” we tell ourselves. And then we look away and disengage.
Yet, some of civilization’s greatest artworks depict suffering in explicit detail. And museum goers willingly gaze intently at such works. For instance, there’s the brutal depiction of Christ’s crucifixion in Matthias Grünewald’s “Isenheim Altarpiece.” The disturbing hellscape panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” The utter despair in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” The pure anguish in Picasso’s “Guernica.”
Which raises big questions: Does art make a difference in how we process depictions of suffering? If so, why and how? And where might it lead?
Mario Gollwitzer, Ph.D., professor of social psychology at The Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and Marlene Altenmüller, Ph.D., a research associate there, are embarked on a research project to put the effects of art to the test of cognitive science. Funded by Templeton Religion Trust, they’re investigating the psychological role of aestheticization – essentially, the depiction of something as artistic, pleasing, or beautiful.
“We define aestheticization as a contextual characteristic that influences how perceivers process, interpret, and engage with a topic,” Gollwitzer informs.
Specifically, Gollwitzer and Altenmüller are researching whether images of adversity affect people differently when they’re contextualized as art versus news. Through this investigation, they hope to answer two compelling questions:
Based on psychological theorizing, they believe aestheticization comes into play at two steps of art perception: the initial, “let’s have a look” evaluation and then the later stage of reflection as we contemplate an artwork’s message and meaning. For the researchers, there are competing possibilities at these two stages.
“We think that probably for the initial contact it helps to present a difficult image in an aestheticized way because people can actually approach it,” says Altenmüller. “But later, in the second stage, do people actually reflect on what they’re seeing? It’s plausible to assume that the initial contact makes people then also engage with the content more elaborately — reflect on it, and wonder what it means for their own life. But this might also lead to people disengaging from what they’re seeing to instead just keep rolling with the distance they’re feeling. “
“For art objects dealing with adverse topics, we think that initially aestheticization triggers a distanced viewing mode which enables perceivers to approach and elaborately process topics even if they’re intuitively appalling,” Gollwitzer elaborates. “Thus, aestheticization might help perceivers reach a deeper understanding of an otherwise avoided topic, which is decisive for the transformative potential of art. However, at a subsequent processing stage, when perceivers reflect on an artwork’s message, aestheticization might also hinder such contemplative insights by facilitating emotional and cognitive disengagement from the artwork’s real-world significance.”
“What’s super interesting to us is to see these twofold processes that are both possible. It could go either way,” says Altenmüller. “And we want to know, why is this the case? And who goes which way? Who chooses which path?”
First, the researchers did a preliminary test into whether aestheticization makes a difference in initial engagement. Participants were shown photos of negative situations such as war or a starving child. These were identified as either photojournalism or artworks. Participants’ responses were then carefully measured with a set of questions.
“This first milestone was measuring how participants intuitively respond to these pictures — whether they think there is an aesthetic quality to them, whether it makes them emotionally aroused, and what they think about them,” Altenmüller reports.
To dig deeper, the researchers then did an extensive literature review to identify the relevant personality and situation-related factors that could influence engagement versus avoidance. This work provided a foundation for testing the effect of these moderation influences.
The main part of the project is an immersive experiment in a virtual reality lab. Participants are randomly chosen to enter one of two virtual environments and told to wait there for 7 minutes. The layout of one room suggests they’re in an art gallery, the other suggests a newspaper publisher. On display in each environment are the same photos; only the context is different. Participants’ responses are then measured in real time. These include physical indicators such as head movements and distance between participants and the photos as well as self-reported assessments of the emotional and cognitive effects of the photos. The experiments also include another behavioral test. After leaving the virtual environment, the research subjects are given an option to donate all or part of their participation fee to a cause related to the content of the photos they’ve seen.
Finally, the researchers plan to measure any lasting effects among participants after weeks have passed since their exposure to the images.
“How does the spontaneous evaluation of what you see shape the later reflection process? Is it possible that viewing something and intuitively labeling it as nice, attractive, and good can lead to the same reflective outcomes as understanding and reacting to something as bad and immoral?” asks Gollwitzer. “That’s an interesting question, I think.”
“We think that there are qualities to a visual stimulus that purely depict reality, that is there will be a low extent of aestheticization. But you can look at the same stimulus and focus on aesthetic qualities — the brightness of the image, the colorfulness of the image, the emotional qualities of what you see, the expressions of the people you see in the image, the shadows, the light,” he continues. “We think that this creates an aesthetic quality and aesthetic experience. And people pick up on that experience. It changes their viewing mode. It changes their emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions to what they see.”
With this project, the researchers hope to begin to ground speculations in actual and actionable evidence.
“What has become clear to me in this project is that we know so little about what’s going on when people engage with art. We don’t know how people really react to it. We don’t know what people take home from the art experience,” says Altenmüller. “There are so many open questions, and I’m really excited to explore them more.”