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Why Does Art Make Us Cry?

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Evaluating Matthew Pelowski’s exploration into transformative art experiences

Authors: Katharina Leighton, Hila Nevo, Serena Qing Mu, Elisabeta Oprina, and Anna England

(Photo: taken by Hila Nevo from “Mark Rothko, Dark Palette”, NYC (2016) Pace Gallery)

Imagine standing in front of an artwork with blocks of colour that appear to glow from the inside. The compositions are strikingly simple, yet the effects are overwhelming. Mark Rothko’s colour field paintings take you on a journey to explore and challenge your every perspective. But how and why do these emotional art experiences happen?

These questions have formed the basis of Matthew Pelowski’s work. Pelowski shifted from pursuing a career in advertising to studying intense art experiences that bring the viewer to tears. Settling in Vienna, Pelowski is now a part of the ARTIS Lab at the University of Vienna. Together, they look into research on how art can profoundly affect individuals and societies.

These emotional experiences tend to occur in a museum setting rather than under lab conditions. While lab studies offer control in isolating aspects of aesthetic experience, the findings can be disconnected from the authentic art encounter. Museum studies provide an alternative that acknowledges that museums and art are a central part of culture and society that evoke emotions, memories, appraisal, social interaction, physiological responses, and even profound experiences. Thus, museum studies offer a unique opportunity to understand the complex interaction between the artwork, viewer and context, and how this contributes to reaching an emotional art experience that transforms our perspectives.

Moved to tears

Artwork triggering intense feelings has often been reported anecdotally. One example is Rothko’s Chapel in Houston, Texas. Visitors report being moved to tears when viewing Rothko’s work. These outcomes from the Rothko Chapel made Pelowski wonder how and why people are influenced deeply and profoundly by experiencing and engaging with a work of art.

Pelowski (2015) links our understanding of crying to concepts of insight and enlightenment with a specific focus on the context of art. The author argues that feeling like crying signals a transformation that arises from a change in the individual perception and self-image, caused by confusion or tension that the artwork evokes in the viewer. As such, we experience a threat to the self. To be transformed, we need to surrender our familiar ways of thinking about the world and ourselves. Thus, according to Pelowski, one of the main goals of experiencing art is to impact the self by leading to an experience of catharsis and self-development. Moreover, Pelowski highlights that people who are more open to experiences and less attached to their self-image and self-importance are more likely to surrender and be transformed.

How do we experience art?

Although art can trigger profound and transformative experiences, this is not always the case. Thus, understanding art perception’s cognitive processes gives us a framework to understand how artwork can make us cry. Pelowski & Akiba (2011) introduce a novel 5-stage model to help decode art experiences.

The process starts with our self-image and expectations before seeing the artwork; these initial perspectives are then applied to the artwork. If there is a disconnect between our expectations and the artwork, it causes a threat to self. With a rise of tension and anxiety, we either reassess our perspectives or withdraw from the danger completely. However, sometimes escape is not an option, in which case we search for new ways to classify the artwork by reflecting on our previous self-image. Following this, we can adapt our initial sense of self to reach the final stage in what can be described as a “transformative experience”.

(Photo: taken by Katharina Leighton from Tate Modern, London, 2019)

Reaching the transformative experience is not always the outcome but will happen when a relevant and significant artwork deviates from our self-image. In this case, one of two things can happen; we can feel threatened and avoid the situation, leading to a negative experience. Or, we choose to confront the problem to reach the final stage of the model, the transformative outcome. This outcome is characterised by intense emotions where art changes our perception of ourselves and the world and will often manifest as a feeling of crying.

Social interaction inhibits transformation

The 5-stage model provides a valuable framework to look at outcomes and stages of art perception. It offers a universal roadmap of progressing from our expectations to when we are moved to tears. In addition to the model, Pelowski and colleagues (2014) acknowledge another factor influencing transformative experience: social interaction. Whereby the presence of social interaction inhibits the potential for transformation. To assess this, Pelowski and colleagues (2014) compared three outcomes of art experience: superficial, negative and transformative, that arise from three different Rothko exhibition spaces: the Rothko Chapel in Huston, Kawamura in Japan and Tate Modern in London. The experiences are uniform across the three locations, but the authors found Japan had more negative and fewer transformative outcomes than the other two locations. This initiated observation into how people and physical space impact transformative experiences. Interestingly, the reduced number of profound experiences and increased adverse outcomes were tied to the Kawamura gallery space itself, in that social interactions had a substantial effect on behaviours.

Considering the effect of social interactions, a simple redesign of the Kawamura room, as seen in figure 1, reduced crowding by providing an unrestricted walking path that significantly increased viewers' number of transformative experiences. Importantly, these findings contribute to our understanding of the art perception model. These results reveal how social interactions trigger self-awareness and may deny the normal progression of the aesthetic experience, highlighting the importance of artwork curation.

Figure 1. The Rothko Room, Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum after the remodel, attributing easier navigation and interaction with art from Pelowski et al. (2014)

We all have the crying potential

Visual art can evoke deep and overwhelming reactions. However, profound experiences can come from many different triggers, such as nature, music, or poetry. It is a topic that has been explored in philosophy and literature as far back as ancient Roman.

Aesthetic experiences are notoriously subjective. However, Pelowski and colleagues (2019) propose that enlightened, profound and sublime experiences are universal. These experiences are shared and commonly reported, but they arise from various stimuli and triggers, such as the vast plains of the Serengeti, the vibrant colours of a fiery sunset, or the beautiful and intricate designs of a church ceiling. The triggers may be different, but the emotional and cognitive process is consistent for everyone. We all progress to the point of reassessing our self-image with the capability to surrender and transform.

Pelowski investigates one of the most exciting phenomena of experiencing art. The complex and rich encounters people have with artwork enhance our understanding of its importance within society to challenge the status quo and encourage personal growth.

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