What’s Behind Our Emotional Reactions to Art?

When I stand in front of Caravaggio’s “Madonna di Loreto” (c. 1605–6) in Rome’s Basilica of Sant’Agostino, I feel woozy, my cup of joy overflowing. The dramatic chiaroscuro matching the gloom of the church, sliced by sunbeams, makes my heart race. Looking at a work of art often elicits an emotional reaction, big or small. But the question of why this happens, and how these emotional reactions manifest physically, is much harder to pin down. New scientific investigations into the embodied experience of viewing art point us toward more concrete answers, but also more questions.

British art critic and theorist Vernon Lee conducted her own study of sorts of the way we look at art in the early 1900s, which she recorded in her Gallery Diaries, republished in 2018 by David Zwirner Books. She recorded her thoughts and the way her body felt as she repeatedly visited the same galleries and churches between 1901 and 1911. Standing in front of Italian Renaissance painter Alesso Baldovinetti’s “Madonna and Child with Saints” (c. 1454) at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence on December 12, 1902, she wrote: “a sort of raising of my hat and scalp and eyebrows seems necessary to see this picture; otherwise it is swimmy. By the way, the lilac and crimson give me a vivid cool pleasure, like taste.” This delightfully off-kilter description demonstrates just how difficult it is to translate the feeling of looking at art into words, not to mention firm conclusions.

Caravaggio Madonna di Loreto
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “Madonna di Loreto” (c. 1604–6), oil on canvas, 98 2/5 x 59 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past few years, scientists have returned to that challenge with new technological tools. With funding from the Templeton Religion Trust, scholar Bahador Bahrami and his team at Royal Holloway, University of London, have been developing studies using Pupil Labs eye tracker glasses to analyze how people actually look at a single work of art and interact with galleries displaying multiple works. The glasses create heat maps that track how each person’s eyes traveled over an image and where they lingered longest. Other experiments have put participants in front of screens, rather than allowing them to walk around real galleries. Bahrami told Hyperallergic that the glasses function so well in part because they “do not limit your interaction with the world.” The privacy questions raised by this technology are challenging. Bahrami said that several participants forgot they were wearing the glasses and looked at their phones, giving the researchers access to their private information. He and his team use detailed consent forms to ensure participants are aware of the scope of the glasses and the way their data will be used.

Bahrami said he would be interested in seeing museums begin to archive visitor experiences, recorded via the eye tracker glasses. He explained this idea with Tate Modern in London as an example. “Jackson Pollock’s ‘Summertime: Number 9A’ has been there since 1988. Now, if Tate Modern adopts our system and accumulates experiences, then in 2123 it will be possible to see how people visit a Jackson Pollock across time — whether people of different times are looking at the same artwork in different ways, whether different things became important for people, and what kind of new ways of looking arose.” In other words, if visitors regularly wear eye tracker glasses, there will be a record of the ways they experienced the gallery over time. The idea of building this kind of archive is fascinating, and fundamentally reframes the way curators could conceptualize the role of a museum. No longer solely a repository of objects, institutions could also become a collection of interactions between the public and works of art. 

Baldovinetti Madonna and Child with Saints
Alesso Baldovinetti, “Madonna and Child with Saints” (c. 1454), tempera on wood, 69.29 x 65.35 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)

However, Bahrami’s work does not seek to translate an individual’s physical or emotional responses to art into words. As Vernon Lee demonstrated, this process of articulation is deeply subjective. Other scientists have tried to do so, including Lauri Nummenmaa and Riitta Hari at the University of Turku in Finland. In a 2023 article published in Cognition and Emotion, they detail their study asking participants to rank various named emotions when viewing different works of art, such as “joy,” “anger,” “balance,” and “disgust.” Nummenmaa and Hari also used eye-tracking glasses to analyze how participants perceived artworks shown to them on a screen. The scholars then linked participants’ emotions to self-reported physical sensations and drew conclusions about where in our bodies we feel various reactions to art. The study’s reliance on participants choosing from a selection of words and self-reporting bodily sensations, however, significantly limits its scope. 

More interestingly, a group of scholars at Columbia University published a study in 2020 that focused on perceptions of abstract and figurative art, using works by artists including Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko. The study used construal level theory (CLT), a psychological framework that characterizes differences between abstract and concrete ways of thinking. By asking participants to complete three tasks, like answering questions about planning an exhibition of abstract art versus figurative art, the study determined that “abstract art evokes a more abstract mindset than representational art.” Though perhaps intuitively unsurprising, this conclusion concretizes something that was previously intangible and points toward future research translating subjective, felt reactions to art into data. 

The ineffable experience of art is part of the reason we return to it again and again. Trying to understand it on a cognitive level is compelling, but may always be fundamentally unknowable. The potential uses of the tools such as the eye-tracking glasses are more exciting from a curatorial and access perspective. How can knowledge about the way visitors experience art guide museum staff in making their spaces more engaging and welcoming to the public? How might we think about building a new kind of archive of experience, alongside physical archives? These questions should animate our future explorations of the many ways our bodies react to art, which will continue to fascinate us as much as it did Vernon Lee.

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