Emotional responses to art

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Intentional or not, art provokes emotional responses, which have often been argued to constitute its very purpose. How can art be used in order to tap into the feelings of an audience?

I. Art as an emotional experience

1) The purification of emotions

The first theory of the emotional experience of art is to be found in Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 335 BC). The philosopher coined the term catharsis to refer to the purging of one’s emotions through art. This was first used to discuss tragedy, which was then believed to purge the audience of their own negative feelings by witnessing the violent actions and feelings displayed onstage.

The cinema also plays this role today. In Django Unchained (2013), director Quentin Tarentino rewrites the history of slavery and has his hero seek revenge on white slave owners. Catharsis here is twofold – as an individual, the viewer is made to feel for the character and as a citizen, he is made to take pleasure in seeing the wrongs of history finally righted (corrigés) onscreen.

2) Emotions, by all means?

Art may represent a distorted reality in order to have a strong impact on the audience. Francis Bacon, inspired by expressionism, painted the classical figure of the Pope as a nightmarish vision, in his Study after Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X (1953), leading the viewer to experience horror in its rawest (la plus crue) form.


Expressionism, which originated in Germany in the early 20th century, emphasizes subjective representations aiming for strong emotional responses.

American painter Jackson Pollock was famous for his “drip technique” – throwing paint at the canvas. Creating a strong emotional response despite not using a realistic subject matter, his art was labelled abstract expressionism. One of his most famous paintings, Convergence (1952), in spite of being difficult to decipher (déchiffrer), aims at having the audience feel for themselves the freedom the artist experienced while creating this piece.

II. Using emotions for political purposes

1) Raising political awareness

Emotions may be mustered to raise awareness. For instance, conscious hip hop artists from the 1980s and 1990s such as Run-DMC voiced emotions to convey strong, and effective political messages.

Most famously, Coolio expressed anger in Gangsta’s Paradise (1995) to expose the plight (situation critique) of black people in America’s poorest neighbourhoods at the end of the 20th century.

Banksy’s famous murals, such as I remember when all this was trees (2010), serve the same purpose. Leaving his art in unexpected places leads people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to a museum to be influenced by his thought-provoking art. Surprise becomes an emotion as the artist uses it to convey oriented messages to an audience of passersby.

2) Persuasion and manipulation

Using emotions to persuade an audience is one of the most important characteristics of the art of rhetoric. President J.F. Kennedy’s command of language allowed him to be particularly persuasive in speeches such as his Inaugural Address (1961) in which his use of repetitions, juxtapositions and biblical quotes helped convey his message of peace.


Rhetoric is the art or skill of influencing people through effective use of language in any given situation.

George Orwell exposes the dangers inherent to rhetoric in 1984 (1949) where a new language, Newspeak, is invented and expunged of meaning in order to control the population’s thoughts and feelings. Syme, a character working on the newest version of the Newspeak dictionary, marvels at “the destruction of words”. Using several examples (ungood instead of bad), Syme demonstrates how the government aims at limiting people’s experience by limiting the capacities of language.