The art of being afraid.

I just read about a study from The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (so it must be true) that says that when people are exposed to abstract art they can register many of the symptoms of fear.  What are those symptoms? Uncertainty, meaninglessness, a loss of hope, even terror. Gulp.

A
bstract painting has always challenged the casual viewer. It’s tempting to judge art by how much it looks like its subject. We want to have a yardstick to measure it by, and ‘reality’ seems the easiest one. People don’t like ambiguity. We don’t want to be challenged or confused. We want our meat and ‘taters just like Mother used to make. So we turn away from difficult art, dismissing it as a con, a mess, seeking strength in denial.

But art has the power to go beyond confirming what we already know. It can stretch us past our comfort zones and prepare us to face the unknown. And facing the unknown is a crucial survival skill, one we have to exercise every day if we are to survive.

Get used to the fact that you can’t control everything in your environment. That there may not be an explanation or a code for all you encounter. Some things are strange. And instead of feeling helpless in their presence, empower yourself with the knowledge that you are resilient and resourceful, and trust that you will find you footing even on new ground.

Go and stand before a Pollock, a Rothko, a Kiefer, breathe deep, and plunge in. You will emerge tougher and more flexible, ready to deal with reality when the picture isn’t pretty.

20 thoughts on “The art of being afraid.”

  1. To me, abstract art is nothing more than an over-simplification of complicated concepts and highly detailed imagery. I often observed that as one climbs up the visual “ladder of abstraction”* one rung at a time, the fear of height becomes greater or more intensified. (*stolen from S.I. Hayakawa).

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  2. Hmmm. I have learned not to be offended by abstract art, though I don’t love it. I sometimes offer some explanation to others for what they were trying to express, but I don’t think I fear it. I still don’t love it.

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  3. I agree that some abstract paintings can be emotionally violent but some can also be calming. When I lived in London, I use to often visit the Tate Gallery. There they had a single square room dedicated entirely to Rothko. As I remember, all conversations fell silent when people entered the room. It was quite, like a library but felt more like a church. I use to sit there for long stretches of time just absorbing the peacefulness of the paintings.

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    1. I agree, Richard, there are obvious exceptions. I think the study was on the reaction that people have to abstract art generally; a sense of confusion and challenge that comes from being confronted by something non-representational.

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  4. For many years I have inexplicably loathed and had a definite “fight or flight” response when exposed to any type of discordant jazz music – you know, the type without any meaningful rhythm, and where the “melody” meanders all over the place like a big jam session gone wrong. If you think about this type of “improvised” music being similar to abstract art, this could explain my reaction. Not that it makes the music any more tolerable,

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  5. There is this general view that someone needs to be educated/initiated to contemporary art (visual arts, and music, architecture and theater too). I wonder if that’s not the other way around, that one should try and forget the learned rules of perception/appreciation and try direct contact with the pieces. Try not to imagine what you would tell someone about it and concentrate on what the art is telling you. Trust your eyes, your ears, your feelings. Have your own criteria of appreciation, that may have nothing to do with realism, technical prowess, etc. In this the onlooker has a part to play, part of the path to walk. This commitment, this freedom is challenging, but I find it engaging too. What I don’t like about contemporary art is the hype, the speculation, the snobs who pretend their own criteria of appreciations are universal. They are intimidating and completely missing the point, in my view!

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  6. I found this pretty interesting to think about, but I do take except to the generalized notion that abstract art is not “pretty”. Of course “pretty” is a VERY subjective term. But my personal opinion is that some abstract art is “gentle”, “soothing”, “surprisingly pleasant”, “soft”, “happy”, and even “pretty” whatever that is.

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  7. “Minds are like parachutes. They only work when opened.”
    Alot of people having trouble slowing down and opening up for many reasons. I feel very fortunate and blessed that I can. Essential questions and discussions can offer new ways of looking at things. Thanks for providing these, Danny.

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  8. I think we create a narrative of our life to make it comprehensible. Maybe sitting with whatever stirs in us, when we look at abstract art, we will then gradually weave it into our narrative. It does require openness to the unknown

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  9. Danny, although I’m very interested in psychology, I’m also thinking that psychologist are no “”all-knowing-gods”. Surely I’m NOT afraid of abstract art. Normally I’m just bored and absolutely NOT inspired by abstract art (or maybe there’s something “wrong” with me? 🙂 ). – Instead I’m deeply touched by “children’s art” or “Outsider Art” (“Art Brut”) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outsider_art . For me “abstract art” is generally overrated, just as I’ll never unterstand the hype about the German “abstract” Gerhard Richter. – Sorry and don’t worry, it’s just my personally view…:) – Matthias

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  10. I don’t think I’ve ever felt fear. I have felt unsatisfied–and confused by my total lack of any feeling for or against most of the abstract art I’ve seen. I don’t find it fun or interesting to look at (with a few exceptions). I either need to look at it more or look at it less. I know you’d say “more.”

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  11. Some abstract artists write about their work, what I read there is a common desire to try and paint an emotion directly without a specific image. I think it’s a tall task to attempt and I’m just nowhere near a place where I would feel compelled to do that. Some Zen masters try and point to where the “Plum blossom becomes Spring.” That’s as close as I can get. Now, back to drawing my cats!!

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  12. I’m not afraid of it and look at it a lot, and don’t think much of it is good. I think that a LOT of gallery owners and museum critics try to make you think that so-and-so is much better than they are when in fact they are just not very good, and being corralled by one of these people can be frightening or intimidating if you are a newbie. Puff up like a pufferfish when you encounter these types and fool them into thinking you know more than they do! I love Rothko (I’d have one in a NY minute), Deibenkorn, Jasper Johns, Billy Al Bengsten, Frank Gehry, and Liz Doyle (http://donegallizdoyle.com/).

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  13. Marvelous post, Danny! In teaching elementary children for years, I noticed that if no one told them “modern art” was “supposed” to be difficult or hard to understand, they would get very excited over it and find all sorts of delightful things to say about it. We can all learn valuable lessons from kids!

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  14. Very intriguing. Quite frankly this abstract art just really made me want donuts! But I can see where your coming on other works of art other than this tantalizing tasty face:).

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