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To Appreciate Surrealistic Art, Think About Death

Two new studies indicate that thoughts about death can influence how we perceive art

Two Christie's employees look at paintings set to be auctioned off in the Art of the Surreal sale. (ANDREW WINNING/Reuters/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Have you ever stared blankly at a piece of “weird” art—say, something from Dali, or maybe the apple-faced guy in Rene Magritte’s “Son of Man”—and thought, I just don’t get it? Well, a paper on two studies published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that understanding unfamiliar art may just take some deep thoughts about dying.

Tom Jacobs over at Pacific Standard explains: “It finds that people are more likely to forge a positive emotional connection with surrealistic art if they have just been reminded of their own mortality.”

The team of researchers behind the paper conducted two separate studies. In the first, subjects were split into two groups. One group of people was told to think of their own deaths, and the other asked to consider dental pain. Both groups were shown an image of a surreal painting and an image of a naturalistic painting and asked to record how each made them feel.

Jacobs explains, quoting psychologist Verena Graupmann, one of the paper’s authors:

The researchers found that both paintings were described as similarly reassuring to participants who had written about dental pain. But for those who had been contemplating their own death, “the surrealistic painting emerges as more of a resource of reassurance” than the realistic one. “This corresponds to the idea that—although at first sight difficult to decode—surrealistic art offers access to reassurance on a different level of understanding.”

In the second study, the team evaluated MRI scans taken of volunteers as they viewed both surreal and naturalistic art. Before viewing the images, the subjects had, as Jacobs explains, been “ primed by being exposed to pairs of words that were either death-related, disgust-related, or neutral.” The researchers observed that, when participants thought of death or disgust, their brain scans indicated extra activity in regions associated with “self-referential processing” when looking at surrealistic paintings.

“This suggests that, rather than dismissing the odd artworks, they were seriously reflecting on them,” writes Jacobs. “So by evoking a dream-like state not unlike our unconscious stream of thoughts, ‘surrealistic art can provide meaning,’ the researchers conclude.” 

The results of the studies indicate that surrealistic art, when viewed after contemplating death, has the potential to help us feel reassured about the meaning of life. The paper also confirms the notion that mindset can have a significant affect on the way we view art and what we gain from it. In other words, it isn’t just a matter of “getting” strange art or not, but rather being motivated to dig for deeper meaning.

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