Why do I have strong emotional reactions to smell and music but not art?
September 26, 2013 5:25 AM   Subscribe

Why is it that people have super-strong reactions to different types of sensory stimulants? Do you have any tales of experiencing strong reactions to visual art as opposed to sounds and smells?

Not sure this is in the right category - it straddles a few different ones.

Like most people, I sometimes hear bits of music that make my heart wilt they're so beautiful/poignant/whatever. Anything from the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana to (embarrassingly maybe!) certain Feist songs. I get the same thing with certain smells - they absolutely transport me. Empty teabag boxes in particular give me the shivers.

Plenty of times I've heard people talk about how this or that piece of (visual) art made them FEEL something in some extraordinary way, but I have literally never had this. I mean, I LIKE certain bits of art - Turner, Klimt, whatever - but not on any sort of emotional level. Generally it's just because they're real pritz.

Why is it that people have super-strong reactions to different types of sensory stimulants? Do you have any tales of experiencing strong reactions to visual art? I AM WEIRD?
posted by fishingforthewhale to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Not a personal tale, but you may be interested that Stendhal syndrome is triggered primarily by visual art.
posted by Coobeastie at 5:29 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Whistler's Mother fills me with such terror that I can't bring myself to look upon it for more than a fraction of a second. I'm convinced she's gonna turn her head and stare at me.
posted by Z. Aurelius Fraught at 5:44 AM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I can only think of a few paintings that got to me in what felt like an immediate sensory/emotional overload sort of way: Frederic Church's Niagara; Frederic Church's The Icebergs; and Cy Twombly's Green Paintings. The main thing they have in common is they're big.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:44 AM on September 26, 2013

Do you ever go look at art in person? I don't often, but I have been to the local art museum twice in the past year and some of the most surprising things can elicit a reaction once you see them up close. I just saw Girl with the Pearl Earring and while the subject doesn't do anything for me, being that close to a painting that was made SO LONG AGO was really kind of mindblowing!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 6:00 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

To some degree with pieces of visual art, not that intensely, though (more emotional reaction based on content) but I am very sensitive to visual environment. I can absolutely detest a place in a way that makes body and soul rebel. Places that are badly or carelessly designed, with bad lighting, forbidding angles or corners, soulless fakery, absence of human warmth, etc. There are some places I really don't want to be in.
posted by Miko at 6:03 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Theoretically, and over-simplified,, it could be because of increased functional connectivity between sense X and the limbic system in the brain, e.g., auditory cortex and the amygdala. This is especially true if he emotions aren't linked to any specific memory, just that they elicit the reaction involuntarily.
posted by supercres at 6:03 AM on September 26, 2013

This is kind of speculative, but I think our brains just aren't hard-wired to respond to rectangles filled with shapes and colors hanging on the wall. There's no evolutionary history for it, like there is for smell and sound. But just because you're not moved by artwork doesn't mean you don't have a strong a reaction to visual stimulants. Have you never been captivated by a scenic vista? Been awe-struck by incredible architecture? Been transported back in time by a picture or keepsake? That stuff's all visual too, and we've been experiencing our surroundings visually for as long as we've had eyes.
posted by gueneverey at 6:22 AM on September 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think it's hard to say exactly why any kind of art prompts a strong emotional response in anyone. A lot of what makes works of art of any kind resonate with any of us is our own selves - the cultural, personal, and biographical things that are in each of our pasts. It's hard to say whether I'd have the same reaction to hearing the blues if I hadn't grown up in a house where my father mainlined the stuff and played it while we ate lunch when I was three or whatever.

And the same person can even vary in the depth of their reaction to something - the first time I saw Schindler's List, all I felt was numb. The second time I saw it, I was doing okay - but the scene at the very end, where all the survivors come put a stone on Oskar Schindler's headstone, made me a total sobbing wreck. And yet, every other time since then, that hasn't happened again. I may get a lump in my throat at that scene, but nothing like that full-on ugly crying from that one time. I can't explain what the difference is between that one time and every other time I've seen the film; but there it is. (Also - being female, there are certain days out of every month that even a freakin' Kleenex slogan could make me teary, but the rest of the month it has no impact.)

So it's possible that the reason "visual art" hasn't provoked an emotional reaction in you is simply because you haven't yet seen a piece of visual art that triggers some kind of emotional association deep in the murk of your subconscious. One of these days, you may - and it's anyone's guess what the trigger is; maybe the wallpaper in the background of the painting will remind you of the wallpaper in your childhood best friend's house or something; nothing that you'll intellectually remember, but somewhere in your gut will go "Oh! Yes! That!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:29 AM on September 26, 2013

Oliver Sacks' books are full of cases he has encountered (or studied) that deal with synesthesia, which is a cross-coupling of senses (i.e.; hearing color, tasting sound, etc.) The carry away from his books is that the meat robot in our skulls has a lot of variation from human to human, and from time to time, as well. There are lots of folks who have perfectly intact sensors that cannot process the data they deliver. There are others who process it incorrectly. Of particular interest to you, perhaps, would be folks who gain sight late in life and who have not developed the 'vocabulary' of seeing... i.e., perspective, in front/back, continuity and encapsulation (as in all the shapes that we know are a dog may be completely inaccessible to someone learning to see in their 40's. )

How you react to something isn't all that predictable. It's also not absolute. And speaking as an artist for a moment, what I intend via my symbol vocabulary may not get into your head at all, and what gets in may not have been in my intent at all. Who is more legit, me or you? I think neither. In fact, on revisiting something I did, I often find I interpret it differently or more fully than when I was doing it.

If you feel that you must have some sort of 'legit' reaction to a piece, I think you are barking up the wrong tree. I detest Ken Noland's abstracts, and love Helen Frankenthaler. One reliably evokes all the wonder of industrial painting to me and the other, deep and mysterious life. And that is all I need to know.

This is one of the reasons that many people don't get art. They try too hard to discover absolutes. There are canons, for sure, and common symbol vocabularies but what we call art can be devoid of both. There's nothing wrong with feeling confused. Just keep looking. Something will register. Or not.
posted by FauxScot at 6:41 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

There were a fantastic series of advertisements put out by the Lyric Opera a couple years ago. Mostly I loveloveloved them, but there was one that said something like "WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU CRIED AT A CUBISM EXHIBIT" and I was like...uh...the last time I was at a cubism exhibit.

I don't know why. I am not a very emotional person in general. But sometimes I'll just start crying when looking at a painting. It's got nothing to do with it being some famously brilliant work of art from long ago. It's that I'll be staring at it, and something strikes me, and then the crying. This Van Gogh self portrait is a big one. But abstract stuff, too. Not every time, not every painting.

The only time I cry while listening to music is when I'm listening to Queen. I don't generally cry during sad movies, but sometimes I'll cry when I see a baby food commercial.

There's nothing wrong with you. Brains are weird.
posted by phunniemee at 6:54 AM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's been some interesting research done into how music can give us the chills http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110112111117.htm, http://mentalfloss.com/article/51745/why-does-music-give-us-chills. According to some theories, these chills happen due to either the anticipation of something or the appearance of something unexpected. Maybe your experience of visual art doesn't unfold in time the way music does?
posted by Jandoe at 6:59 AM on September 26, 2013

Personally, I have never had an emotional reaction to a piece of music. Never. I listen to music, I enjoy some of it more than others but for the most part, I don't really care about it. I am actually that person that prefers the DJs' banter in morning shows to any music being played.

I've cried while watching a ballet dancer (once without music so I don't think it is that). I've also found myself getting choked up while in an art museum. I've stared at a piece of art for hours before spending (a lot) of money to take it home because I was so connected to it no one else could have it.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:00 AM on September 26, 2013

People are wired differently, that's all. This variety makes us stronger, makes us more adaptable, makes us better able to exist in societies where everybody doesn't do the same thing all the time. So no, I don't think you're weird at all. Particularly because you have reactions to other cultural experiences (and yes, tea-smell is a cultural experience, just like any other food/cuisine thing.) I just think that, through some combination of your personal physical inclinations and your life experiences, you are disinclined to be empathetic about visual stimulus.

It's totally possible that you just haven't found any visual art that transports you, yet. You might just be picky! But if you don't enjoy looking at art, you don't need to force yourself to find something that affects you. Maybe instead you could try to engage with any visual aspects of things you do enjoy? Do you like dance, for example? That's got the music component, but the movements are visual, and often take place on or in something beautiful to look at, including costumes and sets and places. I'm a visual artist but some dance performances can completely take me outside of myself. Or for smells, perhaps you enjoy the scent of a forest - do you enjoy the sights of one, too?

My strong reaction to visual art story is that once upon a time I was 17 years old and had the chance to be in London at the same time the Van Gogh exhibit was there. I was on a trip with my highschool friends over the winter holidays and we were geeky american kids doing the touristy stuff. As a group of self-labeled artistic kids we all kind of felt obligated to catch the exhibit while we could. Everybody enjoyed themselves, because his paintings really are much better in person than they are in print, because they're so three dimensional. I broke off from the group and went to a smaller side room and for some reason, it was Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky that made me gasp, freeze on the spot, break out in a sweat all over, and well up with tears. I'd always been a pretty bitter teen, and I was already pre-jaded about art and the art world, and while I liked Van Gogh well enough I also felt weird about liking his work because it was so bandwagony, and all those conflicting adolescent pulls, you know? So this was like that painting somehow lept off that wall and punched me in the gut with the will to live, or at least the will to make things for my own happiness. I've only had maybe two other reactions to visual and performance art like that in the rest of my life.
posted by Mizu at 7:09 AM on September 26, 2013

I was like you when I was growing up -- strong reactions to music and ballet and stage productions, but generally meh about art, and especially meh about 2-dimensional art like paintings. Standing in museums staring at art did nothing for me. (And my parents are really into art, so I was exposed to a TON of art as a kid, including really great art. Still meh.)

What finally changed it for me was living with (decent, real) art. When I got my own place, I started decorating with gifts from family and framed poems and things, but I found a few pieces of original art at a thrift store that looked interesting, mostly because of the subject matter, so I hung a couple of those up. Once I'd lived with them for a while, I started warming up to them. Now I quite like them, and there are a few I really love having. Sometimes I find myself staring at one of those pieces, trying to figure it out.

I've heard the optimum exposure time to a piece of art is the time it takes to peel and eat an orange, but that doesn't seem to be true for me. My exposure time seems to be on the order of several months. Also, I'm probably never going to start crying in front of a painting in a museum (or at least I haven't yet). But living with art has helped me appreciate it in a different way.
posted by pie ninja at 7:22 AM on September 26, 2013

Smell and memory are closely linked because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system

Wiki Link on "smell memory" - this is a common phenomena, for everyone. So much so that advertisers are starting to take advantage; there is now a patented "new Mercedes Benz smell" for example, that gets squirted into every car coming off the assembly line.

Memory = association = emotion
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:25 AM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've never experienced it with smells, but I get the "chills" reaction with music sometimes and a different but similar emotional reaction to art or dance or even nature. I'm not sure it's actually about the music/artwork itself, since it'll happen sometimes but not other times I'm exposed to the same thing. Influenced by mood, probably.

I'm not sure what exactly causes the reaction, but it does tend to be something that varies hugely between people - they'll react differently depending on the artwork, or the sense involved.
posted by randomnity at 7:32 AM on September 26, 2013

My daughter and I visited the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris this summer. It was the most beautiful place I've ever been and both of us cried most of the hour we spent looking at the Monets.
posted by raisingsand at 7:32 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like Miko, I have an absolutely visceral reaction to visual environments, but not so much to individual pieces of art. But in that case it's really hard to say that it's strictly the visuals at work, and not also the smell, temperature, sound, etc. I wonder if people would tend to have more emotional reactions to visual art if museums weren't typically such sterile environments.
posted by HotToddy at 8:00 AM on September 26, 2013

I've experienced Stendahl syndrome twice. The first time, it was a mild reaction, a sort of delighted surprise. I was at the Nelson Atkins museum and saw my first Mark Rothko painting in person, kind of accidentally (I was looking for a bench so I could sit down and rest). Opposite the bench was a large painting with sixteen different squares of black. I spent a long time looking at each square and how the textures and reflections changed and how they seemed to have a relationship with the squares they touched and by the time I thought I was ready to stand up again it turned out I was kind of breathless and amazed. Prior to that, I had very little respect for Rothko and abstract art in general.

(There's a theme to these two experiences)

The second, most profound experience I had was seeing Botticelli's Birth of Venus in person, followed shortly by DaVinci's Annunziata. You see Botticelli reproduced on all kinds of schlocky tins of bath salts and cheap prints and I had once used his work as an example of the kind of art I felt was rather silly (never having seen his work in person, of course).

Well, we were in a big crowd and I walked into a room and there was Venus rising from the waters, gold in her hair. Do you have any idea how big that painting is? How luminous? My knees started to shake. It was kind of like getting a bitchslap from the god of art for my former disregard. The longer I looked, the more weepy and faint I felt. Finally I stumbled away (the painting is so big I couldn't just LOOK away, it seemed to cover an entire wall of the Uffizi).

Fortunately or unfortunately, Da Vinci's Annunziata was in the same room. When I moved away from the Botticelli I was pushed by the crowd right up against Da Vinci's painting. It's a marvel. Each blade of grass and weed is almost photorealistically reproduced. The perspective is so careful, the light unworldly.

That's when I realized I really was going to faint and managed to get a friend to help me outside into the hall/gallery so I could breathe properly.

In summary - don't talk smack on stuff you've never seen in person (note to self) because when you do finally see it in person it will knock you over with its awesomeness.

I was in my mid-20s when this happened, btw, and would have previously thought myself totally immune to that kind of reaction. I mean, I was just looking at a couple of paintings, right?
posted by annathea at 8:13 AM on September 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

Agreed that people are just wired differently. The thing is that growing up, no one tells you we are wired differently. Instead, when we are presented with literature and visual arts and we don't have these intense experiences, we get reactions of, "what the hell is wrong with you, you philistine?"

I think it is important to understand that people do have these emotional reactions and understand, intellectually, what pieces are important and why they have particular importance and what people get out of them. What is also important is to have a wide range of experiences is the arts to see what does resonate with you. But accept sometimes that what applies to other artists or other members of the public will not necessarily apply to you. The fact that something can be relevant (or not) only to you or for your own reasons is probably why the arts are so popular.
posted by deanc at 9:35 AM on September 26, 2013

I wonder if people would tend to have more emotional reactions to visual art if museums weren't typically such sterile environments.

Interesting that you should mention that. When you think about the original display context of a lot of art, particularly European art of the Renaissance and onward, often it was in churches. And you can bet your sweet kneecaps that they elicited emotional reactions. People meditated on the works, prayed on them, were brought to tears by the imagery of suffering, given hope by the glow of redemption. The first time I ever saw an Italian cathedral (not even a major one) dripping with religious narrative art, I totally reconsidered everything about encountering it in museums. It doesn't belong in museums - that's not the environment it was created for. In a shadowy chapel, with candles and incense and shuffing feet around you, it has an entirely different (and much more touching) life.

I think you could say similar things even about the original context history and mythology paintings, displayed in banquet halls and salon chambers and entry vestibules. Context helps you access the emotional power of art.

There's also something to be said for learning to look. As an educator in museums, I've had many many many experiences where someone in a program has had a transformative "wow, I never felt touched by a work of art before" experience. Sometimes it's the work itself, often it's effective display, but most often of all it's because of helpful guidance in ways of noticing and experiencing work. So I'd say that even if it's never yet happened to you, it doesn't mean it can't or won't happen to you. Attention, instruction, context, and support can open up that access.

I remembered that when I was about 19 I was really struck by a Rousseau painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was beautiful, otherworldly, rich in color, and somehow seemed to capture a lot of things about the way my relationships were back then. I was young, single/dating, in the early 90s, and there was a lot about relationships that seemed just fraught with mystery, magic, and a profound and rather scary uncertainty. The painting reflected all that. I just Googled it to link to it, and found an essay by someone who it seems had a similar fascination. Some people do look down on Rousseau, but he grabbed me at that age with this perfectly tuned atmospheric that speaks to relationships.
posted by Miko at 9:48 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I respond more strongly to art (in-person) than to music or smells - it's general awe, the feeling of seeing another person's perspective so directly, sometimes I have to sit down.

I get lost in art pretty regularly, possibly due to spending a lot of time in excellent museums in my early 20s and getting a lot of exposure to different styles / schools. Based on experience, I need some sort of cultural context for the most intense response, although it's important to just be open to the artist's way of seeing the world. The most notable experience of this for me was seeing a crucifixion scene by Fra Angelico, although an installation of a set of Rothkos also produced this in me.

This also happens to me with literature.
posted by momus_window at 9:50 AM on September 26, 2013

Momus talking about literature reminded me of another anecdote for the "you can never know what will hit you" pile. There is a single sentence from the book The English Patient that I read and, in the instant I read it, I fell eternally and forever in love with it:
He had been helping Miss Swift, the aviatrix, collect information on the habits of badgers.
It's just a throwaway sentence about midway through the book. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever about what aspect of this particular sentence made me love it so much - it's not conveying a powerful idea, it's not a pun, it's not especially better-constructed than any other sentence. All I know is that something way down in my gut reads those words and says "YAAAAAAAY!" and trying to explain why I love it makes me sound like Allie Brosh trying to explain why corn on the floor is funny.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:56 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another vote for the notion that you may find that your relation to visual art may change through your life and that seeing works in person is just different than seeing reproductions. That's been my experience, too, much to my surprise and delight. (Though seeing Picassos Demoiselles D'Avignon in person was like being punched in the gut--not exactly pleasurable but hugely affecting.) In fact in my forties I've found that my entire conception of and response to color has changed and become important in ways I would have never been able to predict and that I'm still not sure I understand. But it sure does make life more interesting!

All this by way of saying, you ask a really interesting question, which means that you're paying attention. If life has similar surprises in store for you I bet you'll enjoy the ride. Have fun!
posted by Sublimity at 10:08 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting question and the answer is that we don't know. This question sits at the intersection of a couple thousand years of aesthetic theory and philosophy and neurology. Why do we find certain artworks beautiful is an old question and one that is intrinsically tied to 'why do certain artworks give us chills.' Why do some people find certain artworks beautiful while others don't? Is there some objective measure of such things? There are many answers to such questions from philosophy and very few from neuroscience.

As mentioned, smell is seemingly the most obvious one to tackle. Smell is the only sensory input that doesn't travel through the thalamus. All other sensory inputs make an obligatory stop there on their way to their respective primary cortex. But smell goes right from your nose to your olfactory bulbs - literally a very short distance. This is why smell seems to us to be so salient and provocative.

The other senses are harder. I know the least about visual art. But studies in music perception, for example, range from classical theories of psychological expectation and the meeting or disappointment of those expectations, to some more speculative and often specious arguments about the spectral nature of sound, overtones, etc. The truth is that we don't know. BUT it is almost certain that our emotional reactions to musical works have much more to do with our own experience, training, listening histories, etc., than with something intrinsic in the music itself. Many argue there are some 'naturally' pleasing sound combinations, but these arguments are dubious. Sure, the way our auditory cortex is wired may play a role - but that line of inquiry usually leads back to some variation on 'does music shape our cortex or does our cortex shape our perception of music.' In all likelihood, it isn't so much one or the other but some complex interplay between the two.

People's brains are weird. When you perceive something, so many things are triggered. I mean, when you see a work of art, for example, you've got action potentials streaming up through your superior colliculi, which is what's orienting you to the work, you've got stuff going back to primary visual cortex, you've got shit firing in your hippocampus and arousing all these memories, you've got stuff happening in your temporal lobe which is enabling you to recognize objects in the work (or not recognize them), you've got maybe fear or anxiety triggered in your amygdala. I mean all sorts of stuff - and there's going to be as much individual variation as there is in those perceptions as there are number of people who perceive it (which makes questions like "why are most people affected by, say, Beethoven's 3rd symphony," all the more interesting and troublesome).

When you think about the original display context of a lot of art, particularly European art of the Renaissance and onward, often it was in churches. And you can bet your sweet kneecaps that they elicited emotional reactions

Yeah, I mean this is illuminating because it highlights how much of our physical reaction to works of art is dependent on our worldview and our sort of hermeneutic apparatus. Ancient Greeks, for example, saw in their works of art their entire sense of the world - their beliefs, etc. So their reaction to, say, the statue of Athena in the Parthenon is obviously going to differ tremendously from ours today. To say nothing of individual variation. This is a sort of Hegelian approach that I personally favor, but it is by no means universally accepted.

I think in the next 20 years there's going to be some really interesting research on this, as our understanding of the brain continues to expand rapidly. I would stay tuned.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:48 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are a couple paintings I've seen on gallery walks that felt like an impact to my chest when I first saw them and that I can still recall quite well in my mind's eye a few years later. I think it was the vividness of the colors that did it for me. I can't recall ever having this reaction to digital or print reproductions, so perhaps the Z dimension of paint texture adds something as well?

If we can include moving images, there are certainly many pieces of beautifully shot cinematography that have impacted me emotionally. Although that's difficult to fully separate from the soundtrack for the scene and the context of the scene in the overall narrative.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:51 AM on September 26, 2013

I'm an easy cryer - hit the right words and I'm teary, I'm the one welling up over dog food commercials. And yet a lot of art - despite the fact that I work with it daily - doesn't do that for me. I may be interested, amused, engaged by something, but I won't always necessarily feel their impact. Frequently I come back and built a relationship with a piece over time, which is very nice, and I love being in spaces. Visiting Italy is deeply thrilling to me because of the vistas, the cathedrals, the sense of the place - it's a very strong response to the visuals around me, but I don't always walk into a museum and get flummoxed.

There is one work that I've seen in person twice and have wept at, though - Donatello's Mary Magdalene. Sometimes people find it easier to relate to sculpture because it's there, it has a three dimensional physical presence that you have to deal with. I don't know if it was that for me but I do know I cried my face off.
posted by PussKillian at 11:30 AM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I get like this with certain songs, (especially live music) works of art, and very rarely some films and books. It gives me a real sense of grief when something no longer evokes that response in me - the feeling is so intense, so rare, and so special that I'm almost superstitiously afraid of using it up. It definitely qualifies as a peak experience.

In sum, brains are weird and I need more art in my life.
posted by Space Kitty at 12:02 PM on September 26, 2013

Ok, so I guess my primary emotional response is to stories, so primarily written word. I liked instrumental music, but it brought up very blunt emotional responses (happy, sad, melancholy), rather than really layered ones.

How I've branched this out:
This is... terribly, terribly lame, but it took exposure to fan videos, for me to really see how music, and visual representations could be used to tell a story independently. Fanvids were kind of the see-spot-run version, here is a story I am already familiar with, but being told through the medium of music and visual-only video, because they were all working in unison to tell the same story.

So that got me fascinated with how each of these mediums, which are NOT my primary story-telling medium, could be used to tell stories independently.

So, now when I hear music, I can imagine a music video for it - which I formerly wouldn't've, not having a visual focus, and it's usually for a story that I already know/have seen.

There's a fanvidder Obsessive24, and for example, the vid for Womb just sums up the movie in 5, very creepy minutes.
Also has good ones for Rome (to Manchester Orchestra - we built this house in one day).

Expanding the Visual dictionary
I also found Understanding Comics useful. I used to read comics together with a boyfriend who was a (struggling) comic book artist (ie we'd lie side by side and tap to indicate when we'd finished the page).
I'm pretty bright, but in comics, I'd miss all sorts of story elements he'd pick up, and it turned out I was mostly reading the words, and skipping over a whole lot of story in the pictures.
The linked book really breaks down how images in comics are used to convey story, and yeah, it all seems really obvious, but once I'd read it, I was more *aware* of those techniques, and picked up better

Anyway. So, with art, I'm still kind of stuck on either, "it's pretty", or, really obviously symbolically telling a story. So I find NZ Artist Robyn Kahukiwa awesome because she's frequently drawing on mythological stories, e.g. really obviously in Hine Titama (the dawn maiden, who became Death). But then there's sketches, which I can't find online, where a lifedrawing of a woman is meant to represent the earth, in rolling hills etc, so I can see how once you have that visual language, more and more of the subtle story becomes obvious, which means once people have that dictionary, many MORE pieces of art unlock that emotional response. Which, many times, I'm still just overlooking.

I have a friend who is an artist, and he'll talk to me about what every tiny detail represents, like how this colour was actually to represent ochre, earth, which ties into these 7 colours and sylistic shapes in this border, representing the planets, and the transformation of mythic representations (greek gods) to modern understandings, which is what the central figure is experiencing, etc.

So yeah, a picture can be worth way more than a thousand words, and the right thousand words can definitely make you cry.
posted by Elysum at 4:18 PM on September 26, 2013

I believe the brain works differently when it comes to different senses. A particular smell can conjure a memory in me very easily. Less so with art (and I work in an art museum and I am an artist). One smell that sends me halfway across the globe is that of sewage. In the summer, if I smell anything that comes close to that I suddenly want to travel to Asia, where I associate the smell from past trips. Crazy, huh. It's not a pleasant smell but it presents a very pleasant memory.

This being said, I would highly recommend that you participate in the next Slow Art Day coming up in April. I don't know where you live but museums all over the world participate. The basic premise to Slow Art Day is to take some time to just look, enjoy, and feel whatever you want about a few pieces of art. Then, all the participants meet to discuss the pieces. Participants are usually strangers and the chat is not academic (i.e. it's very accessible).
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:33 AM on September 27, 2013

Fiona Banner's Harrier gives me extremely strong feelings of anxiety or even panic. And this is just from photos, I've never seen it in real life! (I don't know if I could bear to). There is just such a tremendous and violent tension created by the piece, that it feels like I'm fighting a very strong flight response (ha ha, I know). Photos like this don't really help. eeeeuh.
posted by Kabanos at 12:40 PM on September 27, 2013

I was once completely overwhelmed by an exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts because it brought up so much about my family's history that I had no clue about.
posted by divabat at 10:30 PM on September 27, 2013

OP here. A few days after I posted this, I came across a question, posed by Benedick after he hears a musician playing in Much Ado About Nothing. He says 'is it not strange that sheeps' guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?'

Thanks for some fascinating answers.
posted by fishingforthewhale at 2:34 PM on October 10, 2013

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