Emotional Confirmation and the Addictive Beauty of Art

The Novel Reader

The ideas in this blog post may one day be used as the building block of an academic work (a professor’s suggestion, not mine). If for some reason you want to take some idea from here and run with it, please give credit where credit is due. That goes for all content on this blog, but perhaps especially this one. Thank you.

At times, the consumption of literary, performing, and screen arts has been reduced to mere escapism; some believe that people read books, go to plays, and watch television shows and movies in order to distract themselves from real life in a world that is imaginary. Glib pessimism aside, this might be so. The working person turns on the movie channels to relax after a long day at work. The elementary boy gets lost in fantasy books to forget about bullies. The teenage girl binges on Pretty Little Liars to escape high school drama. It’s not so hard to see how people, for a variety of reasons, turn to various arts in order to transport them away from reality, particularly if that reality is difficult and often if the art is…. less strenuous on the mind.

However, to term this reality-shifting mechanism as escapism – certainly a reductive moniker –  is to overlook what might be a more directed, revealing, and beautiful function of art in dealing with the ups and downs of life. In a sense, to call it escapism belittles the utility of art from something that enhances the mind and emotions into something that tranquilizes them.

Aristotle’s metaphor of catharsis in Greek drama reveals art to be aimed with intent at doing much more for the mind than providing an alternate reality. While scholars disagree on some of the finer aspects of Aristotle’s work, the main idea is that the emotions produced in a play could help purge the audience of their own emotions. The audience’s place in the performance would act as a release of emotion that could provide relief from certain emotions, such as fear. So, seeing something horrible happen to a character on stage, though upsetting, would ultimately act to, by the end of the play, cleanse the audience of their own fears and apprehensions as they felt the character’s fear and trauma but came away unscathed. Aristotle’s theories of catharsis support the idea that art’s work in the human mind is much more than a distraction.

I believe that an aspect of art – in literature but perhaps especially in visual, performed arts like the stage and screen – that makes it such a powerful drug in the human mind is what I will call emotional confirmation. This post is, more or less, an outline for an idea that requires much more expansion and research.

Emotional confirmation depends upon two basic principles of human emotions. They are that 1. humans are emotional creatures that must feel emotions inwardly and express them outwardly and 2. humans have an imperfect sense of what emotions feel like, what they look like, and when they should feel or express them.

The first part is simple enough, right? If you’re reading this then you’ve felt and expressed your own emotions and interpreted others’. In I, Robot, one of the things that Dr. Lanning gave Sonny was emotions, and while they are difficult for him to learn, it is his expression of emotions that make him significantly more human than the other robots. (By the way, that has to be one of the most underrated films of the last 15 years).

But, as Sonny finds, emotions are difficult. This is the second part of the two principles. First, how do you know what an emotion feels like? How do you know when you are scared or just nervous? Amused or elated? Infatuated or in love? Second, how do you interpret the emotions of others? Can you be sure that they are as happy as they seem? Are they depressed or just quiet by nature? What does it really look like when someone is angry, happy, or sad? But what really mystifies all of this is our social conditioning regarding emotions. In short, culture and society teaches us what emotions we should feel as well as how we should display them. (Men don’t cry, for example).

For an emotion to properly accomplish its purpose, it must be correctly recognized by the subject, correctly displayed by the subject, and properly received by the audience. If the emotion is unrecognized, misidentified, suppressed, blunted, ignored, or misunderstood along the way, then at least one human is going to be left in a state of confusion and/or frustration. This confusion and frustration is augmented by the first principle: if humans have an innate sense of emotions and a desire to express and understand them, any failures or ambiguities involved will be stressful and uncomfortable.

Art provides a remedy for this with emotional confirmation. In art, a subject can, with certainty, recognize a character’s emotions. More than this, they can identify with that character and feel that character’s emotions as their own, knowing that they are feeling the proper emotion as well as being in a setting where it is acceptable to feel that emotion.

The certainty of emotions in art rests on the premise that the audience can be sure of what they see. Plainly, this accomplishment is not just a side effect of good art, but a prerequisite. If an author cannot use words to describe emotions, they are probably not going to connect with the reader. Prestigious awards are given every year to actors/actresses that can most vividly portray emotion. Great writing and great acting leave little room for uncertainty. When Shakespeare writes King John as saying the following, there is little question what the king is feeling:

“France, I am burn’d up with inflaming wrath;
A rage whose heat hath this condition,
That nothing can allay, nothing but blood,
The blood, and dearest-valued blood, of France.” (3.1.349-52)

The written communication is almost too easy in this sense. It even works to some extent in bad writing: “He was mad.” The portrayal of emotion in acting is rather certain as well. The following scene, basically on its own merit, won Anne Hathaway an Oscar, mostly because of the sheer power of the emotion she conveys:

To make matters easier, performance can benefit from music, visual effects, and so forth. Side note: I left the above video playing as I continued to write, and when she sings “He took my childhood in his stride” my mouth literally dropped, the chills hit, and I teared up a little.

Whereas in real life, emotions are tough to discern and interpret, in art the emotions are made plain. This alone would be enough to make art desirable; watching movies, seeing a picture or painting, and even reading a book that allows the viewer/reader to accurately perceive someone else’s emotions is, for lack of a better word, fun. It’s healthy. Humans spend all of their social time hazarding guesses and jumping to conclusions about someone else’s emotional state, as their mind works at a million miles per hour trying to interpret myriad signals. Having the chance to safely and correctly view emotions is part of what makes Emotional Confirmation so addictive. Not only that, but the viewer/reader does this subconsciously. They begin to feel sad or angry or happy naturally as they view the art.

However, there is another dimension to Emotional Confirmation that makes the experience so edifying, and it is related to Aristotle’s ideas of catharsis.

Art heals our emotions as it prompts and guides us to emotional clarity, bidding us to emote in a certain way and reaffirming our efforts to do so.

This all depends upon the great mystery of how humans come to identify with fictional characters. This identification is what makes us affected when something happens to a character, and it is what makes us keep reading to find out what happens next. Have you ever stopped for a moment when watching or reading something and asked: “None of this actually happened, so why do I care so much?” It’s because you’ve subconsciously put yourself in the story. That’s one of the first things anyone praises about an author – the ability to put the reader in the story. This is, in part, why we care.

This gives us an astounding amount of immediacy to art. We can find ourselves actually taking the place of one of the characters, or standing in very close to them. When a character gives a tearful farewell speech, we imagine they are giving it to us, not just the other characters on screen. When someone wrongs the main character, we get angry because we feel as though they did something wrong to us.

Identifying with characters allows us to cheer for bad guys. Some of the most popular characters in recent television history have been bad guys, or at least guys who do bad things (Walter White, Tony Soprano, Dexter, Stringer Bell). The reason we can want these bad men to succeed is because we’ve taken their side; we’ve come to identify with them and with their cause.

This means that, in many cases, when a character displays an emotion, and a viewer/reader accurately identifies it, the viewer reciprocates the emotion as if they were in the character’s shoes, or at least standing right besides them as a close friend.

Why is it so powerful when Samwise says to Frodo, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” and then picks him up to walk the final distance to Mount Doom? It’s because we have put ourselves on the journey with Sam and Frodo (and Gollum). It’s as if Samwise is picking us up, not just Mr. Frodo. That’s part of why it’s so powerful. Also Howard Shore’s score.

The coup de grace: the art tells us its okay to feel that way.

Perhaps some social situations will still prevent some people from displaying some emotions while viewing art. This is probably why, and I know I can attest to this, the affects of art are usually augmented when viewed in solitude (that may be another paper).

But, generally speaking, art gives the viewer/reader a safe place to feel and express emotion. Not only that, but it encourages it. Art draws our emotions from us, and makes it so that we can do so easily and willingly.

And that experience, of clearly seeing and feeling an emotion, and being free to express it, is a powerful drug. And, according to Aristotle, upon realizing it is all fictional, our emotions are healthfully cleansed in catharsis.

Of course, all of this may be significantly more nuanced, detailed, researched, and supported. And, of course, there are exceptions in art that confuse or contradict my assertion. For instance, what of character’s like Hamlet, whose emotions are much more difficult to identify?

But for now, I stand by my outline of the concept of emotional confirmation. Entertainment in the form of movies, plays, television, books, and even music (though that’s another thing) is much more than a distraction. It is a place to settle the tumult of emotion that we live in every day, elucidating these troublesome variables and giving us a safe place where we are encouraged to be hit in the feels, as they say.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter