Emotional Art: Changing Feelings from Imaginative Works

face of a prisoner

Fear of crime, the pain of crime victims, anger at criminals, and the suffering of prisoners currently affect public policy largely through their representations in public works. A scholar has insightfully observed:

The modern {criminal justice} system is remarkable in {its} emotionless day to day operation and mechanical output which leads to a displacement of the public’s emotional input into criminal law. … To put it another way: as the process of criminal adjudication becomes less of an emotional enterprise en mass, the public seeks alternative ways to redress its affective need for input into criminal law and adjudication. Legislation becomes an easy outlet for this need; and it is easy for all of the entities involved. … Calls for adding more crimes to the code is systematically easier (and cheaper) than taking more cases to trial.^

Public works about crime and punishment, which are highly successful in competition for attention, are emotionally fraught. Like any other structure of communication, public works temporally organize emotions. The daily news, the 24-hour news channel, the news story, the novel, or movie, all stimulate emotions within a particular time structure. Emotions experienced through these public works traverse a wider range of emotional types in less time than emotions experienced in a jury trial for a specific criminal case, in personal communication with crime victims, and in personal communication with prisoners.

A huge emotional time span is a feature of human nature. Humans’ emotional tones have time spans varying by roughly a multiple of 100 billion. Humans react emotionally to stimuli having durations as short as 16 to 40 milliseconds. Visual stimuli of that duration can induce a bad mood, prompt an angry facial reaction, generate negative judgmental bias, reduce consumption of a sweet, fruit-flavored drink, and decrease willingness to pay for such a drink. These effects occur even though the visual stimuli are subliminal. Persons cannot describe in words what appeared before their eyes, but their bodies react emotionally to an image.

Human emotional tones extend to much longer durations. Moods typically refer to emotional tones extending for hours, days, or longer. Personality or temperament is a significantly heritable cluster of traits that distinguish persons across their whole lifetimes. Yet persons of all different temperaments feel at different times in their lives surprise, fear, anger, disgust, and joy. Long-enduring emotional tones affect short-duration emotional reactivity. Long-enduring emotional tones also change through accumulated experiences. Persons grew content in the experience of being loved and appreciated, or embittered from years of disappointments and frustrations.

Competition for attention favors different emotional dynamics than does competition for acclaim. Short-duration emotional reactions attract an organism’s attention biologically by activating and orienting the organism’s sensory and cognitive resources to the stimulus. Resulting approach-avoidance behaviors use relatively simple, low-cost neural resources. In competition for attention, a person encountering a work can exit at any time, e.g. put down the book. Competition for attention implies an ongoing approach-avoidance constraint for attracting and holding an audience. Public works successfully competing for attention cannot develop emotional states that prompt persons to avoid the work.

Public works created in competition for attention may have different emotional tones, but they have common emotional dynamics. Persons attending a horror film differ in prior emotional expectations than persons attending a love-story film. In both film genres, shorter-duration emotional cues help to sustain longer-duration moods.^ Popular films in both genres average about two hours in length. After such films, persons exit into a public space that has the same emotional tone as when they entered the darkened theatre. Both types of films favor an emotional experience that prompts the viewer to encourage others to attend the film.

Competition for acclaim is more likely to produce emotionally unattractive public works. Unlike competition for attention, competition for acclaim points to an externally structured judgment point. Low-level, short-duration approach-avoidance affects are less relevant to the success of a work. Instead, competition for acclaim encourages activation of sensory, memory, and cognitive resources to render judgment on the merits of a work at the judgment point. Feelings deeply embedded in long-term experiences and enduring patterns of thinking can counter-balance immediately elicited emotions in such a judgment. Bitter symbolic medicine might be judged a necessary curative. Enduring a harrowing symbolic ordeal might be highly valued as a convincing expression of a fundamental moral commitment.

Competition for acclaim is less likely to produce works with short-duration, intense feelings across multiple emotions. Unlike competition for attention, competition for acclaim tends to be associated with a public related geographically, temporally, and socially. Such a public differs significantly from an imagined community or a public of readers. Real personal relations foster emotional synchronization within a timeframe of tens of minutes. In emotional space-time, a geographically, temporally, and socially related public canalizes an individual person’s feelings. Persons less geographically, temporally, and socially related are more likely to experience emotions that vary in type, intensity, and direction in a timeframe of minutes or less.

Traditional belief in the fickleness of crowds is misleading with respect to a short timeframe and widely varying stimuli. Emotional synchronization among persons watching together a seven-minute video occurs only over time periods greater than 30 seconds.^ An individual’s emotional reaction can occur within a second. Emotional signals travel much faster within a single human body than across a large group of human bodies. A single human body can experience a wider range of emotions more quickly than can a crowd.

In fifth-century Athens, tragedies were associated with relatively long-duration, narrow-scope, interpersonally correlated emotional experiences. At the City Dionysia, Athenians experienced tragedy as three consecutive days of three tragedies and a satyr play. Total performance time for the three tragedies each day was probably about four hours.^ Greek tragedies typically have a unified plot, few changes in location, and a diegetic span of usually no more than a day. Common features of tragedies are the occurrence or threat of horrendous violence among close family members and terrible suffering.^ Athenians experienced tragedy in daylight in close bodily contact with each other:

Most of the seats were narrow and had no arms, and the spectators were jam-packed, shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee. Standing spectators would be closer still. If someone beside you sobbed or shuddered or trembled, you would feel it directly, and a wave of physical reaction could pass like an electric shock through all your neighbors. In this way the audience was a united group, a thíasos, not a collection of individuals.^ ^

In addition to being geographically, temporally, and socially gathered for an intense experience, persons attending the City Dionysia probably drank enough wine to be at least mildly intoxicated during the performances.^ They thus had favorable physiological preparation for emoting. During the City Dionysia, a large share of men in Athens probably felt acute emotions of horror and sympathetic grief for hours each day.

Theatrical movies at the turn of the millennium have much different emotional dynamics. Transitions between film shots (“cuts”) occur in movies on average every three to six seconds. Most scenes last for a minute and a half to three minutes.^ The typical running-time of a movie is slightly less than two hours. The size of the audience at a typical movie viewing today is about 5% of that at a tragic performance in fifth-century Athens. Only about 5% of movie viewing is of horror movies of various types. Viewers’ emotions at horror movies are volatile and wide-ranging.^ Neighbors independently choose what, when, and where to see movies. They watch movies in the dark, in seats that physically separate them from each other. On any one day, movies do not produce hours of horror and sympathetic grief across a large share of a local population.

Emotional distinctions between tragedies and modern popular films aren’t contrasts between stylistic levels or decorum. Literary critics have distinguished between high, mixed, and low styles, and between tragedy, mixed, and comic works. Distinguishing emotional dynamics is not equivalent to distinguishing these stylistic levels or these generic categories. While a work presenting a ruling family may generate powerful emotional dynamics more easily than a work presenting a shopkeeper’s family, the issue is the emotional dynamics, not that status of the characters or the seriousness of their concerns. Fifth-century Athenian tragedies typically did not present violence on-stage. Whether a killing is presented explicitly or described, the issue is emotional dynamics, not decorum. Whether a work ends in a killing or a joyful marriage doesn’t determine the emotional dynamics of the work.

Works that represent Prometheus show different effects of competition for acclaim and competition for attention on emotion in communication with prisoners. Prometheus Bound was created as a tragedy to be presented in competition for acclaim in Athens, probably at the City Dionysia. Centered on the bound prisoner Prometheus, Prometheus Bound in fifth-century Athens stimulated enduring emotions of horror, fear, pity, and grief. In contrast, Greco-Roman Promethean works and nineteenth-century Promethean works were created within intense competition for attention. Prometheus became “the chained liberator, admirable in the bitter enjoyment of his own tragedy.”^ In competition for attention, Promethean public works stimulate feelings that change in seconds and often span the full range of contrasting emotions.

Compared to competition for acclaim, competition for attention generates feelings less effective for motivating political accountability for prisoners’ sufferings. Relatively consistent, long-duration feelings create bodily resources for subsequent feelings. Mixed, volatile, short-duration feelings have less enduring significance for subsequent feelings. Competition for acclaim, which favors the former type of feelings, creates a bodily accountability that competition for attention, which favors the latter type of feelings, does not. Moreover, imaginative works created in competition for attention must satisfy immediate emotional demands of the sought public. Competition for acclaim can provide relatively long-duration emotions independent of common, public emotional demand.

Acclaim for a work that stimulates negative emotions makes a claim for public action to effect change. Both bodily economics and interpersonal economics suggest that public work shifting from competition for acclaim to competition for attention lessens political accountability for prisoners’ sufferings.

  1. This is an interesting argument, tracing the history of emotion from Prometheus Bound through modern imprisonment. I’m not sure I entirely understand just why the distinction between competition for attention and competition for acclaim is so central, but that probably means I have to think more about it.

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