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The connections between the work of art, aesthetic appreciation and “to be moved”

by Richard Meckien - published Apr 04, 2014 01:55 PM - - last modified Apr 05, 2014 12:23 AM

Winfried Menninghaus - 2What makes a work of art moving? Why do certain movies, plays, poems, songs and paintings move more than others? Prompted by these questions, German researcher Winfried Menninghaus focuses his studies on the meaning of "to be moved" by something in the context of aesthetic appreciation.

According to him, "the term 'move' refers to the idea of touching, shaking, snatching and tinkering, but that does not say much about the factors that arouse the feeling of “being moved”. Hatred and anger, for example, are always directed to the agent that brings these emotions to the fore. But “be moved” lacks this objectivity. It is based more on a subjective component, related to how we feel affected."

On March 20, the researcher was at the IEA-USP to explore the theme at the conference What does it mean to be moved by an artwork?, opened by professor Helmut Galle, from the Department of Modern Languages ​of USP’s Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Sciences Humanities (FFLCH).

Photos of the event

In his presentation, Menninghaus has addressed the results of a series of studies that are being conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, of which he is the founding director. Created in 2013, the institute's proposal is the use of scientific methods to investigate the psychological, neural and socio-cultural bases of perceptions, evaluations and aesthetic preferences.

Menninghaus is a full member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and his research is focused on philosophical, evolutionary and empirical-psychological aesthetics; models, boundary phenomena and aesthetic functions of mythology and the world of life; and literature written since 1750, with emphasis on German Romanticism and literature of the 20th century.


The first study that has been presented by the researcher at the conference came from two key issues centered on the psychology of emotion: 1 ) what events / scenarios can be labeled as moving? 2 ) what cognitive and affective characteristics are common to them?

In the study, 229 participants who comprised the statistical sample have been instructed to recall, describe and classify according to a scale from 1 to 45, moments they considered moving. The most frequently mentioned were death / burial, sickness, pregnancy / childbirth and wedding.

According to Menninghaus, the answers show two major aspects in common. Firstly, the reported events were, somehow, in accordance with the moral standards and ideals of the participants. Moreover, in all cases “be moved” has been configured as a thrill experienced by an external observer.

"This means that there is a distance between the event that moves and who is moved. Whoever stands at a witness position and therefore can not change the facts or be affected by them has greater chances of being moved” he explained.

Thus, the reunion of two people who have been separated for a long time is more moving to a third party who observes the rapprochement than to those involved in the situation. "It is not moving if you confess adultery to someone, but if you witness a confession of this type, you can get moved," he exemplified.­


With the goal of discovering which are the most characteristic emotions of the state of "being moved" and scaling them qualitatively, Menninghaus developed a free-association study with 815 people. Participants have been asked to describe, by means of nouns, the emotions they felt when experiencing moving moments and then assign them to eight terms linked to the psychological universe of the word "move", which correspond to emotional dimensions of the state of "being moved": moved, touched, stirred, deeply moved, gripped, thrilled, uplifted, shattered. Among the nouns most frequently cited by participants there were happiness, sadness / grief, love, sentiment and tears.

The eight terms have been used again by Menninghaus for a study on semantic difference, now with a smaller sample of 434 people. From a list of 40 pairs of antagonistic adjectives such as hot / cold and light / dark, participants have been asked to choose, for all pairs, the adjective that best described each of the terms. Then, according to a predetermined scale, they had to assess the level of compatibility between the selected adjective and the linked term.

Based on the choices and evaluations of the participants, it has been observed that "the feelings of “being moved” are broad, not narrow. They uplift instead of depressing. They are deep, not shallow. They are warm, not cold. They absorb and do not cause detachment. They are larger than smaller, thinner than crude and softer than hard,"as defined by the researcher.

From the intersections of the data from these two studies, it has been possible to reach an array of proximity / distance between the feeling of “being moved”,  and positive and negative emotions. Represented on a graph, the matrix has shown that the state of "being moved" stands at an intermediate position within a continuum between these two emotional extremes.

To Menninghaus, this reveals that “being moved” is a mixed feeling, resulting from the combination of sadness and joy. "Negative feelings can not lead to the ‘being moved’ if they are not associated with positive feelings, such as empathy for the person involved in the moving situation. Likewise, the joyful events can not be moving if there is not something sad behind, as a battle or a long time of separation, for example," he explained.


To better understand how the feeling of sadness, the state of "being moved" and aesthetic appreciation interact, Menninghaus has focused a research on films. The 76 study participants have been taken to a movie theater, where they have watched 36 film clips, lasting from 57 to 133 seconds and all representing the moment when the protagonist learns of the death of a loved one. Then, they were asked on what was the motivation to see the whole movie. The objective was to identify the wheter most determining factor of that motivation was to feel sad or moved.

Based on the responses, Menninghaus has concluded that the feeling of sadness is directly associated with the desire to see the movie. However, this association is more significant when the sadness is seen as the trigger of “being moved” and this, in turn, is noted as the cause of the desire to see the movie.

Another important issue raised in the study has been the high level of correlation between the feeling of "being moved" and the positive appreciation of the film or aesthetic pleasure. "Being moved” by a work of art implies a positive judgment in relation to its aesthetic reach," Menninghaus noted.

According to the researcher, this indicates that "the receivers of art experience sadness as pleasure not because they like to feel sad, sorry or empathetic, but because sadness, compassion and empathy involved in seeing the film represent one of several factors which together lead to the emergence of a sense of 'being moved'."

He has also pointed out that the feeling of “being moved” is experienced as something inherently rewarding, even when sad emotions are present. "We believe that people go to the movies to feel moved, and not to feel sad. Sadness only adds to the commotion. And with commotion comes aesthetic appreciation," he added.


In order to advance his research towards beyond the interactions and correlations between feelings and reach causal evidence involved in aesthetic appreciation, Menninghaus has chosen to explore a familiar field to him: literature.

The researcher opted for the theory of linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) on the continuum parallels present in poetry. In other words, the linguistic similarities that are characteristics of this literary genre. According to this theoretical concept, poetic language is marked by patterns of recurrence / repetition in phonetic, morphological, syntactic and semantic dimensions. As illustrated by Menninghaus, these patterns can be easily observed in the famous phrase attributed to Julius Caesar: "Veni vidi vici" (I came, I saw, I won).

From that reference, three hypotheses have been created

1)      The poetic similarities are fundamental in defining the essence of a poetic text;

2)      This poetic essence is an indicator of aesthetic evaluation;

3)      The presence or absence of poetic similarities influence emotional responses.

To test these hypotheses, Menninghaus has developed a study focused on the effects of the presence or absence of similarities in poetic texts. The first step has been to write a series of poems in which the linguistic marks indicated by Jakobson were present and then create a new version for each of them, eliminating the recurrence and repetition patterns, but without changing the content.

Then, the study participants were exposed to two versions of the poems in roder to evaluate them in terms of beauty, taste, melody and commotion. The idea was to see if each version moved the participants in a happy or sad way, if they lead to feelings of joy or sadness and if they arose negative or positive feelings.

According to the researcher, the data show that poetic language reinforces – instead of reducing - both feelings of sadness and of joy. "Our hypothesis is that sorrow, due to being marked by poetic form, helps to enhance the feeling of 'being moved' and that this interaction between commotion and sadness can be experienced as something inherently pleasurable and rewarding."

Moreover, he continued , the intrinsically rewarding nature of the feeling of “being moved” by a work of art is deeply rooted to the formal features, such as the linguistic parallels of poetry. "So to be moved is directly linked to aesthetic appreciation."


The interpretations of Menninghaus’s findings over this series of studies have been supported by two related assumptions. The first is that the artworks vie for attention by an intense emotional involvement and affective memory access. The second is that negative emotions are particularly strong in prioritizing these three elements.

According to the researcher, the psychological evidence collected in the studies show that sad emotions are more absorbent and engaging, while joyful emotions are more easily forgotten and processed at a slower pace.

"To feel pleasure from negative emotions and tragedy is not an exception but the rule. And why do we feel it? A completely positive beauty without changes lacks power to hold the attention and deepen trajectories of affective involvement. Therefore it can become empty, uninteresting, boring and without lasting impact," he summarized.