Emotion and the Arts

By Mette Hjort; Sue Laver | Go to book overview

I
Emotion in Response to Art
A Survey of the Terrain

JERROLD LEVINSON

Responding emotionally to artworks is a familiar enough occurrence, and hardly seems puzzling, recalled at that level of generality. Why should not works of art, in company with people, animals, natural objects, and political events, produce emotions in us? Philosophers have, however, raised questions about emotional responses to art in particular contexts or when viewed from certain angles. These questions suggest that there is indeed something puzzling about such emotions.

One such context is that of fiction, whether literary, dramatic, or cinematic: emotions appear to be had not only for the work itself, but for the fictional characters or situations represented therein, even though these are understood not to exist. A second such context is that of abstract or nonrepresentational art, with music the preeminent example, where it is unclear both what could elicit such a response and what its object could be. A third context is that in which artworks expressive of negative emotion -- for example, tragedies, requiems, and tales of horror -- engender parallel responses in perceivers without evoking avoidance or disapproval. And a fourth context in which emotional response to art has struck philosophers as problematic is where the proper appreciation of art is at issue. Is such appreciation compatible with experiencing the familiar emotions that art seems capable of raising in us?

We might formulate the main philosophical questions concerning emotion in response to art as follows: (1) What kind or type of emotions are had in

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