Facing the Sublime

Author(s)
Young-Jin Hur, Gernot Gerger, Helmut Leder, Chris McManus
Abstract

The sublime is an enduring concept in Western aesthetic discourse and is often portrayed such as in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful of 1759 as a delightful horror, a kind of enjoyment based on negative emotions. In the current article, the relationship between sublimity and fear was explored using behavioral and physiological measures. In 2 studies (total N ≈ 120), photographs of nature were selected (Study 1: 192 photographs and Study 2: 72 photographs), rated on sublimity, beauty, fear, happiness, and arousal, before being assessed against facial muscle movement (fEMG) and skin conductance (SCR). In line with philosophical theories, ratings of sublimity showed positive associations with subjective fear ratings in both studies. Looking at fEMG data (Study 2), sublimity was in fact associated with a decrease of corrugator supercilli (frowning) reactions, indicating reduced emotional negativity. Furthermore, sublimity did not change activation levels of the zygomaticus major (smiling/positive emotional valence), nor did it influence movements of the medial frontalis (inner brow raise/fear). Increased ratings of fear increased corrugator supercilii and medial frontalis activations, and decreased zygomaticus major activation, replicating past findings. SCR activation was not predicted by any variable. The discrepancy between behavioral and physiological results likely results from a combination of false appraisal and distancing mechanisms, and thus encourages the reconsideration of generalizations made over the sublime in its relation to fear.

Organisation(s)
Department of Cognition, Emotion, and Methods in Psychology
External organisation(s)
University College London
Journal
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts
Volume
14
Pages
253–263
ISSN
1931-3896
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000204
Publication date
2020
Peer reviewed
Yes
Austrian Fields of Science 2012
501001 General psychology, 501011 Cognitive psychology, 501026 Psychology of perception
Portal url
https://ucris.univie.ac.at/portal/en/publications/facing-the-sublime(a523f2df-94e8-4f5f-baca-cf3a44a0037d).html