Art and Emotion

One central feature of aesthetic experiences is their ability to arouse emotions in perceivers. It feels natural to experience joy, pleasure shivers down the spine, awe in sight of grandiose artworks, or sometimes even negative emotions of fear, anger or disgust in front of visually challenging stimuli. However, although it is generally agreed that the arts can readily evoke emotions, the nature of these experiences and specifically how emotions in the arts are perceived and represented on a subjective, bodily, and evaluative level is a heavily debated issue (see e.g., Konecni, 2015; Matthew Pelowski, Markey, Forster, Gerger, & Leder, 2017; Scherer, 2005). It is also an open question regarding how emotions—in concert with cognitions—interact to form valuable, intense, and sometimes pleasurable aesthetic experiences. In the Empirical Visual Aesthetics Lab we try to approach these questions from different angles by combining subjective emotion reports with bodily measures indicative of emotional processing (e.g. facial electromyography to track changes in facial emotion expression, or skin conductance resposnes to track changes in arousal) and relate these reactions to the overall aesthetic experience and evaluations (for example liking). Our studies have shown:

  • Emotions in the arts affect us on a subjective and bodily level which influences aesthetic evaluations, e.g, liking. Thus, emotions in the arts are not only represented in a perceiver via a cognitive or detached mode, as often implicated by cognitivistic art theories. Rather the emotional tone of artworks leads to congruent emotion changes on a subjective and bodily level in a perceiver. For example, perceivers show more frowning (indicator of negative emotions) in front of artworks with negative emotional content and more smiling (indicator of positive emotions) in front of artworks with emotionally positive content, as well as higher skin conductance responses (indicator of arousal) in front of more arousing artworks. This interplay is affected by individualistic variables. Higher compared to lower empathetic persons (that is the ability to pick up and understand emotions of others) report and experience stronger emotions on a subjective and bodily level. Art experts, on the other hand, presumably through a mediation of cognitive factors, show less congruency and intensity between emotions and evaluations (see e.g., Gernot Gerger, Leder, & Kremer, 2014; Gernot, Pelowski, & Leder, 2017; Leder, Gerger, Brieber, & Schwarz, 2014; Leder, Gerger, Dressler, & Schabmann, 2012).

  • Better aesthetic experiences, as indicated by higher liking, are also not clearly distinct from emotional states on a subjective as well as bodily level, again, indicating that liking is not only cognitivistic or detached. Higher liking makes participants smile more and less liking leads to more frowning (G. Gerger, Leder, Tinio, & Schacht, 2011).

  • Cognitive factors (e.g., through better understanding, higher fluency or higher expertise) readily influence the interplay of emotions and aesthetic evaluations (Forster, Leder, & Ansorge, 2013; Gernot Gerger & Leder, 2015; Leder, Carbon, & Ripsas, 2006).

  • If an experience is considered as aesthetic this seems to allow for more mixed emotional states, which might be an exploratory basis of a seemingly paradox-that negative emotions in the arts are sometimes enjoyed. More strongly activating an art schema, by for example telling participants a stimulus is “art,” or by selecting participants with higher art expertise, may lead to reports of more enjoying emotional negative content more, which is accompanied by more smiling. At the same time negative emotion indicators (frowning, emotion reports) are hardly affected (Gernot Gerger et al., 2014; Leder et al., 2014) showing that felt negativity does not go away but can be more positively experienced in an aesthetic context.

  • Finally, these empirical findings provide the background for advances in the theoretical development of understanding emotions in the arts (Leder & Nadal, 2014; M. Pelowski, 2015; Matthew Pelowski et al., 2017).


Forster, M., Leder, H., & Ansorge, U. (2013). It Felt Fluent, and I Liked It: Subjective Feeling of Fluency Rather Than Objective Fluency Determines Liking. Emotion, 13(2), 280-289. doi:10.1037/a0030115

Gerger, G., & Leder, H. (2015). Titles change the aesthetic appreciations of paintings. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9.

Gerger, G., Leder, H., & Kremer, A. (2014). Context effects on emotional and aesthetic evaluations of artworks and IAPS pictures. Acta Psychologica, 151(0), 174-183. doi:

Gerger, G., Leder, H., Tinio, P. P. L., & Schacht, A. (2011). Faces versus Patterns: Exploring aesthetic reactions using facial EMG. Psychology of Aesthetics Creativity and the Arts, 5(3), 241-250. doi:10.1037/a0024154

Gernot, G., Pelowski, M., & Leder, H. (2017). Empathy, Einfühlung, and aesthetic experience: the effect of emotion contagion on appreciation of representational and abstract art using fEMG and SCR. Cognitive Processing, 1-19.

Konecni, V. J. (2015). Emotion in Painting and Art Installations. American Journal of Psychology, 128(3), 305-322.

Leder, H., Carbon, C. C., & Ripsas, A. L. (2006). Entitling art: Influence of title information on understanding and appreciation of paintings. Acta Psychologica, 121(2), 176-198.

Leder, H., Gerger, G., Brieber, D., & Schwarz, N. (2014). What makes an art expert? Emotion and evaluation in art appreciation. Cognition and Emotion, 28(6), 1137-1147. doi:10.1080/02699931.2013.870132

Leder, H., Gerger, G., Dressler, S., & Schabmann, A. (2012). How art is appreciated. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(1), 2-10. doi:10.1037/a0026396

Leder, H., & Nadal, M. (2014). Ten years of a model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments: The aesthetic episode - Developments and challenges in empirical aesthetics. British Journal of Psychology, 105(4), 443-464. doi:10.1111/bjop.12084

Pelowski, M. (2015). Tears and transformation: feeling like crying as an indicator of insightful or "aesthetic" experience with art. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01006

Pelowski, M., Markey, P. S., Forster, M., Gerger, G., & Leder, H. (2017). Move me, astonish me… delight my eyes and brain: The Vienna Integrated Model of top–down and bottom–up processes in Art Perception (VIMAP) and corresponding affective, evaluative, and neurophysiological correlates. Physics of Life Reviews.

Scherer, K. R. (2005). What are emotions? And how can they be measured? Social Science Information,, 44(4), 695-729. doi:10.1177/0539018405058216



Matthew Pelowski:

Helmut Leder: