Why are vague paintings of unpleasant scenes incredibly disconforting?

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FancyDarcy
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Why are vague paintings of unpleasant scenes incredibly disconforting?

Post by FancyDarcy » 2018-02-03 02:23pm

So, as of right now I was just scrolling down my Quora feed, browsing the questions, as I do frequently these days. So, the feed on my page usually consists of questions like "What is an incredibly interesting/sad/frightening/etc thing that has happened to you?", and the answers to these questions are generally very fun to read. Anyway, today I saw a post titled something like "What is the most disturbing picture or painting that you ssw"? These types of questions are usually very common, and someone usually posts pictures of gore or car accidents or crime scenes that they found on the internet.

However, this time, they posted an artwork, a muddied painting consisting of green and brown. In the description they mentioned that their ex, who was a painter, had created it and it was apparently very unpleasant for them.

At first, I didn't see much, perhaps something that looked like a vagina or something, but after looking at it for longer, I saw that it looked similar to a severed animal head of some sort, maybe a coyote or a dog which was either dangling or floating. And for some strange reason, it was actually incredibly disturbing for me to look at, which is very strange, since I am rarely much upset when just looking at things like that as tall photos on the internet.

And I really don't know why, I immediately clicked it away and felt a strong sense of dread, similar to when I'm on a airplane or drank too much coffee (I don't have a automatic coffee mixer, so it's hard to get the amount of ground coffee powder just right, sometimes it's way too strong).

So I really don't know why I found that painting so interesting. I think the poster's words of "I don't know what you saw on there, and I'm not saying what I saw, although I'm just going to assume you saw it too" made it a bit creepier as well. Otherwise, I'm going to assume some sort of "subconscious vision/thought" is the answer. I wonder if there is a specific category for these types of paintings? It'd be pretty cool to actually draw one for myself.

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FancyDarcy
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Re: Why are vague paintings of unpleasant scenes incredibly disconforting?

Post by FancyDarcy » 2018-02-03 02:36pm

Here is the link to the post in question: https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-cree ... -have-seen

I really don't know why I was so excited by this one. It's really not that special.

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Re: Why are vague paintings of unpleasant scenes incredibly disconforting?

Post by Formless » 2018-02-03 06:01pm

I would think this question is why art appreciation classes exist. :P

But less sarcastically, your brain has an incredibly complex pattern recognition system that is better at what it does than any computer that we can currently build. Its also incredibly easy to trick your brain into seeing patterns and shapes that aren't actually there. In fact all art takes advantage of your brain's eagerness to see patterns where they don't exist; smileys are a good example. This :D is not a face. But your brain has a dedicated face recognition system that sees human faces in damn near anything with an identifiable pair of eyes and a mouth. Even though your conscious mind is able to figure out the trick and identify not-faces as mere artistic renderings of a face, once you've seen something as a face its hard to convince that system in your brain that it isn't a real face.

Now when people see abstract images, such as the famous Rorschach test inkblots, the brain's pattern recognition system is primed to find meaning even where there is only visual nonsense. Abstract artists know this, and the good ones learn that good abstract art isn't about throwing paint on a canvas at random but creating impressions which, to their own brains, remind them of images that stir the intended emotions in the viewer. 'course it doesn't always work because some people have different experiences and therefore don't interpret the abstraction the same way the artist meant for it to be seen, but that's an inherent limitation of abstraction. Still, just like in other visual arts, choices of color and form play a major role in this. Some colors are perceived as naturalistic (like brown) and some are inherently distressing for evolutionary reasons (like dark reds, as they remind us of blood). Form (and texture) is important because our brain sees rounded shapes as pleasant and pointy shapes as dangerous (again, probably for evolutionary reasons; see also the Bouba/Kiki effect whereby word sounds are instinctively associated with pointy or rounded shapes). Finally, when abstract art is unpleasant or creepy, its partially because it is abstract: ambiguity tends to be uncomfortable to a lot of people, especially when the piece is already invoking a sense of danger. So if a piece of abstract art seems unpleasant to you, take a closer look at the shapes inside the canvas and how round or pointy they seem to be, and what colors they are composed of.

An example of a work that is somewhat less abstract but utilizes these principles would be Picaso's cubist art, which employs a lot of the same tricks, only the images aren't fully abstract and have identifiable people and objects in them. His famous painting Gournica is unpleasant to look at, and deliberately so as it was meant to represent a bombing in the city of Gournica: the painting is mostly dark (darkness being a common fear), the shapes are sharply pointed, there are identifiable faces which are distorted and in pain, some of the stuff is impossible to identify (as would be the case in a bombed out building), and the only rounded objects in the painting are also the only ones that are brightly lit to imply some form of hope in the terrible imagery.

On the other hand, there is another cubist work by Picasso which I grew up seeing on my uncle's wall (he owned a print) which is a portrait of a woman sitting in a chair... masturbating. In this work, everything is smooth, the lines are contoured erotically, the colors are bright, and of course the woman's face is... well, again, she's masturbating, you can guess. Picasso meant for it to be a pleasant picture to look at, and assuming you can tolerate erotic imagery, he succeeds. Its all about understanding basic psychological principles of perception and putting them to work in the art to create the emotions you intend to create.

Then again, there is also a lot of abstract art that's literally just paint thrown at a canvas without any thought put into the emotional impact of the piece so that it can be sold at auction to pretentious idiots who think it looks cool. In these cases, the same could apply as above because those shapes and colors might happen to arise at random to form something pleasant or unpleasant. After all, the whole point of the Rorschach test is that nothing about them is intentional, so anything the patient sees in the inkblots says more about them than the images. Its likely that in your case, you found the piece unpleasant because someone else said they found it unpleasant. This is another psychological phenomenon we call "social priming"; basically, once that person told you their reaction to the piece, you began scrutinizing the painting for things you find disturbing, including patterns that would remind you of genitalia and predators. (Though as for myself, a vulva is hardly an unpleasant thing to look at :wink: ) Someone else, who had not been told what the artist's SO thinks of the piece, might look at it and have a completely different emotional reaction to the exact same imagery (calm, for instance; the color choices sound very much like naturalistic colors you would see in a forest). Because they are not primed to see things in the painting that are not there, they won't spend much time trying to creep themselves out over the abstractions they are looking at.
Last edited by Formless on 2018-02-03 06:05pm, edited 1 time in total.
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