The Experience of Art: How the Art World Moves Audiences

experience of art

Remember the last book you just couldn’t put down? Of course you do. Even now, you probably wish you were still lost in the story. The experience of art, whether it’s a gripping novel, a provocative exhibition, or an awe-inspiring performance, leaves us changed. Understanding the psychology of art’s emotional impact is key for all of us in experiential marketing, as well. As with art, the experiences we design have the power to leave an audience transformed. How does this happen?

A recent study from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley shows that an exceptional experience causes our brain to “attempt to change the mental structures that we use to understand the world.” In other words, the reason you feel different after a moving experience is that your brain is actually reworking itself. You don’t just feel transformed, you are transformed.

The Art of Buzz

How, then, does the art world use the experience of art to enhance its impact? Foremost, to get people talking about art.

Take the annual Met Gala. The Gala was established in 1948 to raise awareness for the Metropolitan Museum Art’s Costume Institute and launch their annual exhibition. Over time, it has become an anticipated blockbuster event, with international appeal for both the glitterati’s costumes on the carpet as well as the theme for the new exhibit. In fact, the red carpet has become a piece of art itself, inspiring (and often shocking) viewers all around the world, turning the most lackadaisical dresser into an instant fashion critic.

Disorientation Leads to Discovery

 Art is never content to stop at pure attention; art seeks to change the way people perceive the world. The annual International Venice Biennial is taking this on by attempting a behavioral experiment: Can art serve as a guide for how to live and how to think?

The 2019 exhibition, entitled “May You live in Interesting Times,” the name based on a supposed curse, directly asked its participants to reflect on the act of experience. As Chair Paolo Baratta explained, To us, it is important that, when entering the exhibit, the public becomes visitors, who then become viewers of the works. First, the necessary disorientation, then the involvement, followed by the discovery; it is almost a fencing drill.”

To get to that stage of discovery, organizers intentionally brought in works by artists who challenge conventional thought and embrace contradictions, artists who make viewers confront their own beliefs, and leave with a new appreciation of diverse viewpoints.

Awe Builds Connection

Not all art needs to challenge our very notions of reality, some of the most profound experiences come from works of art that leave us with eyes wide and jaws dropped, like that book you couldn’t put down. To study the effects of awe-inducing experiences, neuroscientist Beau Lotto recently studied the brains of people watching Cirque de Soleil, arguably one of the most imaginative performances out there. While his subjects took in a performance of O in Las Vegas, Lotto recorded their brain activity via EEG helmets. He found that awe links to our sense of community, history, and risk. The experience left its viewers in an emotional, altered state of consciousness, focused foremost on connection to others.

The lessons from the psychology and the experience of art are inevitably tied to our emotional awareness, triggering an expansion of our minds. Think about this next time you sit down to consider your next experiential project. Perhaps your boldest connection yet will also be your most empathic.

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