Generally speaking, the concept of ‘art’ is almost always associated with the word ‘beautiful’. So many of us consider the most popular art to be that which is a perfect unification of colour, line, texture and subject matter – a stunning human face, a breathtaking landscape; a satisfying pattern of abstraction. This goes hand in hand with the stereotype of an art gallery as a peaceful place with light classical music playing, and a few genteel gallery attendants floating around to speak to us in profound, hushed tones. However… It seems that so many of us are far more attracted to the dark, twisted works of art, that unsettle or play to our fears; Stephen King’s novels, the Black Mirror and American Horror Story Netflix series, Edvard Munch’s Scream painting, and countless other horrifying works of art and culture, are often household names. For this reason, today’s blog is going to be investigating why many of us are drawn to art that is horrifying or disturbing, over and above the simply beautiful.
The human fascination with horror is longstanding, but its significance as part of western popular culture snowballed in the 19th century. For Europe, this was a century of profound socio-political change, which fostered widespread psychological disturbance and anxiety. The cataclysmic realities of the French Revolution; the advances in science and technology that came with the Industrial Revolution; Nietzsche’s assertion that “God is dead”; and developments in psychology that investigated the disturbing workings of the mind – all contributed to a population that was, at once, terrified and fascinated with their contemporary world. This offers many parallels to our contemporary world. With the ongoing global conflicts; the degradation of the earth through climate change; the fast-paced developments of AI technologies; the jarring domination of social media; and the overwhelming sense of uncertainty that encapsulates our future – has fed into our current climate of mass fear and anxiety too (excuse us whilst we have a brief, existential crisis…)
The result of our fear/fascination is that we seek an outlet for it in our cultural world. The real world is so out of our control, that we seek to get our head around things through art. We can experience the existential thrill of terrible things, in the controlled and wholly safe environment of an art gallery or cinema. This might be why the western canon of art and popular culture is saturated with so many disturbing, twisted works.
With this in mind, we want to show you a couple of our own artists, who play to our fears through their art.
Human fear is a very psychological thing. If something is openly and overtly scary it seems that we have the ability to rationalise it quickly – we see and understand it, and so we can limit our fears to the pragmatic realm of self-defence. What we are really susceptible to, however, is the disturbing and the ‘uncanny’. The ‘uncanny’ is that which ignites fear and superstition by fusing together the normal and the freakishly abnormal. For example we walk into a room in our home and are convinced that we see a person sitting on our sofa… we move closer and it’s just a coat. We are left unsettled by the feeling that an intruder has just appeared and vanished in the blink of an eye – despite the fact that the intruder never really existed
It is this form of fear that Georgia Green plays to in her Residue Amber 1 & 2. At first glance we are met with a board of bright yellow; the colour that is generally perceived to be lighthearted and happy. As the eye adjusts to the painterly streaks and fading strength of colour, the disembodied face of a child appears. The eye adjusts and readjusts, to discern whether this face is simply a figment of the imagination – but its form only strengthens. Not only is the optical trick of this unexpected child unsettling, the painting’s connection to the words ‘residue’ and ‘amber’ are also deeply unnerving. ‘Amber’ connects this child to the idea of a living creature’s anatomy, perfectly fossilised as a translucent gemstone; and ‘residue’ suggests the last remains of something that has disappeared. Therefore, this painting suggests that this disembodied face of a child is the ‘residue’ of something (or someone) long gone, fossilised in front of us. Now that’s a disturbing idea…
Thus, simply through her arrangement of colour and form, Green is able to ignite genuine fear in us – which some may find harrowing, and others will find tantalizing.
Michaela McManus also ignites a gradually developing feeling of fear and the uncanny in her viewers. Her mixed media works explore the fluidity of memory, calling attention to the epistemic idea that as soon as a present moment transitions into a memory it fades and mutates; this draws attention to our own mortality, which ignites psychological disturbance – a subtler, arguably more effective form of fear than a jump-scare in a horror movie. There is nothing inherently terrifying about the images she composes. Rather, her subtle contrasts between photography and layers of paint, give her work a gorgeous, abstracted effect. However, this contrasting of mediums equally fuels a sense of the uncanny. For example, in Untitled I the photographic faces – faded to various degrees, through her analogue photography process – are offset with blank, painted faces. This side to side comparison between faces full of life and those sucked of identity, vividly draws attention to the aforementioned disturbing element of memory, and time passing. Further to this, in Untitled II, McManus’ use of reddish-pink tones for rendering the form of the child – contrasting with the more widely monochromatic scene – gives the impression of living flesh and blood to an otherwise fading form of a human being. This, again, play to the disturbing idea of the brevity of human life. This may not ignite the kind of fear that makes us run away screaming (well… maybe it does for some of us), but it plays to our deep psychological fears, leaving us feeling profoundly unsettled.
So, not all gorgeous art is stunning portraits of beautiful people and cheerful landscapes. Sometimes (in fact, often), our favourite art is harrowing or horrifying. This is because, paradoxically, we acquire immense pleasure from experiencing fear from the comfort of our relatively safe and controlled environment.
Yet again, thank you for reading – and if you’re interested in finding out more about our artists and their incredible work, check out some more of our blog posts here!