Afterglow of art.

Originally written for submission to a Yorkshire Art Journal asking for work on the theme “Afterglow”

When we look at a ‘work of art ‘ we often have a feeling of pleasure that remains with us for some time. Recalling the work we recall the pleasure. We can say that the work has produced an afterglow, by definition a feeling of pleasure or a favourable impression that remains after a positive experience.[1]

The experience of the ‘afterglow ‘ of a work of art seems a fairly simple thing. A piece either ‘works’ for us or it doesn’t, we get it or we don’t.

Experiencing such an afterglow can be considered as a merely sentimental   emotional reaction to a work of art , it does not take into consideration the practical and theoretical worth of the work.

We could argue that a great work of art produces an ‘afterglow’, and in a circular argument that if there is no ‘afterglow’ then the work is inferior. Yet we know from personal experience that not all works that are described as ‘great art’ produce this effect on us.

As an eager first time tourist to Paris I went to see the Mona Lisa. I found this painting did little for me but around the corner I glimpsed a small Ingres nude ‘ The Bather ‘. This painting made a far greater impact on me than the Mona Lisa and has given me continuing pleasure.

Conversely we can react with pleasurable emotion to some visual work that can only be considered as sentimental, lightweight, and trivial.[2]

In everyday language we will often refer to a work of art where this strong feeling is produced as ‘beautiful’. This short-hand way of referring to a work initially seems satisfactory, it is easily understood. The Wikipedia definition of   Beauty is ‘a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction’.[3]

. A number of philosophers have investigated the idea of beauty .

……………… there is no consensus on the nature of beauty. Kant’s understanding of            beauty was predicated on an attitude of “disinterested contemplation” ,    whereas     Friedrich Nietzsche roundly dismissed this notion and underlined the impact of       sensual attraction . For the poet John Keats, beauty equaled truth , while Stendhal, the French novelist, characterized beauty as the “promise of happiness”  . More recently, Elaine Scarry described beauty as an urge to repeat .[4]

Clearly the idea of beauty is impossible to define accurately or satisfactorily yet we continue to use the term, and assume that we all understand what is meant.

The Stendahl Effect is the most extreme version of an emotional reaction to a work of art.

The condition is named after the 19th century French author Stendhal, who wrote of feeling utterly overwhelmed by the Renaissance masterpieces he saw during a trip to Florence in 1817.

“As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground,” Stendhal, whose real name was Marie-Henrie Beyle, recorded in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio.[5]

Stendhal Syndrome has been described as a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations in people who are exposed to extraordinary artistic achievement, whether it is paintings or sculptures. [6] The ultimate afterglow.

It has been reported that Italian scientists are investigating this phenomena but it is not clear to what end apart from confirming the existence of the phenomena.

Scientific investigation of the perception of beauty is also undertaken in the field of neuroaesthetics, ‘the scientific study of the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of a work of art.’[7]Endeavouring to identify the parts of the brain that recognise ‘beauty’. Which seems to require an accepted definition of ‘beauty’.

It is generally understood that making music, dancing and making art all lead to the production in the body of endorphins – the neurotransmitters that lead in part to our feelings of well being. There appears to be no proven link between looking at art and the production of endorphins[8],although given the pleasurable feelings of the ‘afterglow’ it seems highly likely that they occur.

Philosophical discussion and scientific investigation of our physical reactions do not alter the fact that we can have a strong emotional reaction to particular works of art and that we carry that reaction away with us in the form of an ‘afterglow’.

At a personal level our emotional reaction to an art work appears to be fairly instantaneous and un-complicated. We know, because our responses vary from those of other people, that some of this reaction depends on our individual histories and experiences. Hichem Naar has written at length about the intersection of emotion and art and the problems that he sees in discussing this area.[9]

What initially seemed to be a simple, immediate and personal personal experience of the ‘afterglow’ from an art work clearly involves a very complicated scientific and philosophical explanation.

Perhaps the last word on the topic remains with poet Ian McMillan . In speaking of Brass Band music he said its attraction was because it   ‘by-passed the brain and went direct to the soul’[10] Maybe when we experience an ‘afterglow’ from a work of art it has by-passed our brain and gone direct to our soul.

[1] Shorter oxford Dictionary

[2] Consider the popularity of Cute cats on Youtube.


[4]   Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty Bevil R. Conway mail, Alexander Rehding   Published: March 19, 2013





[9] For a full discussion of this area see his article ‘Art and Emotion’

[10] Radio 4 , 26/12/2014,

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