The paradox of painful art

Journal of Aesthetic Education 41 (3):59-77 (2007)
Many of the most popular genres of narrative art are designed to elicit negative emotions: emotions that are experienced as painful or involving some degree of pain, which we generally avoid in our daily lives. Melodramas make us cry. Tragedies bring forth pity and fear. Conspiratorial thrillers arouse feelings of hopelessness and dread, and devotional religious art can make the believer weep in sorrow. Not only do audiences know what these artworks are supposed to do; they seek them out in pursuit of prima facie painful reactions.Traditionally, the question of why people seek out such experiences of painful art has been presented as the paradox of tragedy. Most solutions to the paradox of tragedy assume that the reason we seek out tragedies, horror films, melodramas, and the like is because they afford pleasureful experiences. From there, theorists attempt to account for the source of this pleasure, a pleasure assumed to be had from representations of events from which we do not derive pleasure in real life. I argue that this assumption is suspect: the motive for seeking out devotional religious art, melodrama, tragedy, and some horror is not clearly to find pleasure.
Keywords paradox of tragedy  motivation  pleasure  psychological hedonism  paradox of painful art
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DOI 10.1353/jae.2007.0029
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Aaron Smuts (2011). The Feels Good Theory of Pleasure. Philosophical Studies 155 (2):241-265.
Aaron Smuts (2009). Art and Negative Affect. Philosophy Compass 4 (1):39-55.

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