From the APA Convention, Post 3: Death and Art

I'm back from the APA convention but wanted to give a few more posts on interesting talks I attended.

One such talk was Mark Landau and Jeff Greenburg's presentation on A Terror Management Perspective on Art's Psychological Function.

I've written about Terror Management Theory (TMT) before. TMT is rooted in the work of Ernest Becker and his Pulitzer-Prize winning book the Denial of Death. Following Becker, TMT suggests that we overcome our fears of death by creating cultural worldviews that imbue life with significance and create a path for literal (e.g., the religious belief in life after death) or symbolic (e.g., children, a book you publish, a building named after you) immortality. Thus, cultural worldviews become vital, from an existential standpoint, to us. Consequently, the worldview is vehemently defended in the face of threat. This is often done by denigrating persons who hold values different from our own. In short, one of the deep psychological sources of interpersonal and group friction is existential dread.

What does this have to do with art? Well, Landau noted that art often encodes, represents and portrays the symbols of our cultural worldview. If so, then death-denying dynamics are involved in art. Some examples from studies Landau noted:

1. When made to contemplate their death, subjects looked longer at iconic art (e.g., Washington crossing the Delaware) compared to symbolically neutral art (e.g., a landscape). The TMT view of this outcome: As death existentially unsettles the subjects they seek solace in the symbols of their worldview. Thus, they stare at iconic American art longer.

2. Subjects with high needs for structure, when made to contemplate their death, were more dismissive of abstract art. Again, the TMT view is that these subjects seek meaning and structure in life for existential solace. It makes them feel more in control. Thus, when made to feel existentially unsettled these subjects were dismissive of art that was formless, chaotic, and abstract. Abstract art was existentially unsettling them. Which is interesting. Might some Christians hate abstract art because it challenges a comforting worldview? Is this why so much of Christian art found in Christian bookstores is so concrete and comforting? (And thus, on artistic grounds, poor?)

3. When made to contemplate death, subjects were much more uncomfortable misusing a culturally meaningful object (e.g., using a crucifix to hammer in a nail). Again, thoughts of death imbued these objects with even more sacred meaning, leading to increased discomfort at misuse (and greater anger at others misusing the object). Landau speculated if this existential reactivity lies behind public responses to works of art like Piss Christ. That is, while some might trace their outrage at Piss Christ to anger over blasphemy the deeper psychological cause might be the fear of death.

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2 thoughts on “From the APA Convention, Post 3: Death and Art”

  1. Ummm. Never made the connection between art and death. I have always wondered why some get so upset over abstract art. Actually, the abstract can be more mysterious and can hold out the possibility that there is something new and wonderful to be discovered.

  2. Greetings - I stumbled upon this write-up and I just want to say that it's exceptionally well-written and the author should be lauded not only for so accurately reporting on the theory and findings but also for suggesting such interesting implications.
    -Mark Landau (

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