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Rose, G.J. (1991). Abstract Art and Emotion: Expressive Form and the Sense of Wholeness. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 39:131-156.

(1991). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39:131-156

Abstract Art and Emotion: Expressive Form and the Sense of Wholeness

Gilbert J. Rose, M.D.


This paper limits itself to abstract art the better to concentrate on the relation between the emotionally expressive power of esthetic form—apart from its narrative content—and emotional responsiveness.

The emotionally expressive power of art—not to be confused with the artist's own emotions—has to do with the way sensuous esthetic forms highlight the rhythmic changes of tension and release inherent in ordinary perceptual experience.

Tension and release are useful terms in thinking about how the perception of an esthetic structure is transformed (transduced) into feelingful psychological meanings, and contributes to the subjective sense of wholeness.

The sense of wholeness may be illusory and/pr authentic depending on the mix of elements in the individual's responsiveness. It comes about through a unified organization of tension and release, as embodied in expressive forms such as rhythm and rhyme, resonating with tension and release evoked in the observer's associations to such psychological issues as separation and reunion. Having stirred the viewer's emotional responsiveness, the art work provides a reliable "container" for the objectification of latent emotions.

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