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Finding the Right Word: How to Describe the Impact of Art

Generating a common vocabulary for understanding the experience of viewing art.

Key points

  • Impactful art engagements entail complex and nuanced aesthetic emotions, which are typically difficult to measure.
  • By studying how people describe art encounters, we can better understand art’s cognitive and affective impacts.
  • Drawing on expert and lay intuitions, we generated a taxonomy of terms relevant to art engagement and mapped their relationships to each other.
Image produced by Anjan Chatterjee using Midjourney
Source: Image produced by Anjan Chatterjee using Midjourney

Co-authored with Eileen Cardillo, DPhil.

Just as tip-of-the-tongue moments provoke a unique form of frustration, finding just the right word elicits a particular kind of satisfaction. Every time we come across a new apt word without translation in English, many of us experience relief, delight, and wonder. How did we manage to convey the quality of hygge when we only had cozy?

As a neuroaesthetics researcher, I am sensitive to instances when a non-English word captures an aesthetic quality or emotion. The Japanese have wabi-sabi for the concept of finding beauty in imperfection. The Swedes refer to the wavy, road-like reflection of the moon that stretches away from us on water (mångata).

I don’t always appreciate the limits of my vocabulary until I discover the rightness with which a non-English word captures a familiar but complex and nuanced emotional experience (e.g., consider the German weltschmerz or Portuguese saudades).

Approximating the Ineffable

Traditionally, research in empirical aesthetics has concentrated on holistic rather than nuanced aesthetic evaluations of artwork, like judgments of liking, beauty, and interest. Assessments of the cognitive and emotional impact of art engagement are less common, and often focus on a single important impact like wonder or being moved (Fingerhut & Prinz, 2018; Menninghaus et al, 2015; but see, Wassiliwizky & Menninghaus, 2019).

One reason for this bias may be the widespread assumption that meaningful and profound encounters with art are difficult to describe, and even ineffable. But are they? Or is it that we lack the facility in applying language to capture complex experiences? Imperfect as it may be, we contend that language allows us to circle closer to our subjective experience.

In a recent study, we established a taxonomy of terms relevant to engagement with visual art—i.e., words describing properties of artworks and their range of cognitive and emotional impacts (Christiansen, Cardillo, & Chatterjee, 2022). To do this, we recruited a panel of five scholars from relevant disciplines—art history, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and theology—and asked them to generate candidate terms capturing descriptions of visual art and its potential impacts.

In the end, our experts generated 124 descriptive terms covering content, form, and evaluations of visual art (e.g., abstract, colorful, amateur), and 69 impact terms capturing the range of ways artworks might make a viewer think or feel (e.g., wonder, inspired, offended). We next turned to 1,000 laypeople to generate word associations to these terms in order to understand how the general public understands them in the context of viewing art.

By applying network science methods to participants’ free associations, we mapped the semantic space of our taxonomy, visually representing the similarity between terms at both fine and coarse levels of granularity. Fine-grain/lower-order networks depicted the relationships between all the terms; coarse-grained networks summarized these relationships at a higher order of abstraction. For brevity, we focus here on the results of the Impact term analyses.

Language as a Window

For the lower-order, fine-grain network, terms were clustered into 11 dimensions. Noting the three terms most central to each dimension, these were:

  1. angry, offended, disgusted
  2. upset, uncomfortable, unsettled
  3. challenged, paradoxical, curious
  4. interested, engaged, gripped
  5. edified, moralistic, transcendent
  6. enlightened, illuminated, revelatory
  7. enraptured, swept away, awe
  8. pleasure, joy, amused
  9. inspired, hopeful, uplifted
  10. empathetic, loving, intimate
  11. calm, consoled, grounded

We can think of these dimensions as distinct themes relevant to the impact of art, and the network as a visual mapping of their semantic similarity.

At a greater level of abstraction, a coarse-grained network indicated impacts can further reduce to four dimensions. The first dimension consists of terms related to enjoyable and positive affect provoked by art (calm, empathetic, pleasure). The second relates to difficult or negative affect in response to art (angry, challenged, upset).

The third relates to the intensity of the viewing experience (enraptured, interested), underscoring the importance of attentional engagement and immersion. And the fourth relates to cognitive impacts associated with deeper and more transformative art engagements (edified, enlightened, inspired).

Language as a Tool

Could this taxonomy be leveraged by empirical aesthetics researchers? We can imagine a few ways.

Foremost, our taxonomy provides a common vocabulary to query the variety and subtleties of impactful art engagements. It readily lends itself to the cataloging of artworks along these dimensions, adding precision to our experimental methods and hypotheses.

For instance, rather than study “great works of art” as a whole, our taxonomy provides a method to classify artworks along relevant properties and more fine-grained viewer outcomes. This experimental precision can bring nuance to our understanding of how great art does what it does for us.

We are also sanguine that our taxonomy can be used as a training tool to enhance art engagement. Museums typically focus on providing information about the artist and artwork to guide the experience of viewing art, but not tools to enrich a viewer’s inner experience. Just as oenology training and vocabulary can enable wine tasters to identify and articulate flavor and aroma nuances that are difficult for someone without such training, we suspect similar benefits would accrue with a rich vocabulary for aesthetic experience. The experience of discovering or beholding a favorite artist’s work in person for the first time warrants just the right words.


Christensen, A. P., Cardillo, E. R., & Chatterjee, A. (2022). What kind of impacts can artwork have on viewers? Establishing a taxonomy for aesthetic impacts. British Journal of Psychology.

Fingerhut, J., & Prinz, J. J. (2018). Wonder, appreciation, and the value of art. Progress in Brain Research, 237, 107-128.

Menninghaus, W., Wagner, V., Hanich, J., Wassiliwizky, E., Kuehnast, M., & Jacobsen, T. (2015). Towards a psychological construct of being moved. PloS one, 10(6), e0128451.

Menninghaus, W., Wagner, V., Wassiliwizky, E., Schindler, I., Hanich, J., Jacobsen, T., & Koelsch, S. (2019). What are aesthetic emotions? Psychological Review, 126(2), 171.

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