some thoughts on aesthetics (5): pleasure

We looked last week at John Dewey writing on “experience”, and at a work by the Welsh artist Mary Lloyd Jones. The fact that Jones’s work was described as “inviting” brings me to think about “pleasure” in aesthetics.

Thinking about direct sensory experience and pleasure in art works has been important in aesthetics, as a way to counteract an underlying spirit of denial of the body and of sensory experience. Dewey points to a general avoidance in all of philosophy of considering sensory experience:

“Philosophic reflection has carried… indifference to qualities to the point of aversion. It has treated them as obscurations of truth, as veils cast over reality by sense.”

He criticises this relegation of sensory experience to second-place, and also criticises the oppositions of “mind and body”, “soul and matter” and “spirit and flesh”; saying that thinking in these opposites is a product of fearfulness and of a closed attitude to the future:

“The senses are the organs through which the live creature participates directly in the on-goings of the world about him. In this participation the varied wonder and splendor of this world are made actual for him in the qualities he experiences….. ”

(Dewey, 1934: 22-3)

In her book “Women Making Art”, Meskimmon points out that pleasure is not only placed in opposition to the “rational”, and given low status in the oppositions which Dewey is speaking about, but also that this is connected with “pleasure” being gendered “feminine”:

“As Terry Eagleton put it, during the eighteenth century, aesthetics came to be seen as the ‘feminine analogue’ of reason. The corollaries of this logic are now well rehearsed in feminist critiques: aesthetics and sensuality are associated with seduction, pleasure and woman (as an object of masculine, heterosexual desire) and opposed to rational, disembodied, universal knowing.”

(Meskimmon, 2003: 135)

Returning toMary Lloyd Jones’ art work, a vital aspect of it is her celebration of the pleasure of colour. The artist links colour with song, and therefore with praise. She says that

“Using colour as a musical language I try to sing the landscape. It is through paint that the language of colour can be best explored and this is why, in the face of the general rejection of mainstream art, I remain committed to the art of painting.”

(Ropek (ed), 2001:114)
Mary Lloyd Jones (2001) : Works fromThe Colour of Saying, – rehung at The Old College, Aberystwyth [my own photo]

The work contrasts vibrantly coloured individual pieces with monochromatic ones, and there is complexity in its colour; its harmonies, contrasts, clashes and discords. For example in the movement through reds, pinks and purples in the image above. The physicality of the colour can be understood by realising that response to colour is another unconscious (“pre-attentive”) form of perception, which registers immediately as emotion: “we feel colours before we can name them” (Siri Hustvedt).

The size of the pieces is also important: they are large enough to ‘surround’ the viewer, in the range of twice the size of an adult. In size, colour and material, the works refer to hand-made Welsh quilts, which have been an inspiration for Jones’ work. Like quilts, they give an immediate sense of pleasure in colour, and the association also lends a feeling of bodily comfort.

Jones’ creation of work that gives pleasure can be understood as an aspect of her work as a political act of redress. Meskimmon speaks of art-making as “a form of historical agency”, and about the “potential art has to reconceive histories”, saying that art can do this in ways that written work cannot, which is the “specificity of its intervention”. The following quote from Mary Lloyd Jones conveys how her creative process itself can be understood as an “intervention”:

“In a world dominated by Cartesian rationality and masculine logic, where only that which is measurable is given value, I wish to demonstrate through creative endeavour the importance of intuition, of lateral and irrational thought processes. Logic is not enough, and in our imbalanced culture, to seek out that which is immeasurable is important.”

(Ropek (ed), 2001: 14)
Mary Lloyd Jones (2001) : Works fromThe Colour of Saying, – rehung at The Old College, Aberystwyth [my own photo]

As well as embedding words and poetry, the artist draws on various forms of visual symbol-making, including the zig-zag, ‘v’ shaped and spiralling motifs of pre-historic rock art (to the left in the image above), since research has linked these symbols to invocations of the “goddess”.

The critical thinker Susan Sontag commented that “the earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical: art was an instrument of ritual”. Invoking the goddess in her work, Mary Lloyd Jones returns us to an older understanding of art as an act or “intervention”. Art which does something.

Sources, & resources for further research and reading:

Culture Colony (2016) Mary Lloyd Jones. At

Dewey, J. 1934. Art as Experience. London, Penguin.

Hustvedt, S.(2012) Living, thinking, looking. London, Hodder & Stoughton.

Jones, M.L. (2001) The Colour of Saying [Paintings / Installation]. Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth University.

Meskimmon, M. (2003) Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics. London: Routledge.

Ropek, E (ed.) The Colour of Saying: The Work of Mary Lloyd Jones. Llandysul: Gomer.

Sontag, S.(1964) ‘Against Interpretation’ in Fernie, E. (ed) Art History and its methods: A critical anthology. London: Phaidon

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