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some thoughts on aesthetics (7) : embodied perception

In my last post, I looked at my experience of beauty in Grayson Perry’s pot Precious Boys. I want to go on today, in the last post in this series, to think about beauty in the narrative and emotional content of works of art, and about the felt connection between the viewer and the work.

It helps to start with considering what we think “beauty” is. We are mistaken to attempt to try to fix “beauty” down into substance or thing. John Dewey is helpful here, because as we saw in a previous post, he takes experience as a basis for his aesthetic theory. John Dewey argues against philosophical notions that lead to

“the ivory tower of “Beauty” remote from all desire, action and stir of emotion.”

Dewey, Art as Experience, 1934

He argues that we need to resist the effect that Kant’s philosophy has had of making “beauty” as a quality (an adjective) into “beauty” as an essence (a noun); thereby fixing it into something static, and taking it out of the arena of emotional experience.

Siri Hustvedt is another wonderfully illuminating writer that we can draw on here. She is generally interested in what happens between people; and again we are in the territory of events or encounters rather than things. She points us towards the work of the twentieth century philospher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose Phenomenology of Perception brings the focus of philosophy to lived bodily experience. His work avoids the difficulties of Cartesian dualism (discussed in an early post) by arguing that at root, perception is not something that happens to a passive subject,

“but rather, [is] pre-reflective communication (“dialogue”) between the perceived world and the perceiving body-subject.”

Langer, M. (1989). Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of perception: a guide and commentary: p.158.

In other words, that lived experience is a

“continuous dialectical exchange with the world and other incarnate subjectivities”

Langer, M. (1989). Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of perception: a guide and commentary: p150.

In describing perception as participation, Merleau-Ponty is pointing out that, unlike in the world of Anthony Gormley’s discreet and isolated figures in Another Place, ours is a world of objects and other beings which is necessarily always met. [The meeting-point between people being the ground for our common moral life and shared values.]

To return to Siri Husdvedt, in her series of essays “Living, Thinking, Looking”, she uses this idea of “embodied perception” to give us a possible way of thinking about the “power” and “profundity” of beauty that is referred to by Grayson Perry (see previous post). In an essay called “Embodied Visions”, she points out that our identity is constructed through our mirroring of each other:

“The discovery of human mirror systems in neuroscience underscores what many psychologists and philosophers have long postulated about the dialectical relation between self and other, and this unconscious neuronal firing is at work in human beings whether we are looking at a real person, at a photograph of a person, or at a painting of a person. Furthermore, these shared systems that match an action and the perception of the same action are also involved in prediction, in what the movement is for. All of this takes place un- or subconsciously. The mutuality that happens between people is indisputably real, and it cannot develop in isolation. What becomes an I is embedded in a you. We are inherently social beings…..”

Hustvedt, S.(2012) Living, thinking, looking : p336-354

In the lived experience of Grayson Perry’s work, the decorative and narrative elements are not separable. The viewer’s response to the work, including ‘oh, how beautiful!’, is attached to the artist’s integrity: the honesty of his account of his inner world. And of course, through his act of sharing, it is apparent that his personal account is something with universal significance, something which comes out to meet the viewer, and becomes a part of our shared world. As Hustvedt says,

“the object reflects us, not in the way a mirror gives our faces and bodies back to us. It reflects the vision of the other, of the artist, that we have made our own because it answers something within us that we understand is true. This truth may be only a feeling …. but it must be there for the enchantment to happen – that excursion into the you that is also I.”

Hustvedt, S.(2012) Living, thinking, looking : p354.

Sources, & resources for further research and reading:

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

Langer, M. (1989). Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of perception: a guide and commentary. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

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

Klein, J (2009) : Grayson Perry. Thames & Hudson.

Victoria Miro Gallery website : https://www.victoria-miro.com/artists/12-grayson-perry/

Gormley, A. (1997) Another Place [Sculpture / Installation]. Crosby Beach, Sephton Metropolitan Borough Council.

Anthony Gormley website, “Another Place” 1997: https://www.antonygormley.com/projects/item-view/id/230#p22

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