Saturday, 2 June 2012

Evaluating the Sensuous

"Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine – good God, how fine. It went down soft, pulpy, slushy, oozy – all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry." –John Keats

Meaning, or “content”, as it is often described, is certainly a primary dimension of artworks but it would be a mistake to consider it as the primary dimension. Whilst art is undoubtedly a realm of significations, meanings and associations it is also a realm of the sensuous: of the profound variety and variability of physical qualities and their exquisite influence upon our senses. Artworks are formed through physical engagement with the stuff of the world and this stuff gives texture, substance and colour to experience. Indeed it is impossible to conceive of experience as something divorced from its physical causes and forms. To be without our senses would be precisely to be denied experience, since experience is surely the very stuff of sense impulses triggered and stimulated by the world around us. Without it would be to exist as an entirely disembodied consciousness in the most profoundly isolated and terrifying emptiness imaginable, with nothing but our memories and thoughts for company.

An education in the arts, at its very best, seeks to sensitise students to the subtleties and nuances of process and material, to encourage and inspire a deep familiarity with the extraordinary potential of sensory experience and to instil a sensitivity to the importance of inflection and an appreciation of the pleasures of lingering with and savouring the vast spectacle of the sensuous.

Grand ideals indeed, but are students aware that these are amongst the ‘objectives’ that their education sets out to instil and where exactly are they, or their equivalents, explicitly stated? - certainly not in the Grading Criteria, Learning Outcomes or even in the benchmark statements of the Quality Assurance Agency. How then, are the sensuous qualities of artworks to be evaluated, or rather, how might the sensuous qualities of artworks be evaluated fairly and, in order to do so, might it be necessary - or even possible - to establish meaningful and applicable criteria?

“In addition to interpretation, critics almost always make judgements about the quality of the work. Such judgements are statements about the merits of what has been seen, not statements about matters of preference. Judgements, such as “I think this is a good piece of work,” can be debated. Preferences, such as “I like this painting,” are not debatable; they are matters of choice.” –Elliot Eisner

This aspect of debatability - and the scrutiny it implies - is crucial, but in order for debate to proceed the discussion must address itself to the reasons that led to any judgements made. The more consistent and widely applicable these reasons, the more they are likely to approach what we might consider to be criteria: standards or principles by which judgements are qualified. But when it comes to sensuous experience are criteria really of any use in forming opinions? Surely we simply respond instinctively to the things we like, dislike or hate; to the things and experiences that impact upon our senses and emotions?

Certainly we are primed with instinctive reactions towards various phenomena and these instinctive responses may be relatively universal but they are also relatively unsophisticated. Just as often, perhaps significantly more so, our responses are informed and conditioned by prior experience and this allows us to judge similar experiences directly and immediately without having to abstract ourselves from the immanent sensation of embodied experience. Keat’s didn’t apply criteria to his nectarine, at least, he didn’t consciously deliberate in-the-moment over the specific qualities of his experience. To have done so would have distracted him from the fullness of experience. His evaluation – if we can call it that - is retrospective and clearly seeks not simply to describe the experience but to celebrate it by inducing, as far as possible, a palpable evocation through the eloquent flow of precisely woven form.

Could we formulate criteria for the evaluation of nectarines? No doubt, and it seems likely that these criteria would probably capture much that Keats sought to distil (fruit growers and competition judges probably already use such criteria). Could we create criteria for fruit in general? Possibly, but this would pose a much more challenging task and the criteria formed would likely have little value to the individual nectarine grower.

So, what possible value could criteria have for that impossibly diverse and bizarre form of fruit known as art? And does this mean that we have no means to fairly evaluate the sensuous qualities of art? Moreover, might the relative lack of emphasis and acknowledgement of the sensuous in art school Assessment Criteria and Learning Outcomes be responsible for a growing indifference and lack of awareness of one of art’s most vital attributes?

“How should we develop students' unassessable qualities? Should we refrain from developing them because we can't measure them?” –Phil Race 


Veronika Geiger said...

Do you think the sensuous aspect is missing as an independent criteria because it is not considered as one? Or do you think the absence is a result of conventions that are not questioned?

Who would you recommend to read on this subject, I would like to know more about it?

J. Hamlyn said...

Both! And they both derive from the same source: that the sensuous is about as far from anything academic as it’s possible to get and therefore academia has a huge struggle to quantify or accommodate something so resolutely qualitative.

In terms of reading on this subject, I guess most artists that are interested in such things tend to turn to phenomenology and the post Husserlian lineage: Edith Stein, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas etc. They certainly don’t make for easy reading and I am very far indeed from being an expert on any of them – probably for that very reason. Nonetheless a popular art school favourite is “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachellard. I’d recommend skipping the introduction though because it's also heavy going and doesn’t really set the tone for what is a fantastic meditation on the familiar and the overlooked – you can always come back to the intro once you’ve got a flavour of the rest.

If anyone else has some suggestions I'd be really interested too. ?

Veronika Geiger said...

Thanks for the suggestions!

It's a completely different genre, but I would suggest Inger Christensen. 'Letter in April' is a really good book. She knows exactly how to describe the sensuous in words I think.

J. Hamlyn said...

You've reminded me of a book by Colette called "Earthly Paradise". It's absolutely ages since I read it but I recall that it also describes the world in very sensuous prose. Proust too of course and Rilke - oh yes this list could go on and on if we include poetry.

TOR said...

There is not enough poetry.

J. Hamlyn said...

You should see this Tor:

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