Our Senses and Art

Have you ever been on one of those 4D rides at an amusement park? Not only do you experience the film 3D (because you are wearing those stylish 3D glasses), but there is a supposed fourth dimension which includes water being sprayed on you or the feeling of bugs crawling up your leg simultaneous to the corresponding scenes in the film. While the experience is diverting, do the additional effects enhance or detract from our aesthetic experience? If the purpose is to draw us in to the imaginary world of the film by stimulating more of our senses, I’m afraid it has the opposite result. Just as we are about to enter the imaginary world of the film, the shock of touch calls us back to the real world. We may try to enter into the fantasy world of “Shrek”, for instance, but are jolted back by a spray of cold water on our legs! As a result, the experience becomes awkward and disjointed diminishing the aesthetic experience.[ref]Though it falls short as an aesthetic experience, I still enjoy the ride![/ref] This may simply be a personal preference or it may actually relate to how our senses interact with art.

In Robert Wood’s “Introduction” to Placing Aesthetics, he observes that seeing and hearing are the primary senses used in fine arts. By listing off the primary forms of the fine arts: prose, poetry, music, dance, architecture, sculpture and painting, we can agree with his observation that each of them are experienced through either sight or sound (or both). Wood references a few obscure arts that do have other senses such as the culinary arts or perfume making, but we do not usually associate those with fine arts. Wood questions the reason for this emphasis: “What is there about seeing and hearing that sets off their field of operation from that of the other senses?”[ref]Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 19.[/ref] He suggests that the other senses (taste, smell and touch) are proximity senses; in other words, those senses give us information about an object which is close to us and as a result, produce an immediate sensual experience. The proximity senses relate directly to the body: for example, when we smell, the odor enters through the nose; when we taste, the food enters the mouth; when we touch, the object must come in contact with our body. With seeing and hearing, however, though sight is done with the eyes and hearing with the ears, the experience and reaction takes place more in our mind. We do not have a “somatic self-experience,” as Wood puts it, and thus, these senses can be considered away from the body or distant senses.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] The distance created between the body and the aesthetic experience by these senses allows the participants to transcend to something above a bodily experience. Participants can engage and connect with the universal world through the ideas referenced in the art. Art, then, is primarily through the senses of sight and sound because it provides us with a deeper, more meaningful experience and pushes us to think upon ideas that are bigger than ourselves.

Think, for example, of reading a good novel. We use our sense of sight to read, but the words on the page are not the form of art in itself. The art is actually found in the imaginary world. The words from the novel paint the world in our minds and we transcend to this place as we read. The better the descriptions and the more relatable the characters, the more we are able to truly engross ourselves in this imaginary world. The sense of sight then uses a real object to call us to an imaginary world which includes universal ideas. As we go deeper into the imaginary world, we connect ourselves more to these universal ideas. If we attempted to use the same techniques found in the 4D theatre experience while reading a good novel, our experience would immediately change. What if we were able to touch the texture of the clothes of the characters or smell the food described in a dinner scene? I would argue that these physical elements would only distract and detract from the aesthetic experience. The novel carries the reader to an imaginary world and the proximate senses, most likely, will only bring him or her back to the real world.

Could incorporating all the senses ever be beneficial to our aesthetic experience? There may be times where, though it is an aesthetic experience, the purpose is not to carry us into the universal or imaginary realm but, rather, to call us to something in the present and real world.[ref]Certainly, good art, which may carry us away to the imaginary world in the moment, will also encourage us to change our present reality. Its connection to the universal ideas can be a powerful motivator for reform.[/ref] In high mass, all of our senses are incorporated: we are listening to the music, touching and tasting the bread and the wine, smelling the incense, reading the Scriptures on the page and seeing the beauty of the art in the cathedral around us. Here it seems that our experience is enhanced because we are able to worship more fully – with all of our body and our mind completely engaged. The purpose of the service is not for us to transcend to an imaginary world, but to fully dedicate all of our being in the present world and in that present moment to God.

The emphasis, then, on the senses of sight and sound in the fine arts is not arbitrary, but goes hand in hand with the usual purposes of the fine arts: to turn us out of ourselves toward universal ideas and to connect us to an imaginary world. There are some aesthetic experiences which successfully use the proximity senses, such as a church service, but here the purpose of such an aesthetic experience differs from the norm.

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