Mixed messages: engaging the senses in art
In the modern world, art is overwhelmingly visual. Whether it is considered an object of beauty, a work of genius, an historical artefact, a creative revelation, a valuable commodity, or a political statement, an artwork is assumed to be directed to the eyes. This is held to be true not only of ﬂat paintings hanging on walls but also of three-dimensional sculptures, and, indeed, of all artefacts considered as aesthetic objects, whether Navajo sand paintings, Japanese tea bowls or Medieval tapestries. As soon as something is classiﬁed as art, its non-visual qualities are suppressed, and, as trained spectators, we know that the right thing to do is to stand back and look at it. This single-sensed understanding of art, although it has deep roots in
Western thought, only reached its full fruition in the modern period. Handmade and hands-on culture dominated in the pre-industrial world and art was part of that culture. The artist was a craftsman (or woman) and craftwork was appreciated by how it felt, as well as by how it looked. The intricately carved
wood-and stonework of the Middle Ages speaks of this emphasis on tactile values. Paintings, as visually-oriented as they seem to us today, also partook of this hands-on culture. In fact, many paintings decorated objects that were meant to be handled, such as books and chests. The paintings themselves invited inquiring and desiring touches through their illusory representations of three-dimensional reality. Furthermore, in an era in which colours were attributed healing properties and in which brightly-dyed cloths were often expensive and rare, the rich colouring of paintings had a strong tactile appeal. People wanted hands-on contact with luxurious and powerful hues (Classen 2012: ch. 6). Touching religious images – which constituted a large part of premodern art – seemed to provide physical contact with the divine. This was an extension of the practice of touching saintly relics, which was believed to confer both good health and good fortune. The beneﬁts to be gained by simply looking at a statue or a picture of a saint could not compare with the direct transfer of sacrality believed to be eﬀected through a devout touch. We ﬁnd evidence of such tactile appreciation of art taking place not only in
churches and private collections, but also in the early museums of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as the Ashmolean in Oxford and the British Museum in London. Some of this hands-on exploration was grounded in contemporary scientiﬁc notions of the importance of sensory investigation. According to the seventeenth-century empirical philosopher Robert Hooke, the range of qualities to be examined in an object included:
Sonorousness or Dulness. Smell or Taste … Gravity, or Levity. Coarseness, or Fineness. Fastness, or Looseness. Stiﬀness, or Pliableness. Roughness, or Brittleness. Claminess, or Slipperiness.