THE AESTHETIC GAZE: FOR AN AESTHETICS OF THE "OTHER" SENSES
"Beyond the Aesthetic Gaze" is a project dedicated to exploring the role of the proximity senses - smell, taste and touch - in Western and non-Western art and aesthetics. The project is based in the Departments of Sociology and Anthropology and Art History at Concordia University, Montreal and is funded by a grant from the Fonds pour la Formation de Chercheurs et l'Aide à la Recherche of Quebec. The researchers include Anthony Synnott, David Howes, Janice Helland, Brian Foss, Joan Acland, Constance Classen, Jennifer Fisher, Jim Drobnick, and Carole Scheffer, among others. Collectively, the researchers are known as the Concordia Sensoria Research Team or CONSERT.
Brief Summary of the Project
Due to the visual emphasis in Western art history, the proximity senses have long been marginalized from aesthetic discourse. Despite such "official" marginalization, however, these senses have arguably played a significant role in the aesthetics of popular culture: from the practice of "manual" crafts such as weaving and carving to the multi-sensory aesthetics of the carnival. The visualist façade of formal art has itself been cracked by a number of artists from the nineteenth century on, who have attempted to engage the non-visual senses through art. When one examines the aesthetics of non-Western cultures, furthermore, one often finds that smell, taste and touch are considered important media of artistic expression. By investigating the aesthetic elaboration of the proximity senses across cultures and classes, the Concordia Sensoria Research Team (CONSERT) intends to enlarge conventional visual models of the aesthetic and bring to the fore previously suppressed aspects of aesthetic experience. This investigation will constitute the first comprehensive study of the role of smell, taste and touch in art.
Background to the Project
In recent years there has been a growing interest in the social construction of the senses in different periods and cultures. The literature on this subject has brought out the multiplicity of ways in which perception serves not only to gather sense data but also as a vehicle for the apprehension of cultural values. The majority of this literature, however, particularly within the field of art history, has focused on the cultural elaboration of the sense of sight to the exclusion of the other senses (see Hal Foster, ed., Vision and Visuality; Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century). The potential role of the proximity senses in the production and appreciation of art has been neglected, due in large part to the long-standing dictum in Western culture and philosophy that the "lower" senses cannot be media of aesthetic experience (Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View; Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking).
While excluded from the aesthetics of "high" culture, smell, taste and touch have remained vitally important to popular culture. A number of studies have explored the vibrant life of the proximity senses in the popular imaginary from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World; Stallybrass and White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression; A. Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant). Such studies have indicated that the experience of the multisensory plenitude of the fair and carnival - along with that of the manual labours of everyday life - formed a crucial element of working class aesthetics. In the twentieth century the distinction between high culture aesthetics and popular taste continues to manifest itself in many cases as a distinction between the "higher" and "lower" senses: visual rationality and visceral sensation (Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction; Anthony Synnott, The Body Social).
Defying the visual bias of art history, a number of artists and writers since the nineteenth century have concerned themselves with the possibility of engaging the proximity senses in art. In 1836, for example Theophile Thoré theorized in "L'Art des parfums" that "one can express all of creation with perfumes as well as one can with line and colour". Attempts to put this theory into practice would later be made by the Symbolists, who were interested in creating a "syn-aesthetics" of sensory correspondences. In the early twentieth-century the Futurists took over the Symbolist interest in multisensoriality and invented art forms for the proximity senses (e.g. F.T Marinetti, The Futurist Cookbook). These developments are reviewed by Constance Classen in The Color of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination.
At the end of the twentieth century, a number of contemporary artists continue to explore and extend the bounds of sense by producing works with tactile and olfactory elements - from heated coils (Jana Sterbak) to synthetic body odours (Clara Ursitti) - often with the explicit aim of challenging the hegemony of sight in art (see Jennifer Fisher, Relational Contingencies). At the same time, incipient attempts have been made to theorize a postmodern aesthetics of the proximity senses. For example, in Applied Grammatology, Gregory Ullmer has suggested that the philosopher Jacques Derrida's project to employ smell and taste as the sensorial basis for an alternative model of writing may be expanded to include the production of art.
In order to contextualize and counter the ocularcentrism of conventional Western aesthetics, it is helpful to introduce aesthetic models from outside the West for comparative purposes. The aesthetics of non-Western cultures have traditionally been framed within the West in terms of Western categories of visual arts or musicology, with little or no consideration given to the possible aesthetic role of the proximity senses. An instance of this is provided by Navajo sandpaintings which have been incorporated into Western museums and aesthetic discourse as objects for the gaze, while for the Navajo their tactile qualities are fundamental (see Howes and Classen, "Sounding Sensory Profiles" in David Howes, ed., The Varieties of Sensory Experience).
Sensations of touch, taste and smell, in fact, far from being excluded, are often significant elements within the art and aesthetics of non-Western cultures. Thus, for example, in the indigenous cultures of Latin America, one finds such traditional aesthetic practices as making edible "art" for festivals and weaving scented baskets. Yet when traditional non-Western multisensory works enter the domain of Western aesthetics, they have customarily been reduced to the purely visual, as mentioned above, or marginalized as "primitive" and "folk". They have also, however, helped to enlarge conventional notions of the cultural and sensorial bounds of art by stimulating interest in alternative modes of aesthetic experience.
Members of CONSERT
Joan Acland has carried out extensive research on the sensory and indigenous symbolic sources of Douglas Cardinal's architecture. Cardinal is most famous for his design of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. She has also taught various courses on the senses in art, with particular reference to women and the senses, and the multisensoriality of First Nations art. The latter subject constitutes the principal focus of her research in the context of CONSERT as well.
Constance Classen has examined the cultural construction of the senses in Western and non-Western societies, as well as the interplay of sensory models in situations of cultural contact (Classen 1990a, 1990b, 1991, 1992, 1993a, 1993b, Classen, Howes and Synnott 1994). For purposes of the present project, she focusses on a particular issue in the history of the senses: the impact of non-Western multisensoriality on the visualist discourse of Western aesthetics.
Jim Drobnick has written on the multiple uses of olfaction in contemporary art, especially as it relates to discourses of hygiene, realism, memory, political intervention and personal and cultural identity (Drobnick 2000, 1999, 1998; Drobnick and Fisher 1998, 1997). As a member of CONSERT he will continue exploring the roles that smell has played in modern art, and contemporary installation, performance and architecture.
Jennifer Fisher has written on haptic sensations in aesthetic perception both in museum spaces and in contemporary artwork (Fisher 1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1999, 2000). Her experience as an editor for Parachute art magazine has provided her with an extensive knowledge of contemporary art and the practices of museum display. Through her participation in CONSERT, Jennifer Fisher continues her work on the proximity senses in contemporary art practice and on the efforts of certain museums to engage the public's non-visual senses.
Brian Foss has written on British, Canadian and Italian art of the twentieth century, focussing on issues of war, memory industrialization, and modernity (Foss 1989a, 1989b, 1990, 1994, forthcoming). By examining how the proximity senses were elaborated in such modern art movements as Futurism for the present project, Foss will add a new dimension to his groundbreaking studies of the dominant themes of twentieth-century art history.
Janice Helland has studied issues of gender, esotericism and craft in the work of selected nineteenth and twentieth century artists (Helland 1989, 1990/91, 1994, 1996). Her involvement in the present project builds on her interests in alternative forms of expression to mainstream art, the marginalization of crafts in Western art history, and feminist critiques of the male gaze.
David Howes has played a formative role in developing the new field of the "anthropology of the senses" (Howes 1991a, 1991c). In his writing he has examined how the senses, and in particular smell, are represented in the myths and rituals of Melanesian and Native American cultures (Howes 1988, 1991b, Classen, Howes and Synnott 1994). The present project extends his exploration of cross-cultural variations in the construction of the sensorium into the field of aesthetics.
The director of the project, Anthony Synnott, has written extensively on the sociology of the body, with particular emphasis on the proximity senses and on popular ideologies of beauty (Synnott 1990, 1991a, 1991b, 1993, Classen, Howes and Synnott 1994). The present project combines and develops his interests in aesthetics, the proximity senses, and popular culture.
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