Senses and experience - non-intellectualised art

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by aplumpton, Jul 13, 2009.

  1. It is amusing to reflect on photographic art while using as basis various intellectual arguments, numerous theses (postulates is a better word), various compositional and colour "laws", and whatever else that may incite us to analyse and synthesise and prompt our reaction and our response.
    Sometimes these discussions spawn as many argumentative "descendants" as are the number of offsprings of Leif the Red in the 50 generations since his discovery of North America (c1000 AD, the Newfoundland settlement).
    While accepting some of the more rigorous philosophical reactions to the effect of art on the observer, I feel that most of our reactions come down to two simple causes - our senses and our non-art experiences.
    Taste, sight, touch, hearing, smell. We qualify each experience of these as pleasing, displeasing or neutral. What you consider tasty food is not my necessarily my experience. My taste sensors and brain processing of information are both similar and different to yours. What I hear and consider pleasing or not is in large part (but not exclusively) a function of how the different parts of my brain are "wired". Same for smell and touch, each of which has its relation to art and life (touching of sculptures, smell of wine, beer, food, etc.) and to our pleasurable human contacts, sexual and other.
    So it is not unusual that what we consider visually pleasing is rooted in our personal response to light and its reflected forms (the world about us). No two persons have exactly the same visual response. Snowflakes are all different, although all may have a sixfold symmetry.
    What I am trying to say is that these basic perceptions are what determine the value of a photograph for us, and pretty well everything else of physical nature (or physically implied values, as language, musical sounds or the subject that a photograph may project).
    Added to that is our personal experience which determines how we might react to something that otherwise pleases our visual or other senses.
    For instance, I sold two black and white pictures fairly recently (and I sell not too many) that represented two wholly different subjects. One was a scene of two gravestones in winter with their bases hollowed out of windswept snow, sort of suggesting a continuing warmth (the disappeared snow about each) of possibly two married persons who continued to be united in death. It was bought by a Chinese lady, a professor of French at a mid-west US university. Most visitors found the scene unattractive. Her friend said on leaving that she had just lost both of her parents. Her culture and peception of the image was part of her personal experience.
    Another photo was of a breakwater (multitude of cone shaped concrete masses) at an Atlantic port taken from a very low angle and including a cloud inhabited blue sky. Visually interesting, but not a photo to turn heads. The couple that bought it, rather who requested of me a larger 20 x 24 inch version, practiced rock climbing. The image meant more for them as it suggested, however peripherally, the terrain they loved to encounter.
    I feel the intellectualising of photographic art, or any art, is often overdone, and misleading. Appreciated artists are often the result of good publicity and chance. Van Gogh had neither, but he is as great as Picasso, perhaps even more so. Once famous, others spend hours to create the legend, the philosophy, the value of the artists. That often effects the perception of others.
    I wonder whether others may feel, as I do (at least today), that the primary guidelines we each have in evaluating a work of art are simply the way we personally use or interpret our senses (sight in this case) and how the personal experiences of our lives dictate what visual content may please us.
    If so, the philosophies of photographic art are either very numerous (satisfying or collating with the multitude of individual human responses) or far simpler than we might imagine.
     
  2. While I take art very personally, there is also a significant historical component.
    Why see as something separate my "personal" experience of an Impressionist painting from what I understand about its relationship to what was going on in photography?
    Most good artists have absorbed the past, often responding to it, hopefully coming into their own unique vision but rarely completely loosed from the strings of history.
    Beethoven riffed on Mozart, Rauschenburg payed homage to Picasso, American painter Peter Saul wouldn't be who he is and wouldn't have done what he did without mocking Duchamp and De Kooning. Surely a case can be made for the influence of Walker Evans's American Photographs on Robert Frank's Americans. Not only from the standpoint of the photographer/artist but from the standpoint of the viewer, understanding these influences in addition to feeling or perceiving whatever sensory feelings we feel in the moment is part of the experience of any work of art, sometimes in the very moment of viewing, sometimes in adding to the initial experience later on. When Mahler quotes Beethoven, even on the first in-the-moment listening, my knowledge of Beethoven allows for a more moving personal experience of and reaction to the piece by Mahler. My uninformed perception would not have that same depth, though it might be extremely moving nonetheless.
    I would never minimize the role of perception and personal experience, but I also wouldn't minimize the role of many other things that can go into the experience of art.
     
  3. Art and music appreciation is almost totally visceral for me. I am not intellectual enough to write a lot about it even if I did want to but I don't want to. Almost forty years ago I was in the Air Force in Europe. I was a pilot on a small executive jet that we had at the time. I received a call one morning on a weekend to fly to the Hague in Holland and take the US Ambassador to Chievres, Belgium. My first reaction was why the hell do you want me to take what is no more than a twenty minute flight mostly consumed by climbing and descending. Why doen't he drive? I was told to go and do what I was told to do. So when the Ambassador showed up I asked him the same question. Now, I knew that this gentlemen had the world's largest collection of Rembrandts outside the Rijks museum, so I knew what the crate was that he would not let me carry to the airplane. I asked him where I could buy some decent art in Holland as we were walking to the plane. He recommended a certain gallery in the Hague. The next time I went to the Hague I found the gallery and as I approached I saw this large painting ot a fisherman in the window and viscerally and instinctively decided to buy before I got through the door. The transaction took about five minutes. I still have the painting hanging where I see it every day with some gut level satisfaction. I don't know why I like the painting nor do I know why Beethoven turns me on; and I don't give a damn believing that being an animal (IMO) I still have some primevel inherited instincts that defy explanation.
     
  4. It seems to me your 'sense and experience' is a form of the 'Nature and Nurture' dscussion beloved of psychologists - we all are hard-wired in the same way and presumably when you and I see the colour red we experience the same thing. Overlaid on that comes or experiences and memories of life. And while these will also be similar in many ways they will also be different in others. So, yes, at the most basic level our human minds will all react to certain things in the same way - the human face and form being an example. And then our experience modifies these reactions to become our individual sensibility.
    Where great artists do is that they seem to have the ability to make people see things the same way they do. So when Beethoven first composed people were shocked at the sounds he creaed. Now we have learnt to hear his music the way he heard it and from then on all musicians in the same tradition had to build on his work. In photography someone like, for example, Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams created images which were so wide and strong in appeal that anyone following them has to both speak the same language but also try to add their own voice. So their experience becomes ours at second, third or fourth hand.
    I suppose we have all had te experience of reacting against some new work of art or architecture only to find that as time goes by it has seeped into our consciousness and experience and we find we both like it and understand it. For myself this oftens happens when I am learning a contemporary piece of music for performance. At first I find it unappealing but gradually it becomes familiar. It is only a short step then to me actually liking the piece and hearin other music in relation to the new. The same goes for all art - especially contemporary art we are not familiar with. It has to be strong enough to enter our consciousness, overcome the shock of the new and become part of the way we filter our individual experiences.
     
  5. jtk

    jtk

    The topic is evidently "art," only "photography" in the merest-token sense.
    Since the word and concept of "art" encompasses velvet elvis, porn, duck snaps, bowling skills, tattoos, and advertising...on an equal basis with "art fair" objects, motel decor, and over-sofa wall-hangers...asking whether we over or under-intellectualize "it" begs an obvious question: how high is up?
     
  6. jtk

    jtk

    To the extent that the question is "do we over-intellectualize," the answer can be quantified: the ratio of numbers of words to ideas relatively common to the target audience (perhaps making allowances for the "new").
    The quantification needn't include parallel efforts (journalism, accompanying poetry, technical information, historical/biographical context etc)...I'm referring only to bloviation about image-as-image, as done by curators, gallery sales clerks, "art teachers," and photographers who know their images don't work without lots of talk..
     
  7. John, my title is meant to relate to photography as art, insofar as it is intended as such or collected by people in much the same way as other forms of art are.
    With the exception of those who must be told, or like to be told, what is valuable (the case sometimes of those who view the work of artists and photographers whose reputation often precedes the work to be viewed and therefore tending to color their perception), I believe that many of us exercise a very independent view of what is beautiful, or striking, or imbued with deep meaning (or with whatever moves us) and have quite different and non-intellectual responses to each work (Somewhat analogously, if you have assisted to blind wine sampling of a group, you may see how varied the opinions are). At least, this is what I feel, and also what I have perceived in the seasonal gallery I have operated for the past 7 years.
     
  8. jtk

    jtk

    Arthur, I understand your point, but you seem too generous, allowing wordy photographers and gallery owners off the hook...give em' an inch, you know what happens: noise, to the detriment of "art".
    Noise, the wave of verbal detritis, is especially troublesome in exhibitions when nonentities (curators, insecure photographers etc) post long- winded passages that literally cannot be read without spending more time with the words than with the images. This generalizes well to other discussions by photographers about their own work, and goes off the charts when they explain verbal theories.
    I recently struggled to describe my take on the idea of "intimate" in photographs. To the extent that I was trying to rationalize or even laud my own photographs, the ratio of words to good work did go off the charts. My subjects are usually fairly sophisticated ... they usually just say they like my work (or are careful not to make me sad). They generally confine their responses to simple appreciations, making allusions to painters or other photographers. Then they pour me a glass of good wine, my only tangible price.
    When I lived in the Napa Valley, blind tastings taught me that enough talk by eminent talkers easily convinces tasters that defective wines, labels bag-hidden, will be "good." Fancy restaurants elaborately describe $50 bottles that would aesthetically be "worth" $15 without commentary.
     
  9. Hi John,
    Bravo, or at least "d'accord" (Québécois for I agree, completely, with what you say). You know, there are gallery owners and gallery owners. The best, to my mind, leave you alone and do not complicate your appreciation with a lot of hyperbole or pulpous fiction on the metaphysical or pseudophysical significance of the works. Like some major museums which exhibit works and give you only the historical or technical details.
    You are, I believe, in some agreement with the premise of my post - the primary importance of the subjective perceived impact of the work on the senses of the viewer, and the efffect of his life experience in appreciating the work before him.
    While scholarly treatises and volumes of words do exist to explain the impact of a work or series of works of some artist (photographer), or the history of works that may or may not be related to his, they are in the main of little interest to the viewer and client of the artist. He or she, if honest to themselves, will have chosen the work for other non-intellectual reasons (or, if there is in some small part an intellectual analysis, it will be the viewer's own).
     
  10. jtk

    jtk

    My two greatest aesthetic experiences have involved Picasso.
    Immediately before it left America, I accidentally visited Guernica in New York. It came down a week later, departing forever to Spain in celebration of the death of Francisco Franco. Previously I knew it only from posters and books.. just another famous painting. The actual work moved me to a new level. "I saw things in a new way," as they say. But I was decades younger.
    In 2002 I "happened" to see the globe-traveling Matisse-Picasso exhibit, in Paris. My Guernica experience had aged by then, was filed in sensory-cerebral archives along with various conceptions of Picasso's work, for retrieval in the right conversational situations.
    However, the Matisse-Picasso shocked me to another level. I could almost taste it for years afterward ..it remains my biggest "art" experience. The words were mostly French so they didn't corrode my experience the way they might have, had I more casually understood them... commentary had been printed in very large type, precluding excessive curatorial showing-off. Nobody was there to read what anybody thought in any language, after all! And all the French and African and Japanese crowd could say was what I said: "Aaaah!" I remain thankful that I didn't see the show in London or New York.
     
  11. There seems to be a conflation here of "intellectualized" (in the OP's title) and "curatorial showing off."
    I didn't take "intellectualized" to be something outside myself, coming from an obnoxious curator or critic, an ego-driven art historian.
    I took "intellectualized" in the vain of John, for example, describing his process with regards to intentionally considering in advance of making a portrait things about the subject and about his approach that might yield a better portrait. Perhaps looking at portraits of Steichen or Newman and at some point (not necessarily in the moment of impact) analyzing what works and what doesn't as a fellow photographer with a vested interest in portraiture.
    I also took it in the vain of any photographer who sees himself not just as a sensory-reacting mechanism but also as a part of something greater than himself . . . culture . . . history . . . milieu . . .
     
  12. jtk

    jtk

    Fred, I think "intellectualize," which once meant (per my 50s Websters) "to think," has commonly evolved ("conflated") to mean "distort"or "detract" verbally. Webster seemed to think thinking was verbal (as it may be for some), whereas planning a photograph seems to me to be a largely non-verbal process.
    I just photographed an 85ish intellectual. I "thought" about it quite a bit in advance (visualizing, not self-verbalizing), even talked about it (verbalized) with her friends because I the subject can look "quaint," in addition to elderly.
    Most of my thinking was visual, procedural, non-verbal. I actually monitored my partially-premeditated approach as it developed, before the session. One of my last steps was to study a book of Bill Brandt portraits. The introduction spoke in passing about Brandt's consistent depiction of easily-overlooked moments of reflection by his subjects (authors, actors, sculptors etc).
    I feared I'd miss that opportunity, as my subject seems to switch from withdrawn/grim to hilarious/absurd, two modes, only occasionally just switching "ON".
    That in mind, I directly asked her if she "thought about" her subject of expertise when she wasn't reading/writing about it. She switched "ON", said "Of course!" Late in our session I photographed her in a tall, narrow stair case...I asked her to recall a moment in her literature that involved stairs (Dubliners)...she made that switch too, producing the Brandt-style response I'd hoped for.
     
  13. If we accept that "intellectualize" is "distort" or "detract" then the thread really doesn't ask a question or open anything up. Of course we don't want to reflect on our photographs with obnoxiously distorted thinking or as being detracted from by hyperbolic philosophical musings.
    But the point Arthur seemed to be making (his third opening paragraph) was that "most of our reactions come down to two simple causes - our senses and our non-art experiences."
    So that leaves out not only your preferred use of "intellectualizing," it also leaves out understanding.
    So, you verbalized with a friend of the subject but not with yourself. OK. The verbalizing with a friend is part of "senses and non-art experiences" and the self-verbalizing is not?
    Your consideration of Bill Brandt seems to belie the OP's emphasis on non-art experience (since the OP has made clear he's referring to photography as art and would probably consider Brandt a photographer/artist, though I don't want to speak for Arthur).
     
  14. "But the point Arthur seemed to be making (his third opening paragraph) was that "most of our reactions come down to two simple causes - our senses and our non-art experiences."
    So that leaves out not only your preferred use of "intellectualizing," it also leaves out understanding."
    Fred, not entirely. That (in particular understanding) can easily come from our non-photographic experiences and thus affect our photographic perceptions (making of, or, as in the case in question, the viewing of photos).
    "...would probably consider Brandt a photographer/artist"
    Absolutely. He pushed the art of the nude (and orther subjects) and the nude and (her/his) environment forward.
     
  15. Thanks, Arthur. Agreed.
    John/Arthur, I don't want it to seem as though I'm questioning your own methods of approaching either making or viewing photographs. I do question whether it would work for or applies to everyone or even "most people."
    It's one thing to initiate a discussion based on your own experiences, desires, work habits. It's more controversial to claim it for most people.
    It's also controversial of John to select the most ridiculed non-art, non-sensual aspects of life to bolster this perspective.
    To wit:
    "I'm referring only to bloviation about image-as-image, as done by curators, gallery sales clerks, "art teachers," and photographers who know their images don't work without lots of talk.."
    "you seem too generous, allowing wordy photographers and gallery owners off the hook...give em' an inch, you know what happens: noise, to the detriment of 'art."
    "Noise, the wave of verbal detritis, is especially troublesome in exhibitions when nonentities (curators, insecure photographers etc) post long- winded passages that literally cannot be read without spending more time with the words than with the images. This generalizes well to other discussions by photographers about their own work, and goes off the charts when they explain verbal theories."
    I'm just saying it seems like a red herring to dwell on these kinds of non-art, non-sensual matters to the exclusion of things like study, history, context, planning, learning, verbalizing productively.
    There's nothing to sneer at in your "Aaaah" reaction of the moment. Many of us have been there. But there's also nothing to sneer at in recognizing that others have more to their reactions than that. There could be some trite romanticizing of esthetic or photographic reactions when one emphasizes so exclusively not only for themselves but for others the "Aaaah."
     
  16. jtk

    jtk

    Arthur: "...two simple causes - our senses and our non-art experiences."
    I'd add verbal and associational non-verbal experiences... and in the interest of rationality I'd avoid defining objects as "art" unless I really did mean "whatever MOMA (or other authority) identifies as art."
    Boundaries between verbal/authority formulations don't refer adequately well to my experience with photographs.
    To a hammer, everything might look like a nail. If our fundamental categories are "sensory," "art" and "non-art" everything is reduced to dubious labels. I'd rather begin with my own responses, as an organism (hammer or otherwise), paying close attention to what those responses seem to be. If they're verbal, so be it.
    I don't find that I respond verbally while initially engaging a photograph, irrespective its merits (unless you count "aaaah"). And I never have personally responded with the "art" label, even in an "art history" course, so I don't know that it refers to anything important.
    Take Leibovitz, for example. Isn't it presumptuous, to the point of absurdity, for someone with limited exposure to such things to decide that her work is "art," as opposed to "the result of one woman's labor" or "a photograph of....."
     
  17. My feeling about the word and meaning of art is one that uses a small a and not a capital A. Anything we do with the intention of creating art, should be simply called that. It is not somehow a holy subject. A spade is a spade. It may turn earth over well, or shovel small stones well, or it may break at the first effort. It is still a spade. Similarly, if you have the intention of a visual creation, why not call it art? The choice is not being pretentious or not. It may never hang in the MOMA or the Pompidou, but they also hang stuff that disgraces a capital A.
    I didn't really feel the need to qualify the type of experience, just as I am want to put everything I have done in my work life on my CV. I think we mainly perceive life through our accumulated experiences, as well as all the educational, formative and acquired concepts and ideas that we have picked up along the way, superimposed upon on the way (mechanism) our particular minds work.
    My experience is that most persons I know who are faced with a new work of art, or if you prefer, an uncategorized photograph (art, simple record,...?), will react with their senses (mainly visual of course) and their experience in perceiving (evaluating) the work. They may intellectualize its content and even its parentage (it's history, vis-a-vis other art), but that is the exception. Photographers, custodians and historians do the latter, as they are wired or paid to do so.
     
  18. jtk

    jtk

    Arthur, we agree of course, as I think we do with Fred and others. We're here to turn ideas over so a little spade work is necessary :)
    I'm responding from my own frame of reference, it's my best "truth" until it's exposed to the best truths of others. Some photographers think inkjet cannot be art, others think art is the provence of large format, others think commercial photo illustration cannot be art...etc. It's a divisive word that, like other divisive words, has it's power because it means nothing in particular. Are you "saved?" :)
     
  19. To me, Arthur, your qualification "non-art experience" was a big and bold one.
    Taking exception to that qualification was the point of my first post and has flavored the rest of them.
    When it comes to making and viewing art, I can't separate "personal" and "art historical" experience. For me, all experience in this realm as well as others is both personal and public, both individual and contextual, both unique to me and inherited from biology and symbols of the past. My personal response to or experience of a photograph does not exist in a vacuum that excludes how it links to other photos I've seen. And my personal approach to making photos doesn't exist in that sort of non-art-experiential vacuum either.
     
  20. jtk

    jtk

    "...that sort of non-art-experiential vacuum.." - Fred.
    Absolutely. One may have to be especially obsessive to produce important photographs in extended isolation.
     
  21. I guess what I am saying by "boldly" insisting on the value of one's non-art experience in appreciating (and even making) photographs is the importance of that life experience which has moulded who we are, and what we do and think, in relation to the perception of a photograph or of another art form.
    It is not related to our prior study or experience of art or any of its concepts, movements or whatever, but rather to what have been formative experiences for us in our personal development. They influence also our perception of art. We are drawn to a picture (photo, painting) in part based on that experience, including those values and criteria that are specific to us as individuals. That non-art experience, coupled to the way our visual sense is programmed in our mind (various visual stimuli that impress us or not), are in large part responsible for our response to a work (or to a photograph to be made).
    I like to think that the influence of other persons, of art movements, of the aesthetic criteria of others, is not as important as one would be led to believe.
     
  22. When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
    When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
    measure them;
    When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
    applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
    Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
     
  23. jtk

    jtk

    Some folks prefer "rising and gliding out" to new experience. It's easier for them.
     
  24. It's all about the depth of knowledge within a given subject be it Hammers, we, every one seems to refer to but no one determines specifically what type of hammer? are all hammers the same?
    A ball pein, a claw, a sledge, cross pein pin, club but they are all just hammers, as all photogrpahs are just photographs, all paintings are , well, just paintings.
    Of course it is a gross over simplification, reduce every thing to the lowest denominator, take away the essense, the underlying thought or idea. By the same token, reduce the human physche to a mere trifle of its original intent.
    The human person, homo sapien is a complicated and evolved being, why do we wish to trivialise its action and performance into nothing more than drawing two straight lines.
    The visual appreciation of any object, two or three dimensional will rely heavily on the viewer's ability to appreciate, consider and attempt to understand the motive or emotional intent of the presenter.
    If, for any reason, you find other's views oppose your own, consider for a moment, are their life experiences different from yours?
     
  25. jtk

    jtk

    As someone who has struggled to draw, I have a faint physical response to the drawings of others. Someone highly trained or gifted in drawing can do beautiful work without looking at the paper...they're actually trained to do that.
    I understand what's going on technically in most photographic prints...partially due to my hands-on experience. Sometimes I imagine I can smell fixer. Right now I'm imagining the smell of E4 (old Ektachrome) color developer (which I spent a lot of days mixing and modifying). Proust had his own combination responses.
    I relate physically to jazz, tapping my foot or...if I'm really responding...grabbing the nearest guitar. I rarely respond physically to classical music, beyond heartbeat.
    Reducing photographs to purely visual experiences or to concepts may take a lot away from them.
     
  26. jtk

    jtk

    As someone who has struggled to draw, I have a faint physical response to the drawings of others. Someone highly trained or gifted in drawing can do beautiful work without looking at the paper...they're actually trained to make drawing a physical activity. Advertising art directors call illustrators "wrists."
    I understand what's going on technically in most photographic prints...partially due to my hands-on experience. Sometimes I imagine I can smell fixer. Right now I'm imagining the smell of E4 (pre-E6) color developer (which I spent a lot of days mixing and modifying). Proust combined baked goods with memories..
    I relate physically to jazz, tapping my foot or...if I'm really responding...grabbing the nearest guitar. I rarely respond physically to classical music, beyond heartbeat.
    Reducing photographs to purely visual experiences or to concepts may take the heart out of them.
     
  27. In a historical context, it may be worth looking at Emile Zola, as he was both a writer and a photographer and has been studied as a possible synaesthete. He had strong eidetic (photographic) memory and is recorded as saying that he had an extraordinarily vivid combined sense of sight, sound and smell.
     
  28. To chime in . . .
    In addressing at least the title of the OP, are we addressing "raw sensation" or human experience?
     
  29. Michael, I think that just as a sensor of a digital camera needs a camera computer and software to interpret it's response, the human senses are not raw (no pun intended) and not similar in everyone. They are somewhat variable from person to person, depending upon how the individual brain processes the signal, and those signals before the most recent one.
    Human experience is the second component of what I was postulating.
     
  30. Arthur,
    Thanks for the clarification. Sensation in its most physicalistic sense (at least in my opinion) is simply a sentient creature's reaction to stimuli. This is not specific to human beings. Considering sensation in the context of art, however, is a different ball game. I'm not going to attempt a definition of "art", and that may be irrelevant anyway. However, I suspect that creating and experiencing art is specific to persons. Sometime, I may try to develop this further. For now, I'm just tossing it out, for whatever it's worth.
     
  31. Hi Michael,
    I agree that creating and experiencing art is very specific to individuals. I tried to address the experiencing part of art as a very specfic response of individuals in the original post, namely a response that doesn't necessarily depend on one's academic knowledge or intellectual-historic experience of art.
    I am sure another discussion could continue somewhat along the lines you suggest.
     

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