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Art and the Senses

Art and the Senses

by Francesca Bacci and David Melcher, Editors
Oxford University Press,  Oxford, UK. 2011
622 pp. Trade, $139.95 USD
ISBN: 978-0-19-923060-0.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


It seems cross-cultural, transdisciplinary scholarship is increasing at an almost exponential rate. The last five books I have reviewed have all been concerned with fostering a mutually advantageous relationship between science and the humanities. This book is exemplary in this regard, specifically exploring the scientific and common sense understanding of the senses and their relationship to the arts. Art is used in the broadest manner and includes all modes of creative artistic endeavour from basic crafts through to opera, fine art, cinema and classical music.

Art and the Senses is no shrinking violet. Weighing in at just under 650 pages, it covers a lot of ground. The essays explore many of the subjects discussed at the Art & Senses Workshop at Oxford, England in 2006. “The aim of this project, in addition to providing a unique multidisciplinary resource on the senses, is to inspire future cross-boundary interactions”. The book does not claim or aspire to be the definitive work but rather to offer, “a collection of examples on how scientists, artists, and scholars in the humanities are investigating and commenting on the senses” (p. 2). The editors Francesca Bacci and David Melcher (both from the University of Trento, Italy) have done an excellent job in achieving this aim.

Following the Foreword by Siân Ede, the List of Contributors, and the Editor's Introduction, there are 31 chapters with such enticing titles as: Hearing Scents, Tasting Sights: Towards a Cross-Cultural Multimodal Theory of Aesthetics; — Mirror Neurons and Art; — Visual Music and Musical Paintings: The Quest for Synaesthesia in the Arts, space does not permit listing them all. There is literally something for everyone; all the essays are well written, accessible to both academic and well educated general readers and cover a huge range of history. Some of the chapters are in-depth philosophical investigations into aesthetics and the senses; others take the form of discussions between scholars, and still others are more accounts of practising artists who have a major concern about their work and sensory response. The book has numerous black and white photos and illustrations and a small number of colour plates.

Two essays that particularly struck a chord with me were Aesthetic Touch by Rosalyn Driscoll and Sculpture and Touch by Bacci. These authors discuss the underrated importance of touch, and how touch influences and modifies the other senses. Driscoll creates sculptures specifically to be felt and explored through touch. During the 80s and 90s I often had a sign displayed on my own sculpture exhibits. “Please Touch Me”. Given the general restriction of touching a work of “Fine Art” this unnerved quite a few gallery goers! This was, of course, my intention — what damage could someone running their hands over a half tonne piece of marble do?

As these two authors point out specifically, and some of the other contributors generally, denying an observer the right to touch a sculpture, which more than any other art form is created by direct hands-on touching, is absurd. The result is an impoverished, incomplete experience of the artwork. This taboo of not touching is not only restricted to artwork, but rather it spills over into everyday life. In the village where I live we have a saying, “Three hugs a day keeps you healthy,” but many adults never touch other human beings. The further we move towards online, mechanistic lifestyles, together with the possibility of sexual harassment charges for touching a fellow worker on the arm in a complimentary way, the more our quality of life as humans becomes compromised.

This book has ramifications far beyond the arts. Perhaps this was not originally intended by the editors, but it is an important bonus because as many of the contributors show, we now know the senses do not exist in isolation or as separate entities. Each sense modifies the experience of the others.  As an example, to touch a fine crystal glass alters the actual visual experience of the glass! “The mainstream view in cognitive science was, and to a certain extent even today is, that action, perception, and cognition are to be seen as separate domains. The discovery of the MNS [Mirror Neuron System] challenges this view as it shows that such domains are intimately intertwined” (p. 456).

Art andtThe Senses is a vitally important book and applies to so many different research disciplines that I cannot begin to suggest them all. One area, though, that I think will benefit immensely from the application of the findings presented in this volume is the healing profession, particularly psychotherapy and art therapy.

Last Updated 1 January 2012

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