Sensory Hierarchy and the Arts

We live in a visually hegemonic society. In our western culture seeing is synonymous with thinking and knowing the truth of the world, therefore vision is privileged as the noblest of the senses (Pallasmaa, 2005, pg.14). In contrast our other, cruder senses such as taste and smell are privately experienced and consequently associated with ‘feeling’ the world. Touch especially is downgraded as the lowest, dirtiest sense. We can trace this view of senses as far back as Aristotle: ‘Hearing and smell, thinks Aristotle, are purer than taste, so similarly superior [to sight], and touch remains at the base’ (Paterson, 2007). We have only to look at everyday sayings to see that vision has become analogous with understanding e.g. the idioms ‘that’s clear now’ and ‘brought to light’. This illustrates our ‘dis-embodied’ mode of thinking where truth is associated with knowledge from seeing and thus removed from the body.

In the art world this hierarchy is visible in the dichotomy of art/craft. The sacred, serious ‘fine art’ we come across in galleries like the Tate e.g. paintings, videos and installations are experienced visually and aurally. We are discouraged and most of the time prohibited from touching these works of art. Meanwhile consider the twee and lowly ‘craft’ that we find in the gallery gift shops or at a Christmas market. At craft fairs visitors are actively encouraged to pick up and physically feel the work on display.
Of course this frowning upon of touching art in galleries is often because the artworks have accumulated value over time and are historically significant so must be protected from damage. But what of work that is contemporary? So occupied are we with the idea of the object itself being precious, how we experience the object is overlooked. There is something almost surreptitious about touching work in a gallery that is not advertised as ‘participatory ‘or ‘sensory’ art: ‘Vision and hearing are now the privileged sociable senses, whereas the other three are considered as archaic sensory remnants with merely private function, and they are usually suppressed by the code of culture.’ (Pallasmaa, 2005, p.16). In other words, touch appears to be something which embarrasses us.

Likewise, with this hierarchy of senses comes a hierarchy of materials. It could be argued the more you manually use your hands, the less status the object you make has as a piece of art. Arguably the most superior ‘high artworks’ are purely conceptual and have not even been touched by the artist at all: ‘Some art is more equal than others. Like a urinal – bringing that into a gallery, that’s really radical. And a shark, bringing that into a gallery – oh my God that’s an amazing thing. But a pot, now that’s craft’ (Grayson Perry, 2014).
As a ceramics student I work with what could be considered as the lowliest of all materials. In Descartes’s ‘chain of being’, clay would rank alongside mud and gravel, far below metals, plants, animals and humans in the hierarchy of importance. However, working with this ‘lowly’ material emphasizes the significance of the sense of touch. The consistency of the clay must be felt before you begin to work with it – how plastic or short is it, how wet or dry, fine or grogged and what the texture is like. Ceramics is a field which forces us to challenge our oculacentric way of thinking. When throwing it’s necessary to feel the thickness of the vessel’s wall and to weigh the balance of a cup in your hands.

According to the anthropologist David Howes ‘sight is opposed to touch as mind is opposed to body’. In his essay ‘Sensory Basket Weaving 101’ he explores the basket weaving tradition of the Amazonian Desana Indians and explains how ‘the different colours, odours, and textures of the reeds, vines, wood fibres, and palm fronds which are used in basketry refer to elements of Tukanoan mythology, sexuality, and ecology’. However, despite the uniqueness of these multi-sensory objects, Westerners prefer to collect the more visually striking work of other Amazonian tribes. Because of the way we are conditioned to perceive, we are blind to the layers of meaning that can be contained in objects that need to be ‘sensed’ not only seen: ‘Our experience and knowledge is more than visual; it is embodied’ (Johnson, 2001).
Likewise, in museums it is often only the most visually striking art and artefacts which are on display. Objects that are less exciting to look at are concealed in the storerooms, despite the fact they may have unique auditory or tactile qualities (Howes, 2007). Because of our oculacentrism we are missing out on a deeper, more embodied experience of our cultural history. On a recent trip to the Centre of Ceramic Art in York we were invited to handle a selection of fragments of work by Gillian Lowndes. They were not part of the collection on display because they were small and not visually as exciting, however by physically feeling the work I discovered a landscape of rich texture which my eyes were unable to perceive. As a result I felt a whole new appreciation of Lowndes’s work and her innovativeness in combining materials and pushing the boundaries of studio ceramics.

In addition to Howes, Pallasmaa argues that our Western society’s oculacentrism and this accepted idea of the ‘dis-embodied mind’ have led to ‘alienation, detachment and solitude in the technological world of today’. Despite the benefits of social media, the importance of touch in relation to human contact is lost as we increasingly use technology to communicate and socialize. Although the use of technology in the context of art and craft presents wonderful new opportunities, we should not forget the importance of the handmade.
As a result, we need to begin to take craft seriously. We live in a society obsessed with immediate gratification, be it fast food, our obsession with consuming and accumulating material wealth which is often disposable. We surround ourselves with plastics, distancing ourselves from the processes of making and the source of the materials themselves. By supporting craftspeople and the handmade over the mass-produced, addressing this visual hegemony and appreciating a more embodied existence we can begin to create a more environmentally aware and sustainable society.

Bibliography

Alfoldy, S. (2007) Neo Craft: Modernity and the Crafts. Nova Scotia College of art and design: The Press.

Auther, E. (2010) String felt thread: the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art. Minnesota: Regents of the University of Minnesota.

Johnson, M. (2007) The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Pallasmaa, J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the senses. London: John Wiley and Sons.

Paterson, M. (2007) The senses of touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies. Berg Publishers [E-book] Available through Google books website <http://books.google.co.uk&gt; [Accessed 4 December 2016]

Perry, G. (2014) Playing to the gallery: Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood. UK: Penguin.

 

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