Psychological Aesthetics: Painting, Feeling, and Making Sense

By David Maclagan | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
From Iconography to Embodiment

Suppose that all forms are, while they are perceived as pure form by the
mind-body, simultaneously perceived and enjoyed as images by the
body-mind… I do not mean that the body translates form, abstractly
perceived, into pictures; rather, that all form addresses itself no less to the body
than the mind, the former perceiving it by virtue of its own formalizing
tendencies and uniting with it. The body mates with forms no less than the
mind does (Sewell 1971, p.38).

The above quotation is an unusual way of reminding us that perception involves an intimate partnership between mind and body: indeed, by talking about a ‘mind-body’ and a ‘body-mind’, Elisabeth Sewell questions our habitual distinction between the two. Yet aesthetic experience is often presented as being essentially disembodied or ethereal. This is partly because, as we saw in Chapter One, the relationship between the intellectual or ‘formal’ appreciation of art and its sensuous apprehension has often been an uneasy one. Some texts relate aesthetic enjoyment to a pure pleasure in looking, sometimes called ‘scopophilia’ by psychoanalysists. This pleasure is perhaps not so ‘pure’, because it involves fantasies of possession or penetration that have a voyeuristic tinge to them although they depend on an actual detachment from whatever scenes or objects are being (re)presented for the viewer’s delectation.

There is no doubt that some paintings do seem to collude with this visual, or ‘spectacular’ appetite. Erotic, or eroticised, subjects are obvious examples. In his book The Power of Images, David Freedberg (1989) rightly criticises conventional, disembodied notions of aesthetic experience, and goes on to point out that our response to depictions of the body is much more highly charged. Unfortunately, he overstates his case:

When… we find ourselves responding to an image of it as if it were real, it
seems at that moment no mere signifier, but the living signified itself. Then,
once the body is perceived as real and living, we are also capable of being
roused by it… there is a cognitive relation between looking and enlivening;

-47-

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