Half a dozen years ago I was a romantic. Everything bordered on being overwhelming. As I started to understand what that dark romantic feeling was all about, I feared I might become a cynic. Luckily, I’ve managed to keep my distance from such a corrosive approach to life, but sometimes not to photography. As I look back to the things that first started to eat up that romantic feeling, I can pinpoint a couple of relevant moments: 1) on a personal level, a heartbreak might have been responsible for disenchantment; 2) regarding art, in general, and photography, in particular, studying for a PhD was definitely responsible for a more critical understanding of how authors operate and that led to a particular disillusionment with the strategies applied in the making of art.
When I first see a work of art, I like to be surprised, to feel my body tingle in awe. It’s a great feeling, one that I always want to go back for. On the other hand, I strongly dislike immediately identifying an end. What that end is, varies: it can be a technical utilitarian function of the artwork itself, the strategy of the author to grab the observer’s attention or the set of boundaries that dictate the modus operandi of the exhibition. These ends tend to intersect a less denotative approach to the artwork and once that is done, suddenly everything seems to serve a specific purpose and, consequently, lose interest.
Art is an experience and I guess we can all understand that in order to have a complete experience, the sense mechanisms that control our mental processes have to somehow be challenged. In recent years, I’ve become familiar with the term ‘neuroaesthetics‘. In fact, I first encountered the term when I was still looking for a romantic explanation for artistic excellence. Arthur Shimamura, author of In the brain of the Beholder, points to the dangers of such a scientific approach:
We never experience art with naïve eyes. Rather we bring with us a set of preconceived notions in the form of our cultural background, personal knowledge, and even knowledge about art itself. In large measure, what we like is based on what we know. When we accept the fact that our art experience depends on a confluence of sensations, knowledge, and feelings, it becomes clear that there is no “art center” in the brain. Instead, when we confront art, we essentially co-opt the multitude of brain regions we use in everyday interactions with the world. Thus, with respect to “neuroaesthetics,” the question, “How do we experience art?” can be simply answered as, “It’s a whole-brain issue, stupid!”
Shimamura adds that, for most of us, a work of art is an experiencing of different stimuli: sensations, thoughts and feelings. What should be stressed out here is that Shimamura, as so many other authors, discredits any sort of primary encounter with art that isn’t rooted on thought. So yes, we are human beings and we can’t avoid having our experiences built on linguistic structures, but somehow art plays a particular role.
Ethnographer Marcel Mauss (Manuel d’Ethnographie), states that an aesthetic fact is always represented in human thought like a game, unnecessary, superfluous, as if it was a luxury. Of course this is nothing new, it goes back to the Aristotelian notion that the aesthetic object is open to contemplation because it doesn’t serve any immediate purpose. However, when Mauss addresses aesthetics he does so in order to understand what drives human social behaviour and in that context he adds that the aesthetic experience is often accompanied by extreme stated of pleasure, joy and even catharsis.
Althoug Mauss doesn’t establish a direct link between these feelings convoked by the experience of art and hunting, he does separate the “aesthetic phenomena” into two types: “pure artistic phenomena” and “games” and this division somehow relates to the argument I’m trying to put together here. To sum it up, I suspect that the thing that is most responsible for disturbing my aesthetic experience is the hunting game (not to be confused with play).
Both art and hunting are no strangers to the idea of a ritualistic play. Mauss distinguishes games, in general, and art, in particular, stating that in art there is a search for beauty, whilst the goal in games is of different natures. This framing is obviously dated, meaning that an artistic experience is no longer particularly devoted to the creating of a beautiful object of contemplation, but I still find some truth in this distinction. Let’s consider photography, in particular. I’ve said this many times before: I don’t think most of the photographs we see provoke an artistic experience, meaning they don’t have the aesthetic qualities that stimulate feelings, thoughts and sensations. Those photographs are usually taken either to accomplish or to illustrate something, but their rhythm falls flat after attaining their immediate goals.
Nonetheless, when I first started this post, I was mostly thinking about installations and how annoyed I feel when it becomes clear that the core of the work is a joke on the observer’s role. Then, as if it were a hunt, the game begins. Both author and observer know their roles; they are also aware of the goal; it’s there – they see it – recognize it – follow it; and so the “artistic experience” turns out to be a very basic stimulation of the primary fort-da experience (Freud). The observer ends up leaving the exhibition content, because his/her role was made clear and some satisfaction arises from that fact, i.e., from knowing their place and thinking they’re in control.
Speaking about hunting, Marcel Mauss also does some interesting classifications, distinguishing two important elements to the game: traps and decoys, which in turn address another important element, namely camouflage. Could we think about an installation in terms of traps, decoys and camouflage? I’m sure we can. In fact, I think a bad exhibition has it all. So why are these elements disturbing the aesthetic experience? Does this observer/hunter approach equates the artwork with a prey and, if so, may we find solace in the fact that at least this would mean the artwork is autonomously breathing?