Long ago, after a graduate seminar session on Virginia Woolf, I debated another student about whether Woolf’s “moments of being”—flashes of pure perception or unmediated experience—were possible. My colleague claimed that they weren’t. The mind’s structures and mechanisms work like those of language, she argued, echoing an orthodox theoretical position we had learned in a class about Saussure and Freud. We can only understand what we perceive through a linguistic scrim.1
I couldn’t agree completely. Didn’t I sometimes “get” things without words? How did human consciousness work, before language? Suddenly I stood up, grabbed my chair, and dragged it over to hers. I stepped onto the seat, towered over my colleague, and raised my arms swiftly to the sides. My black winter coat spread open, transforming me into something big and dark. I rushed my head down close to her face, widening my eyes to read hers: did she feel anything? Did I see a flicker of fight-or-flight fear, the response of a frail one faced with a large menace?
Maybe … but she was playing it cool, still trying to win the argument. As I got down from the chair, she seemed a bit perplexed. I don’t remember how our conversation ended, but I worried that I’d gone beyond a threshold of acceptable academic behavior. The wild rush of that moment took a while to dissipate.
In a sense, my dramatics enacted the terms we had already played out in our class discussion. Woolf wrote memoirs about “moments of being” in which time seems to stop “without a reason” and individuality falls away. “[T]he sealing matter cracks; in floods reality,” which feels more vivid and whole than the “cotton wool” of daily existence. Language is challenged to describe such an experience, which “will not bear arguing about; it is irrational.” I had tried to short-circuit (win) my after-class argument by acting irrationally, out of bounds. I wanted to cut through the “cotton wool” of our familiar discourse and open up a space for a palpable experience, beyond thought or words.2
Woolf’s idea is familiar enough in life; it also works for art. I look to art (in any form) in the hope that it will pull back the scrim and awaken me somehow. I think of Agnes Martin, who wanted her geometric abstractions to evoke subtle emotions, like feeling happy in the morning without any discernible cause. She once insisted in a letter to a collector that art begins where language leaves off. Does writing—and thinking altogether—inevitably interfere with sensibility? Martin signed her mature work on the back, shunned catalogues, gave up ideas, and aimed to live by the vivid unpredictability of “inspiration.” And her art earned the world’s esteem.
But feeling can be unsettling, even scary. There are no footholds, no reference points, and no prescribed path toward “making sense” of sensation, sensuality, or sensibility. Sometimes it was too much for Agnes ... and the irrationality of artists has been tricky for Western culture all the way back to Plato.3 I have noticed some trends in art that could be attributed to a persistent cultural aversion to the uncertainty of feeling. (Alert: polemical oversimplifications ahead.)
In hyper-conceptualist art, an exaggerated reliance on language and concept minimizes aspects of materiality associated with feeling. Art projects—no longer “artworks”—are legitimized by affiliation with other disciplines (science, cultural criticism, etc.). Content trumps form. Curators mount conceptually themed exhibitions; gallerists’ press releases rehearse the terms and phrases associated with the work; buyers seek ready concepts to help them “get” the projects. Artists work toward the words, bending their visions into shapes that fit conceptual frameworks. Artists’ written statements are no longer optional.4
As if to compensate for hyper-conceptualism, hyper-sensual art exaggerates sensibility. Installations surround and overwhelm perception; eye-catching palettes command attention; projects using “relational aesthetics” invite viewers to participate kinesthetically.5 Hyper-sensual art may simply aim to stand out from the millions of details that fill our days. But perhaps hyper-sensuality is a roaring “return of the repressed,” counterbalancing a frequent lack of attention to sensual detail in conceptually oriented art. In my dramatization after the literature class, I tried to captivate a seemingly unflappable audience, to jump-start a sensibility that had become circumscribed by concepts.
Yet our sensibilities are always and inescapably engaged by artwork, even when situations are subtler than physical intimidation. Art is perceived through the senses first, and probably also second and third. Small details have profound sensible impacts, no matter how thoroughly an artwork is motivated by concepts or plans. And though we may not always be drawn in by quiet artworks on silent walls, we cannot have lost our human capacity to be moved. If Freud suggested a structure to consciousness, he also offered a model for its depth: much experience remains beneath our immediate awareness. The entire complex of “feeling”—materiality, sensation, affect, sensibility—is inevitably percolating in our experience (as are thoughts), so we needn’t worry, or even wonder, about whether words will win.
The question is: do we dare to acknowledge that realm beyond thought, to explore that unmoored ocean of the senses? If we focus too strongly on critical angles or sensationalism, we may miss opportunities to dive more deeply into reality.
1 My favorite “evidence” is from Oscar Wilde: “Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows?” (“The Decay of Lying,” Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams, US: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971, p. 682.) Art gives us the mental vocabulary to perceive our experience; in Wilde’s phrasing, life imitates art.
2 All quotations in this paragraph are from Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
3 Plato banned poets from his Republic, except for those writing patriotic encomiums and religious hymns of praise.
4 Jackie Battenfield, “Developing Your Artist Statement,” posted 1/26/11, accessed 2/10/13; David Cohen, “Hands On” panel discussion, on connections between making art and writing about it, New York Studio School, 2/12/13.
5 Digital media offer both exaggerations at once: immersive disembodiment; thorough fantasies of sensation.
Karen Schiff (www.karen-schiff.com) is a visual artist in New York. On April 10, 2013, she will participate in “Dialogues in the Visual Arts: The Sign and the Meaning,” a panel of three artists who use words in their work, moderated by Charlotta Kotik (at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, 7:00 p.m.).