Fernando Torrente, Psychologist – Psychotherapist
I’ll start by mentioning a memorable experience I had visiting the temple at Segesta in Sicily.
To reach the temple – whose colonnade is still intact, together with the sacred area it encloses – you need to leave the road and follow a dirt track. It was a beautiful day: all around was silence, broken only by the bleating of sheep and the sound of their bells in the distance. You had the feeling of withdrawing from the modern world and, as it were, moving back in time. Then you arrived at the temple. Touching the columns, you had a sense of the swathes of time that had passed over them. The silence and the air of the place (aura or genius loci, if you like) moved you to imagine what it would have been like when it used to be visited by people who sought contact with the divinity.
Obviously we can sense this “aura”, the spirituality of a place, in many churches, when conditions are right and they are not invaded by swarms of roudy visitors who may enliven a trip to a market but deaden our capacity to feel in places intended for meditation.
Many places and many museums have their unique “aura”, and it is a pity when a spacious, imposing museum reserves a tiny space for exhibiting a few tactile reproductions in an area which looks at best like a classroom.
Beauty and wonder.
I have begun by talking about receptiveness to atmosphere so as to make the point that imagination needs to be joined to sensory perception, and it is the combination of the two which enables us to fully appreciate a place or a work of art. This is because together they awaken memories, reveries, attaining that feeling of wonder which, in my view, needn’t necessarily accompany our experience of beauty as it is ordinarily understood – beauty, which, as history shows, can anyway change its canons from one age to another.
We now come to the way in which we can enjoy a “traditional” artwork, in other words not an installation.
But first a small point: the fact that touch, as the language philosopher Marco Mazzeo points out, is the victim of a paradox. It is so basic that we tend to take it for granted: for the sighted, contact with a work of art takes place mainly though gazing, looking, in a word through sight..
Skin filters the outside world: it is the most extensive sensory organ.
For people who cannot see, touch is the most important sense. It is a sense which is often undervalued despite the fact, as the French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu points out:
“Even before they are born, cutaneous sensations introduce infants to an extraordinarily rich and compex universe, one which is as yet diffuse but which awakens the perception-consciousness system, lays down a global and episodic sense of existence and provides the possibility of an original psychical space.
Through the maternal contractions and expulsion from the vagina at birth, the infant undergoes a complete body massage which activates his sensations.
Bodily contact is a prerequisite for survival. The skin is like a second brain. Millions of nerve endings send messages to the brain where, in the first year of life, they are processed as sensations, images, perceptions, thoughts and words. Skin protects, contains, circumscribes and, at the same time, allows contact with others and receives and responds to an infinite number of stimuli. It is the organ which filters the outside world and responds to it.
The skin is undoubtedly the sensory organ which covers the largest area. Physical contact between mother and child, for example, causes great pleasure to both. Besides, we need only think of the pleasure of being caressed and caressing, of the erotic pleasure we feel in contact with another person, due in large part to the skin.
It is evident, too, that it is impossible to live without skin, without touch; moreover, as early as antiquity, flaying was seen as something terrible, the stuff of legends and myths like Apollo and Marsyas”.
Touch. Perception and presence of the whole body.
The hand is the principal organ of touch, especially for a blind person for whom it takes on a perceptive, exploratory role without foregoing its executive function.
Thus we can say that while touch is assigned to a specific and clearly localized organ – the hands – it also involves the perception and presence of the whole body.
In other words, touch is a complex sensory system which thrives on the tension between two polarities: one diffuse and extensive, usually called somatesthetic, and the other focused and local, known as haptic perception.
It is precisely through the haptic mode that touch is able to perceive forms in an accessible way; so it is only through the hands that we can explore objects in their concrete, simultaneous three-dimensionality.
In fact, haptic exploration in conjunction with kinesthetic exploration allows us to grasp most of the properties of an object and thus to enjoy works of art.
But as I pointed out earlier, enjoyment of a work of art, for the sighted and non-sighted alike, relies, I would argue, on a combination of different senses together with the imagination which the piece kindles in us.
This is not the place to dwell on how an artwork is explored through touch, on the preparation needed to enjoy it to the full, on the technical aspects of reproductions, nor on the differences between touch and sight, nor on the fact that visual-motor coordination will be replaced by bimanual coordination and ear-hand coordination: all this would require another article and it is not what I want to stress here.
What I do want to point out is something else: that in certain cases a work of art, whether looked at or explored with the hands, produces the same sensations, the same emotions of beauty, joy, sadness, unpleasantness. But there are other artworks which can be experienced in a very different way, and I would cite the example of one which the artist Piero Gilardi invited me to touch: The hurricane.
The work shows the devastating effects of a hurricane on a tropical forest, with obvious consequences for nature and animals. Tactile exploration at once reveals the dramatic nature of the scene; trees uprooted and flattened, foliage battered, and birds flung to earth. The scene is one of untold violence, and although it is explored analytically by means of touch, you nonetheless have the impression that the sensation conveyed by it all is immediate, instantaneous, as quick as a glance.
However, the same work analyzed by a sighted person makes a very different impression because all the violence and drama of the scene is softened, almost annulled by the brightness and vivacity of the colours chosen by the artist. At this point, if we want the non-sighted person to have a complete experience of the work, as the artist probably conceived it, we need to supplement tactile exploration with the spoken word and offer a narrative of the piece.
We think we see where we should only feel.
But despite this I feel that what is a source of wonder and amazement for the sighted person need not neceessarily be so for those who cannot see, otherwise we risk a form of psychological subjection which obliges the blind to accept the point of view of the sighted willy-nilly.
To conclude, I would like to quote from Johann Gottfried Herder, writing as long ago as 1778: “We think we see where we should only feel; in the end we see so much and so rapidly that we no longer feel anything, and are no longer able to feel anything, because feeling is always the guarantor and basis of seeing. In all these cases, sight is only a shorthand formula for touch. Sight is dream; touch truth”.
In addition I would like to put forward a theory which is perhaps a bit bold but which I hope may be useful in provoking thought and initiating discussion.
As well as our conscious ego we have an unconscious ego which, for example, for Jung is not only the repository for what we repress of the “family novel” (personal unconscious) but also a collective unconscious, the seat of archetypes which in themselves are not representable but which are manifested in archetypal images, dreams and phantasies. And this “ancient” substrate which is at work within us is something that the blind and the sighted have in common, and hence a common inner base, but it is also something we share in our perceptions of the outer world, and so maybe when it comes to experiencing a work of art and feeling amazement, the distance between the blind and the sighted is not as great as a preliminary analysis might have suggested.
But this, as I say, is a hypothesis to think about and discuss.
A final thought concerns installations which, in some cases, already involve all the senses and can therefore be enjoyed by the sighted and blind alike without mediation due to reproductions, but this is an argument that would need to be developed at greater length than we have space for here.