Seeing and Feeling: Touch and Visual Art

Guest post, by Julian Stair (@julianstair)

‘Unlike literary communication, an art does not carry a message: it is a message. If you still persist and ask the artist what that message is, he will be unable to satisfy you. If he could, it would not be necessary for the art to exist.’

Michael Cardew,  Pioneer Pottery, Longmans, Green & Co Ltd, London & Harlow, 1969.

‘If you want to tell the history of the whole world, a history that does not unduly privilege one part of humanity, you cannot do it through texts alone … Writing is one of humanity’s later achievements, and until fairly recently even many literate societies recorded their concerns and aspiration not only in writing but in things. Ideally a history would bring together texts and objects.’

Dr Neil MacGregor, former Director of The British Museum, A History of the World in 100 Objects, Allen Lane, London, 2010

Image credit: Jan Baldwin

These quotations go some way to describe my approach to making art, or as I prefer to call it, making pots. I wish the appreciation of art was as straightforward as Cardew’s formulation – of course he was a romantic, born in a different era, and wrote these words when the art world was a very different place. Like MacGregor, I write (reluctantly) because our culture demands literary interpretations of its art. Echoing Cardew twenty years later, the art critic Peter Fuller bemoaned the ‘loss of a shared symbolic order’ in contemporary art, a time when people could read the messages of objects as directly as words, while the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, in his recent book Undinge, sees the loss of social rituals in a culture increasingly centred on information technology as leading to a world of digital alienation and loneliness: ‘We can linger with objects. With information, however, we cannot.’

Image credit: Giles Revell

The objects I make are made to be appreciated visually but they are also materially complex, made to be appreciated through touch – whether through the hand, or, with large-scale work, through the body[1]. What academic discipline have we evolved to evaluate touch, what theories and hypotheses consider haptical experience within the cultural realm? Fortunately UCL and this blog are doing admirable work in addressing these shortcomings, as are recent developments in neurological research identifying many more layers of sensory experience (that go beyond the classic five senses) such as proprioception, kinaesthesia and equilibrioception. Even the term ‘visual art’ denies the pivotal role that materials and touch plays in negotiating the world.

By engaging with and playing a part within the social fabric of human life, pots become part of what I call an embodied or active narrative – they don’t just comment on or illustrate a story but their agency actively shapes narrative through our actions. All art has a social dimension but it is often highly selective, traditionally regarding the idea of use as a constraint on the artist’s imagination, an attitude still prevalent today: as one leading contemporary British artist succinctly put it ‘As soon as an object becomes useless it becomes useful.’ In contrast, the artist and historian Philip Rawson discussed the role that ceramics has played in our culture as not a constraint but as a reflection and confirmation of ourselves, a ‘primal interweaving of matter, human action, and symbol … something undeniably material, which at the same time contains so much projected into it from man’s daily life and experience at all levels that it can seem to him like a projection of his own bodily identity. It thus becomes an external testimony to his existence.’

Image credit: Jan Baldwin

I happen to think that when art operates within a social context its meaning is heightened, the interpretation of the artwork is enriched as well as social life at large. And this applies whether one makes cups and saucers or funerary ware. As the American Philosopher John Dewey wrote some 70 years ago ‘It is mere ignorance that leads then to the supposition that connection of art and aesthetic perception with experience signifies a lowering of their significance and dignity … at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events’.  We humans are physical creatures who live in a material world and I believe art should reflect this. We do not eat food with our eyes, wear clothes by looking at them, move across the earth without coming into contact with the ground. Almost every human action is a physical interaction with the world – or to borrow Oliver Sacks’ phrase – we experience the world through ‘the hand of the mind’. Sacks also reminds us that ‘One does not see, or sense, or perceive in isolation – perception is always linked to behaviour and movement, to reaching out and exploring the world.’ Human interaction may become ever more problematized in our increasingly digital age.

Image credit: Jan Baldwin

The profound pragmatism of pots underscores the fact that we live our lives and experience ideas and emotions, grounded in a material world. I would argue that pottery is a stealth art. It is an art of the everyday as well as the special occasion. It is omnipresent, operating while we wake up in the morning bleary-eyed through to occasions of grand public ritual. The use of an apparently simple cup and saucer (a ‘humble’ overlooked and unsensational object within the canons of contemporary art – almost anti-art, and a subject for painters to use and make art from) involves a huge range of somatic modalities: an appraisal of two interrelated forms; often graphic treatment or glaze; a consideration of ergonomics; tactile qualities; kinesthetic appreciation; architectural specificity; human scale; site-sensitivity; changing perceptions of heat and cold; temporality; conveyance of taste and smell and, of course, aesthetic discernment. This conveyor for drink and sustenance for the body is an object that we use on a daily basis with friends and family to ‘break bread’, inside domestic space, and also away from the home. And returning to Cardew’s quote at the beginning – this work does not carry a message – it is the message.

[1] If food and drink are also included in the equation, we also have olfactory, auditory and gustatory sensations

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