Sensuousness of the Arts
- Chandra Anand

December 24, 2016

An art work or piece is a creative unit made by man, in which he abstracts a special moment from life experience and integrates a whole meaning to it, by which the spectator is able to experience that moment as valued by the artist. The art body bears a likeness to that instance of abstraction as viewed by the artist of the special moment. It embodies thoughts and values about an aspect of reality as experienced or intuited by the artist. The concept formed is given concrete shape through images like pictures, statues etc. This image of art stimulates the senses of the spectator and makes him aware of the idea implicit in art work. This image is at a perceptible level, and enables the spectators to comprehend the importance or experience a heightened sense of the reality of the presented abstractions. The dominant emotion in the art presentation pervades through spectators giving them a pleasurable experience. Since viewing and appraising art work is an act of perception and not cognition, all art works need to be sensuous to attract and hold the undivided attention of the spectator. Thus the importance of the sensuous element i.e. “intrinsic perception of sensation” [1] as one of art’s most characteristic features has been acknowledged. Therefore, art piece is a sensuous embodiment i.e. a work of art is directly available to the senses.

Sensuous approach to art:
Sensuous approach to art has acquired the position of a largely unquestioned postulate in most modern aesthetic theory. It has to do with the traditional “distinction between the sensuous and the sensual as employed in characterizations of aesthetic experience and the objects which evoke it” [2]. Many a times, it’s been noticed that the words sensuous, sensual and sexual have been used interchangeably amounting to some confusion. Though they share the same prefix ‘sens,’ they vary slightly in their meanings. The word sensuous means only those perceptions wherein the senses cater to the experience of pleasure deprived of the derogatory sense of exciting the baser instincts of man and also provide intellectual satisfaction. The word sensual refers to those perceptions wherein the senses cater to that experience which is confined to bodily pleasures and where appeal is to the “grosser” bodily sensations, particularly the sexual. In fact, this distinction between the meaning of sensuous and sensual also is the distinction between good art and bad art.  Thus the sensuous approach in art is of higher quality and the sensual is disqualified especially from classical arts. Other factors like distance, metaphysical positions and commitments, and also moral beliefs and controls differentiate the sensuous from the sensual.

(i) Distance: It is acknowledged that, the senses are a necessary condition for most of, if not all aesthetic experience. And, the difference in meaning of the sensuous and the sensual in aesthetic perception is determined by the nature of senses which play a role in perceiving the art object.  The senses of sight and hearing are distant senses while the sense of taste, smell and touch are regarded as contact senses. The organs of sight and hearing are distant senses as they enable the spectators to view and appraise objects of art from a distance without having direct contact with the art entity. Although the contact senses of taste, smell and touch help understand certain aesthetic perceptions like, delicious, aromatic and smoothness respectively, they need to have direct physical contact with one’s body; and, there are all chances to create excitement of the baser instincts of man leading to sensuality. And on other hand, the possibility of exciting the baser instincts of man can be avoided through the senses of sight and hearing to a very large extent leading to sensuous appraisal of objects of work or images. It is because, the senses of sight and hearing are held to be most closely related to the operations of reason and possessing potentialities to grasp meaning and structural organization. Hence they are regarded as the aesthetic senses. One must acknowledge that though there is physical distance in aesthetic perception, the awareness of the emotion present in the idea permeates the whole of the spectator’s being.

“The enjoyment of some kinds of beauty has usually been regarded as possible only through the intervention of distance.  ….Only when the sensual has been depersonalized, removed from proximity, spiritualized, does it render itself aesthetically acceptable. ….And, as might have been expected, transcending the physical presence entirely has been taken as affording the greater beauty.” [3] These points pertain to notions of psychical distance in aesthetics and surely the rasa theory as elucidated by Abhinavagupta will help understand this phenomenon.

(ii) Metaphysical positions: Aesthetic theory depends on the corresponding metaphysical position and commitments of the concepts for rising above the sensual. The philosophical meanings underlying the art presentations help one to rise above the sensual images and view the larger reality of life. “The temple sculptures of tenth-century India are an undisguised exaltation of physical desire; yet they are great works of art because their eroticism is part of their whole philosophy”. [4] “The idea that such sensual images might generate irreverent thoughts did not seem to arise; rather the established associations appear to have been with accentuated growth, prosperity and auspiciousness.” [5] That is why, “the monasteries of Ajanta were filled with images of beautiful women - because in the eyes of the monks this was completely appropriate decoration.” [6] Hence, it is the underlying idea of art presentation that ought to take hold of the mind through the senses and not the materials of art that make up the images of art.

(iii) Moral values and controls: “Although metaphysical opinions play a large part in the rejection of the sensual form of aesthetic employment, moral beliefs and controls closely related to them are probably major reason for this practice” [7]. Unlike now - when women are being associated with temptation and treated like sex symbols; in those days, women were associated with fertility, abundance and prosperity. “For this reason throughout their long history, the arts of India - both visual and literary - have consistently celebrated the beauty of the human body”. [8] This is with reference to paintings of Ajanta caves, sculptures that abound the temples of India and description of female beauty as found in plays of Kalidasa. Also the philosophy of yoga “was aimed at perfecting and transforming the body, with a view, among the higher adepts, to making it transcendent, omniscient, and even god-like. The body, in other words, is potentially the vehicle of divinity. In Indian tradition, the sensuous and the sacred are not opposed. They are one, and the sensuous is seen as an integral part of the sacred. The gods were always depicted as superhumanly beautiful, for if the image was not beautiful and attractive then the deities could not be persuaded to inhabit the statue.” [9] Thus, the metaphysical positions and moral values like chastity and fidelity all help these erotic statues and paintings, including the nude ones to rise above sensual and becomes a sensuous object.

In today’s world, there is a huge change in how one views art. Due to influence of industrial revolution the change in materials of art creation, new forms and movements of art have emerged. This has brought about emergence of new perspectives in theory of art. This has also led the artist to challenge these concepts of traditional aesthetics like distance, metaphysical position and moral values and controls and other ancient practices. Today, distance is reduced with audience involvement in process of art, use of audience spaces for performance etc, metaphysical positions are questioned and moral controls are getting lowered.  Then, there is requirement to develop new concepts in aesthetics which has not been defined as yet. The aesthetic of contemporary arts has to be defined and they also have to explain the older ones if the philosophy of art has to have a strong foothold.

Notes to reference:
1)    Arnold Berleant, Sense perception, The Sensuous and the Sensual in Aesthetics,, 1964.
2)    Ibid.
3)    Arnold Berleant, Aesthetic experience, The Sensuous and the Sensual in Aesthetics,, 1964.
4)    William Dalrymple, A Point of View: The sacred and sensuous in Indian art,, 2014.
5)    Ibid.
6)    Ibid.
7)    Arnold Berleant, Moral beliefs, The Sensuous and the Sensual in Aesthetics,, 1964.
8)    William Dalrymple, A Point of View: The sacred and sensuous in Indian art,, 2014.
9)    Ibid.

1)    Arnold Berleant, Aesthetics and the Contemporary Arts,, 1970.
2)    Arnold Berleant, The Sensuous and the Sensual in Aesthetics,, 1964.
3)    Peter Saint-Andre, Art as Sensuous Embodiment, 1994.
4)    Peter Saint-Andre, The Conceptual Nature of Art,, 2005.
5)    William Dalrymple, A Point of View: The sacred and sensuous in Indian art,, 2014.

Chandra Anand is a Bharatanatyam artiste and teacher. A student of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharatanatya Kalamandir since 1972, she is presently training under guru Lata Raman. Apart from MA in Eng Lit. from Bombay University (1990) and B Ed from Bombay University (1994), she has an MA in Classical Dance (Bharatanatyam) from Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune (2014).

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