Glasgow 2016 Report

Summary

This was the third workshop of the Network, on the theme of ‘Aesthetic Values Across Cultures and Disciplines’. It brought together lead Network partners and their colleagues with expertise in fields spanning Anthropology, Art History, Chinese Art, Cognitive Psychology, Dance Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Music, Music Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Theatre Studies.

We began with a discussion of two pre-circulated provocations and their paired responses, from the fields of Art History and Sociology; Cultural History/Anthropology and Cognitive Psychology. On the second day, following an introduction to the day and a tour of the Hunterian Museum, the group undertook a ‘Sensing Art Exercise’ with pre-selected objects from the Hunterian Collection. This was facilitated by two colleagues from Glasgow (an anthropologist and geologist) and collections management staff. The final morning was dedicated to a working group session for joint projects and forward-planning, including a discussion of milestones and publications. Invited local scholars from diverse fields attended all sessions and contributed to these discussions.

Introduction

Function

The function of this report is to provide a written account of the proceedings of the third workshop of the Leverhulme International Network ‘Aesthetic Enquiry across Disciplines’, held at Glasgow University, 22-24 September 2016, for the general public. It is based on transcripts of recordings from the workshop sessions.

This was the third in a series of six workshops to be held between September 2015 and April 2018, and the debates and arguments that emerged followed on from Workshops 1 and 2.

Rationale

The information is organised around the key sessions across the workshop:

  • Sensory History of Art
  • Aesthetics of Chinese Art
  • Anthropology of Aesthetic Experience
  • Disciplinary Perspectives on Complexity
1. What are the differences between the disciplinary approaches of art/cultural historians and cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists? What roles are accorded to different senses in art history?

Art historians tend to be interested in the prevailing definitions of art in given periods, and seek to adapt their senses towards the ‘period sensorium’. They are concerned with meaning rather than measurement, and with the analysis of techniques and practices. For the ‘sensory’ historian, perception goes on in the world, not just in the brain.

Touch was highlighted as a sensory aesthetic experience which is denied as taboo in many museological contexts, yet this restriction might be viewed as a precondition of aesthetic experience, making the object all the more alluring.

A question to be addressed is whether there is a different aesthetic for each of the senses. Our project will need to be concerned with modalities of aesthetic inquiry across senses, as well as disciplines, going forward.

2. What was the role of calligraphy works in Chinese art, and what value was given to the material qualities of objects? How are our answers to these questions motivated by our situatedness in history?

We viewed calligraphy works authored by the literati, who acted simultaneously as arbiter of taste, artist and critic. Pieces of calligraphy were constantly changing and evolving and were dynamic focuses of artistic, social and political relationships. This ceased when they entered museum collections and adopted a westernized view of originality.

Material qualities of objects were considered both in their tactile nature, and in the ways they might suggest metaphysical or moral values. This question of the relation between aesthetic properties and ethical qualities needs further exploration.

The response to this paper questioned the historical motivations for constructing the products of other times and cultures as ‘art’. We must always consider our situatedness in history, which is the force that dictates those motives.

3. How might specialist epistemologies, and the experience of handling objects directly, impact on perceptions of aesthetic value?

The ‘handling’ sessions and talks revealed how unexpected and specific aesthetic values might arise from a range of specialist epistemologies, including the medical collection and geological and barkcloth specimens.

The opportunity to handle and experience objects directly was valuable, and led to reflections on the quality of the knowledge so produced, and how this might differ from the purely visual knowledge gained through visually mediated experience (e.g. objects viewed through glass or in photos).

4. What common themes might emerge from discussing complexity across different disciplinary angles?

Following on from Workshop 2 (Vienna), this topic had emerged as a shared focus, and network members had been asked to contribute in advance considerations of why complexity is of interest to them, how it would be investigated from their disciplinary perspective, and what could be learnt from the approaches of others.

Each participant discussed complexity from their own disciplinary stance, with common themes emerging between and within expertise:

The relationship between simplicity and complexity

Complexity and Aesthetic value

Levels of complexity, temporality and aesthetic judgements

Types of complexity, taste and expertise

Critical values of complexity

Immediately following this discussion work began on producing our first publication on complexity.

Conclusions

We have made substantial progress on many of the recommendations in the report on Workshop 2 (Vienna) and in the feedback received from the Steering Committee.

We followed through with the input from Analytical Philosophy as planned, and continued to widen the disciplinary base by bringing on board expertise in Sociology. The discussions showed the influence of a more sociologically inflected approach than hitherto.

We maintained thematic continuity from the previous workshop, that enabled us to make considerable progress in our discussions on complexity, while also exploring new approaches, notably multisensory approaches to art in different forms and the aesthetics of Chinese and non-western art.

The ‘Sensing Art’ exercise was an innovative format that led us away from our previously predominantly visual focus and also allowed our exploration of art to be less euro-centric and more cross-cultural. The sessions (including museum, gallery and archive visits) opened out our perspectives on ‘art’ and how it is experienced. These new perspectives will be carried forward into subsequent workshops and outputs.

We have mapped out topics, potential formats and outlets for a range of publications that will reflect different aspects of the Network’s expertise.

We had initially planned that our main shared project on multisensory dining would seek separate funding. However, we realised this could be undertaken within the frame of the Network itself, at the Oxford workshop. It would therefore be preferable to bring the date for this workshop forward to Autumn 2017, in order to allow time for reflection and writing up, and to hold the closing Symposium in Manchester in Spring 2018.

We have commenced work on published outputs from the network, including a special issue of The Senses and Society and further papers related to complexity.

Recommendations

At this point (the end of Workshop 3), we have covered a wide range of perspectives and have examined in depth cognitive/neuroscientific and multisensory and cross-cultural approaches to aesthetics.

There remain a number of issues that have not yet been addressed, or only partially addressed.

  1. We need to carry out an exercise of disciplinary mapping, in order to acknowledge strengths and limitations across methods, and to facilitate discourse and collaboration. Methodological reflections and autocritique need to be an explicit focus of provocations, responses, discussions and writing sessions. We also need to identify measures to assess progress.
  2. At Workshop 4 (Copenhagen) we should produce texts in writing workshops and progress milestones and the schedule for producing publications.
  3. We need to identify ways of addressing the role of artists in aesthetic enquiry, while working within the parameters of our funding structure.