Coenesthesia of Art


All remarks as to the ways and means by which experiences arise or are brought about are technical, but critical remarks are about the values of experiences and the reasons for regarding them as valuable, or not valuable (23). – I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism

The book Principles of Literary Criticism was mentioned in The Story of Ain’t and for some reason, I felt I had to read it. Published in 1924, Richards seems to use perspectives in psychology to try to understand the value of the arts and outline principles with which to appreciate and critique them.

The basis of morality, as Shelley insisted, is laid not by preachers but by poets. Bad taste and crude responses are not mere flaws in an otherwise admirable person. They are actually a root evil from which other defects flow. No life can be excellent in which the elementary responses are disorganised and confused (62).

I came across Andrew Wyeth’s study for his painting Black Velvet the other day in the book Writers on Artists. The writer was John Updike and the focus of his essay was (mostly) on his complaining of the titillating speculation and hype surrounding the relationship between Wyeth and his long time model Helga Testorf (Black Velvet is one of the so-named “Helga Series”). I sent a picture of the finished painting via facebook to my daughter because she loves this series of works (I couldn’t find the above study online, for this post I scanned the image from the book). My oldest son commented on it, “that’s creepy.”

The two pillars upon which a theory of criticism must rest are an account of value and an account of communication. We do not sufficiently realise how great a part of our experience takes the form it does, because we are social beings and accustomed to communication from infancy (25).

I looked at the painting as it must have appeared to him, a woman lying corpse-like, almost being swallowed by a rich black background against which her hair, individually limned with golden light, glimmered intoxicatingly.

There is no kind of mental activity in which memory does not intervene (106).

But it was exactly her pose that had resonated with me. I told him: never mind the obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia, or the beautiful lines and (in the painting) the use of lights and darks – it is her pose! That it happens to be the exact position that I sleep in fascinates me, (as my children have, even a friend once checked to see if I was alive when we once shared a bed, I was so persistent in my odd, still repose).

Tragedy – is still the form under which the mind may most clearly and freely contemplate the human situation, its issues unclouded, its possibilities revealed (69).

The hands over her chest, wanting to cover her heart, her crossed limp feet, head turned away- it is evocative of a vulnerability, a melancholy and…becalmed spirit that so overwhelms. Quite the opposite of Olympia’s pointed command and assurance.

We rarely change our tastes, we rather find them changed (198).

My son’s two word reaction made me organise my thoughts about my own judgments. What made me stare at it, feel and think so deeply? For Richards, that is the very key – organising the chaos of our thoughts as a direct function of critique. Yes we all have thoughts and/or feelings, but it is the making sense of them and the communication of them with which the artist intuits and the viewer aspires to illume meaningful existence.

To put it briefly the best life is that in which as much as possible of our possible personalities is engaged. And of two personalities that one is the better in which there is more which can be engaged without confusion. We all know people of unusually wide and varied possibilities who pay for their width in disorder, and we know others who pay for their order with narrowness (288).

It doesn’t matter that my son and I had different reactions, only that we have an organized and expansive sense of ourselves with which to understand our reactions – because we always react. Literature and the arts engage sense and sensibility, order and organic harmony, through which we discover we are more than all that we see, hear and read. We are more than all this.


*title from Chapter XIII, Emotion and Coenesthesia:  In alluding to the coenesthesia we came very near to giving an account of emotion as an ingredient of consciousness (98). […]  As a rule a process of extraordinary complexity takes place between perceiving the situation and finding a mode of meeting it. This complicated process contributes the rest of its peculiar flavour to an emotional experience (102).


9 responses to “Coenesthesia of Art

  1. And I am surely the wider, paying constantly for my width, with disorder!!! Oh but to have the command of my mind as you do….such clarity and engagement in all things…Perhaps it has been a result of indulging my attention deficit… leading me merrily, skipping from one fine thought to another with no order!
    Another wonderful thought provoking article!

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  3. Thanks for all the likes…
    I happened on your “Coenesthesia Of Art” from clicking on an email I got with a bit of one of my posts in it, a “pingback” or some such thing. So I read it. Good stuff.
    Were I not many books behind, I too would pick up a used copy of “Richards” to read because the concept of the “two pillars” interests me. Regarding value and communication, the weight one give to each seem to be what separates modernism from postmodernism, the Pollack/Warhol gap.
    Back to Wyeth, he was like Manet; Olympia’s domination of and Helga’s indifference to the viewer/artist show that both artists were well aware of the artist/model trope and by avoiding the customs of “The Nude” they show that. They both painted realistically enough—less so than small copies in art books would have you believe—to allow the viewer to think they think like the artists. And that makes some folk uncomfortable.
    I think artists both intuit and illume as do viewers. The artist makes some private thing public then the viewer makes it private again. At least the modernists like Manet and Wyeth do, the PoMo folk begin with public stuff. The former are windows the latter are mirrors.
    Anyway, I’ll read more of your blog and where it leads… Goya’s blackness, Piranesi’s prisons, Goethe on color, Hogarth on style, Brouwer v. Vermeer… may I ask why you liked my stuff?

    • I agree artists do intuit and illume as they are also viewers. The private to public to private is of some considerable fascination to me….it is what happens along the ‘to” that makes it meaningful or not…the clarity and sincerity of “to” in artist and viewer is essential, the former obvious, but the latter, as Richards emphasises, equally vital.

      Yes, of course you may ask….

  4. I think you would be worried if your son had the same reactions as you. The important thing is that we have a response to art, for surely that is the whole point of it.

    Date: Mon, 17 Mar 2014 11:28:11 +0000 To:

    • Absolutely, but I think the finer point is that we do react whether we are aware of it or not, therefore how we understand and organize and expand upon our reaction is an opportunity to refine ourselves and enrich our lives.

  5. I like reading this kind of stuff.

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