Once More, Without Feeling

In my philosophy class today, we were discussing the hypothetical problems of a person who, for whatever reason, has a fractured ability or total inability to experience and understand emotions.  The professor asked how this would hinder such a person’s appreciation of art.  And like Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s possible to appreciate art without emotion.

I’ve always thought that, for the sake of over simplification, there are two ways to “appreciate” art:  viscerally and intellectually.  I remember reading about a ten year old art critic last year, and a subsequent discussion on whether children make better critics on account of their untrained response.  Said response is the visceral appreciation of art.  Pretty much everyone can do that –  look at a piece of art and regurgitate the most immediate thoughts and feelings that it brings up.  This is a perfectly legitimate way of looking at art.  Take, on the other hand, a New York Times art critic (I love you Roberta Smith).  You will rarely find them writing about how the art they’re assessing makes them feel, but rather the effectiveness of the artist’s technique, the historical context, and of course a boatload of references to past and present art.

Now, my point in all this is that I believe to an extent one can have an intellectual appreciation of art without employing their emotions.  Anyone can learn the facts and figures of art history.  The visceral response, however, will be difficult if not impossible.  The fullest appreciation of art comes from a combination of the two.  That’s what makes a great art historian (in my humble opinion).

Back to class.  I launched into my argument about how some art could be greatly appreciated without emotion.  Take Impressionism.  I’ve written about how the style first and foremost makes a retinal connection with the viewer.  Everyone has retinas, even sociopaths.  Baroque art, however, which hinges on an emotional connection, would probably go a bit over the heads of someone who can’t effectively feel.

Then I realized that I’d been hung up on the term appreciation.  The act is completely different than experiencing art.  I think this is really where the emotions come in.  Think again about an Impressionist painting.  Even though it’s appealing to your retinas, most people are going to have the secondary response of feeling something.  Maybe the painting makes a viewer feel peaceful, hopeful, or happy.  Baroque or Romantic art, in contrast, might bowl you over with emotion before you can stop and ponder the technique.

In short, anyone can appreciate art.  Without emotions, though, that appreciation will only be a fraction of what it could be.  Only with the emotions can we truly experience art.  When I think about exactly what I want to accomplish by being a curator, my answer is usually that I want to present art in a way that makes the emotions I feel available to as many people as possible.  I count quite heavily on feelings.  And I guess at the end of the day, without over thinking it, art without emotion is just sad.

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