What Sense is there in Art? - The Courtauld Institute of Art

What Sense is there in Art?

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What Sense is There in Art? - The Politics of (Multisensory) Experiences



Mary Bauermeister, Untitled (Blue Honeycomb), 1958, layered paste on wood, 18 x 24 cm. Collection Mary Bauermeister.

Mary Bauermeister, Untitled (Blue Honeycomb), 1958, layered paste on wood, 18 x 24 cm. Collection Mary Bauermeister.




What Sense is there in Art? is a research project and network that promotes a conscious awareness of multisensory experiences of art and enquires into the meaning and cultural, social and political implications of such encounters. As an initiative that traverses all periods of art history and all types of art, this project examines the evocation, mediation and representation of such experiences in art works that attend to these matters explicitly and implicitly.

The main aim is to encourage the exchange of information and ideas about art and senses among the general public, artists, scholars and curators, both nationally and internationally.

The programme was convened by Dr Irene Noy, the Sackler Research Forum Postdoctoral Fellow for 2015-16. 

Project workshop, 26 September 2016

Research context

In recent years, there has been a re-discovery of the importance of the multisensory experience of art. Despite this sensorial revival within the art discourse, to a great extent, art perception and its appreciation is still grounded today in ideas that were developed during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century in Europe.

The Kantian theory of aesthetics and its preference of the sense of sight as a leading sense in the philosophy of art, beauty and logical thinking overshadow more liberal approaches which argue that aesthetics can relate to the whole corporeal sensorium and thus go back to its original Greek meaning, in which feelings, emotions and perception via all senses are included. Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762) was one of the key figures in this area who proposed the concept of cognition sensitive or “sensitive knowledge”, which acknowledged the senses as active generators of meaning rather than passive receptors of sensations.

It suggests that human beings could not and should not be reduced to either purely rational or purely sensual beings. Such an approach embraces the confusion of sensual experience as a sign of wholeness, since aesthetics as the philosophy of “sensitive knowledge” allows human experiences to be grasped in a way that cannot be comprehended through logical thinking alone. Given these theoretical juxtapositions and considering this hierarchy of the senses, which pervades into the twenty-first century, how can such mechanisms be addressed in an artistic practice and discourse? What can such a sensorial expansion mean to a broader context? What relevance do such concerns have to the increasing commodification of senses?

Such questions are especially pertinent at a time of dramatic sensory changes, whereby new means of production have developed numerous new ways to amplify, shield, stimulate or irritate our senses that pervade most aspects of our lives.

Related Research

What Sense is There in Art? builds on a range of earlier research activities co-convened by Dr Irene Noy

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