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Art and Intimacy: The Importance of Embodied Experience and Cultural Context

Updated: May 16, 2023

What is it about art that allows it to create such a profound sense of intimacy? According to philosophers like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Danto, it's because art has a way of revealing the world to us in a way that's makes the familiar seem strange and the unfamiliar seem familiar. Art has the uncanny ability to show us not just how a landscape looks, but how a landscape feels. The arrangement of objects within a still life speaks to some part of us that just knows how these objects vibrate together. There is an energy in the stillness that seems paradoxical, and these tensions can perhaps explain why art so successfully absorbs us.

Heidegger's Theory of Aesthetic Revelation

Heidegger's theory of art revolves around the concept of "revealing." He believed that art can reveal something about the world that is not otherwise accessible to us (Kant describes this as the noumenon, as part of his transcendental idealism). As mystical as this can sound, the idea that there is a world concealed to us is nothing so new or modern as Heidegger. It reaches all the way back Plato and his cave, and although its a notion I've found hard to grasp and untethered in evidence, I sympathise with the intuition that there is more to the world than what the material reveals to us. In his book "The Origin of the Work of Art," Heidegger states that "the artwork opens up a world." This means that through its aesthetic qualities, art can bring to light aspects of the world that were previously hidden or unnoticed.

Artists' play with perspective has always highlighted to us the way we shift between the real and unreal, the familiar and unfamiliar. And its through this process of revealing and defamiliarization, Heidegger believed that art creates a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the artwork. As he states, "Art is the setting-into-work of truth, and therefore art is the highest form of human activity."

Merleau-Ponty's Emphasis on Embodied Experience

Another philosopher who explored the relationship between art and intimacy is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty was a French phenomenologist who believed that our perception of the world was not simply a matter of passive observation but rather an active engagement with our environment. In his book "Phenomenology of Perception," he argued that art is able to create a sense of intimacy with its viewer by engaging our embodied experiences of the world. How convincing is the argument that knowledge is the result of embodied experience?

Well, how else are you going to learn about the world? By osmosis? (Unless you're a sponge, in which case, congratulations on your newfound sentience.) But seriously, think about all the times you've touched something hot and immediately learned not to touch it again. Or the way your stomach tells you to stop eating when you've had too much pizza (although sometimes my brain doesn't listen to my body, and I end up regretting it later). Our experiences of the world are also of course shaped by the cultural and historical contexts in which we live, contexts which are embodied, as they are transmitted through physical practices, rituals, and other forms of embodied knowledge. I mean, have you ever tried to explain a meme to someone who wasn't there when it first went viral? It's like trying to explain the concept of a fax machine to a pigeon.

So according to Merleau-Ponty, art is able to connect with our bodily experiences through its sensory qualities, such as color, texture, and form. He believed that "the painting speaks to our body before it speaks to our mind," and that "the painter reaches into the depths of our being by means of colors and lines."

Through this embodied engagement with the artwork, Merleau-Ponty believed that art was able to create a sense of immediacy and intimacy. As he wrote, "the painting is not an object, but a presence, which speaks to our body and transforms our relationship with the world.” Merleau-Ponty's concept of embodied engagement with art is still relevant today as it highlights the importance of sensory experience in our perception of art. In an age where we are constantly bombarded with information through digital media, it can be easy to forget the importance of physical and sensory experiences.

Danto's Theory of Art as a Cultural Conversation

Finally, the philosopher Arthur Danto argued that art is able to create intimacy through its ability to convey emotion and meaning. By expressing complex emotional and intellectual ideas through visual means, art is able to connect with us on a deeply personal level, creating a sense of intimacy and connection that transcends language and rational thought. Danto's theory of the "artworld" emphasizes the importance of cultural context in our understanding of art. He argued that art is not simply a matter of aesthetic qualities or technical skill, but is defined by its place within a larger cultural context. This means that artworks are not just objects that exist in isolation, but rather are part of a larger network of institutions, practices, and discourses that define what we consider to be "art."

Additionally, Danto's ideas about the "art of the everyday" suggest that art can be found in the everyday objects and experiences that make up our lives. This means that art can be a way of connecting with the familiar and the ordinary, and of finding beauty and meaning in the everyday world. In this way, art can create a sense of intimacy by allowing us to connect with the familiar and the ordinary in new and unexpected ways.

Finding Intimacy in the Everyday

In light of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing sense of isolation and fragmentation in society, the insights of philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Arthur Danto regarding the power of art to create intimacy are particularly relevant. When we view a piece of art, we bring our own individual experiences and perspectives to it, but we also connect with a broader cultural context that gives the artwork meaning and significance. This shared cultural context helps to create a sense of community and shared values, which is particularly important in a diverse and rapidly changing society.

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