Notes from Session 5 of Beyond Seeing, Tate Modern
Touch and Tactile Values
The main theme of this week's session was touch, and in particular its relationship with sight.
On 7th July 1688 a Doctor wrote to the empiricist philosopher John Locke, author of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding in which he'd described the newborn's mind as a tabula rasa: a blank slate. This Doctor Molyneux posed a problem for Locke. Locke didnt reply to this letter. But when Molyneux wrote again in 1693 Locke recognised the interesting problem that Molyneux was posing and included a discussion of it in the new edition of his Essay. Here is Molyneux's Problem:
"Suppose a Man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a Cube, and a Sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and t'other; which is the Cube, which the Sphere. Suppose then the Cube and Sphere placed on a Table, and the Blind Man to be made to see. Qaere, Whether by his sight, before he touch'd them, he could now distinguish, and tell, which is the Globe, which the Cube. '
As originally posed, Molyneux's Problem also included the question of whether the formerly blind man would be able to tell how far away from him these objects were by sight alone.
Molyneux's Problem became a focus for discussion for two hundred years with a range of major thinkers including Berkeley, Leibniz, Voltaire, Diderot, Helmholtz and William James, giving their responses.
The problem is essentially about whether there is unlearned communication between the sense modalities of touch and sight. Locke's response was no, the man would not be able to distinguish the objects by sight alone. Early empirical evidence from the restoration of a cataract sufferers' sight seemed to back him up on this; however animals deprived of light ((who would do this?) still achieve depth perception. Others such as Leibeniz (and Richard in our group discussion) thought that reason would allow the man to make an inference about which was which. (You can read transcript of a discussion about Molyneux's Problem from ABC Radio's Philosopher's Zone here. Shaun Gallagher has an interesting and detailed discussion of Molyneux's Problem here)
The point of introducing Molyneux's Problem here was to raise questions about the integration of sight and touch in our understanding of art...
Berenson and Fry on Tactile Values
The art historian and connoisseur Bernard Berenson writing about Giotto in his book Italian Painters of the Renaissance, set out his view about tactile values. For him effective figure painting needed 'the illusion of being able to touch the figure'. He wrote:
'I must have the illusion of varying muscular sensations inside my palm and fingers corresponding to the various projections of this figure, before I shall take it for granted as real, and let it affect me lastingly.'
The critic Roger Fry in his 'Essay on Aesthetics' of 1909 suggested that the emotional effects of painting are felt, that rhythm in visual art 'appeals to all the sensations which accompany muscular activity'. Similarly mass, and space depicted in visual art appeal to kinetic and tactile qualities.
In the gallery we looked at several representational paintings in the State of Flux section. The idea was to focus on tactile values, imagined movement around painted spaces, sensations of depth, imagined feel of textures etc. with a view to seeing familiar works under a new description. This was most effective with a painting by Pierre Bonnard The Bowl of Milk. Here the space, had depth, but was tilted towards the viewer in an almost vertiginous way that seemed to tip us out of a tactile engagement. Nevertheless there were objects seemingly contrasted between hard and soft (hard stone, soft hair etc.). Approaching the image in this way suggesed an interpretation of it as expressing a conscious, or possibly pre-conscious desire on the part of the artist for it not to be read as a straightforward space that the viewer could enter in imagination (in the way a Renaissance painting might be). Rather Bonnard was moving towards a kind of abstraction that forced the viewer to be more aware of the painted canvas as formal pattern and surface as well as recognising the mass and depth of what was depicted.