Appreciate Your Knowledge

Let us all start off on the same page. If you just pass a piece of artwork, it is pretty hard to be void of all emotion. After watching a film, one is likely to rank the film immediately amongst their other favorite films. When one passes a statue, it one doesn’t simply walk past it without thinking (unless one happens to live in that particular city and it goes unnoticed). Any artwork in a museum triggers an immediate response of “Oh, I will stop to look at that” or “Out of everything in this room, this one is the least appealing, so I will pass it.” All of these interactions between the recipient and the artwork trigger some sort of emotional arousal. It doesn’t take much more than the simplest pragmatic thought to be able to understand that conjecture. However, when someone does stop to look at the triptych in the National Gallery, or has a cathartic attachment to a film, or an upheaval of emotion for an artwork, whatever it be, a certain higher level of appreciation almost automatically attached to the piece. Through more and more emotional arousal, more appreciation is gained.

In order to understand this level of higher appreciation through emotion, we must first know what exactly, physiologically and cognitively, makes up have this inner feeling. According to Davies, psychologists and physiologists believe that the cognitive elements of emotion could be understood through one’s beliefs and desires. “Fear [for example] usually involves the belief that one is threatened by harm and the desire to freeze, flee, or fight. Envy [in another example] one must believe that someone has something that they [themselves] want.” (Davies, 138) Davies goes on to describe how other emotions could involve this dichotomy between belief and desire. However, despite the scientists’ beliefs, Davies believes that while some emotions, such as fear and disgust, involve a physiological response that is inherited through evolution, other more complex emotions, such as love, happiness, and sadness involve a much higher understanding of higher cognitive thought to explain, rather than just writing them off as involving only a physiological response involving the shooting of neurons and the release of serotonin.

Emotions such as love, happiness, sadness, and freedom could be felt through a variety of completely different circumstances. To give some examples, love could be felt by one in a well-off relationship, and also by one who devotes his whole life to his pursuit of making his art known. While one is more of a personal feeling between two people, the love between the artist and his work could both be categorized under the emotion, love. Just like so, feelings of freedom could be felt by an immigrant arriving at Ellis Island in the early 1900’s, but also by the bohemian independent artist who follows no one else’s beat but their own. These emotions can be felt in a multitude of circumstances that are completely different and separate. Unlike the emotion of disgust, which involves almost solely an evolutionary physiological response, responses to the more subjective feelings seem to involve a higher level of cognition. According to Davies, the evolutionist, this discrepancy between the emotions should be only explained as a “complexity and variety of [both] human natural and cultural history.” With no real definitive answer, in regards to the emotional arousal from art, it should be easily explained as a mixture between both higher level cognitive elements, as well as the physiological responses that are inherited through evolutionary lines.

So, using Davies’ disclaimer on emotional arousal, we could easily dismiss that the artwork that we simply rank lower, dislike, or disregard require the lower level or pure physiological responses more so than higher cognitive action. Artwork that disgusts us, or makes us have a fear of impending doom (take Marina Abramovic’s “Rhythm 0”, and some of her other earlier works, into account) is more easily disregarded and underappreciated. Therefore, it can be easily determined that, in regards to Davies’ argument, artwork that evoke emotions of higher cognition, Nolan’s film “Inception” and Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”, is more likely to have a higher level of appreciation by the masses. However, despite Davies’ strong theory of emotional arousal, it is based solely on the theory of evolution. There is more to be explained when it comes to appreciation of art, since one could appreciate such works that evoke pure physiological responses, though it may take some training of the mind and higher thought.

One of the foundational properties that allow humans to have appreciation, through emotional arousal, is knowledge. Knowledge of a particular subject, thus having knowledge of a subject that a certain artwork represents or resembles, is a key element of emotional arousal through art. According to philosopher Kendall Walton’s essay, “Categories of Art”, “a work seems or appears to us to have certain aesthetic properties because we observe it…” (Walton, 338) If a certain aesthetic, or nonaesthetic, property goes unnoticed, then it would be impossible for one to include that property in their assessment of the piece. However, on the other side, having that knowledge, that the said subject does represent something, adds to the emotional arousal of the piece. One who identifies Icarus in the painting “The Fall of Icarus” is more likely to have a better sense of the meaning of the piece as a whole. Seeing that Icarus is just this little tiny splotch on a large detailed canvas not only tells the story of Icarus, but also the story of a major event (Icarus drowning in this case) going unnoticed by the bustle of daily life wherever the subject lives. One could take another step if he knows the story of Icarus. The perceiver could take from the painting that even if one fails in their own destined endeavors, the endeavor may be ignored by society at large. Both of these interpretations are similar, but slightly different that one requires more knowledge of the subject and what it represents within the work. The more knowledge that is known by the perceiver, the more emotionally invested they would be in the work, thus creating more appreciation. If we were to pass seeing Icarus in the painting, or only identify Icarus but do not have any more invested knowledge in the story, the more apathetic you would be towards the painting, thus having less appreciation. Only identifying the gestalt properties of the piece can only lead to a limited level of appreciation, much lower than if one were to identify both gestalt and aesthetic properties.

This notion of knowledge extends even further than the gestalt and aesthetic properties of the piece, en mi opinion. It is through taking a blind eye to the translation of the piece of an artwork by another artist that we would come up with having appreciation through only knowledge of the gestalt and aesthetic properties. In the days of modern technology, internet, television interviews, DVDs, it is very easy to find commentary by the artist on how and why they decided to make such a piece of work. Knowing such knowledge would then influence one, after the point of perception of the piece (or before if you are in a certain film or art class), to perceive the artwork in a different light, or lens have you will. Knowing that Jean Luc Godard was indeed trying to predict what was going to happen in Paris, within a few years in, while watching his one film “La Chinoise”, one would be more likely to be able to have an emotional arousal for the narrative and style choices of the film. Otherwise, one would be likely to pass it up or fall asleep (as my parents did when I made them watch it while I was writing a screenplay of the same time period).

Also, knowing the culture behind what happened in Paris in May 1968 would help with getting a cathartic reaction from the piece, and also knowing that the film was made before those events of May ’68 (made in ’67) adds to the appreciation of the filmmaker, style, and film itself as a whole. Without this knowledge, artworks that do not necessarily abide by the mainstream canon would be passed up. Could these extrinsic values be categorized as aesthetic? Not necessarily so since they are easily definable. Could they be considered gestalt properties? Well, no because they do not deal with patterns of color or what you would observe. Nonetheless, artist intention and cultural properties cannot be looked over, as they add a tremendous amount of implicit emotion arousal and further the appreciation of the piece.

However, taking some of Walton’s other writings into account, he states that the emotions aroused by this fictional piece of artwork can only involve emotions in an imaginative sense. Walton calls these emotions “make-belief quasi-emotions”. Using Walton’s terms, it sounds as if these emotions go away after you leave the art. However, being a free-thinker applied ideas, one must understand that this is not necessarily true. According to Walton, these quasi-emotions do not prompt any behavior, although they may cause the same type of physiological reaction. (Walton)

When thinking of Walton’s argument, we must take the art of film, and hyperrealistic documentary film, into account. If one watches the film “Yes Men Fix the World” it is hardly possible for one to walk away without having the art of their documentary impact your own behaviors. In the film, the Yes Men use the loopholes within the hegemony of America in order to expose the horrific truths about American business and policy. They pretend to be associates of large policy making companies, the ones that are responsible for the rebuilding of New Orleans and the extortion of oil, and hold large conferences with high-ups in order to document the death-causing and ridiculous policies that they have in place. This art is most likely going to cause behavioral action after the credits role. Whether or not one is moved to stop buying oil from a certain company, or stop buying pesticide chemicals from a manufacturer, emotions were aroused to the point of behavioral action, and thus created an appreciation for what the Yes Men had to say.

So we arrive to this point, the point that we were trying to come across through all of these theories and examples, how does this emotional arousal through pieces of art cause for more appreciation of a piece? One would be blind to just accept the evolutionary and aesthetic philosophies of Davies, or the categorical “fictional” philosophies that Walton puts on the table. What we need is a more solid ad definitive answer, what brings on appreciation? Through the study and analysis of all of the above, one can determine that the number one factor that enhances the emotional arousal of a piece, and thus enhances its appreciation, is knowledge.

Through knowledge, of any or all of an artworks properties, one is able to fully appreciate, to whatever limit the known knowledge allows, the work. Knowledge allows the perceiver of the artwork to have more of an emotional arousal, due to the perceiver not only understanding the gestalt properties that, through evolution, cause autonomic reactions, but also knowledge of the aesthetic and intention/cultural properties. Having knowledge invested within a piece of art automatically gives you emotional connections that increase appreciation. If an artwork, like Marina Abramovic’s “Rhythm 0”, is presented to you, you may at first fear for her life, as she could be stabbed or eve shot. However, after that initial fear, one could realize the relationship between Marina and the perceivers, that she was the object and it is up to the onlookers to change and make the art, in other words putting the art in their hands. That relational knowledge adds more emotional appeal to the flat physiologically induced fear that one feels, thus appreciating it more with the knowledge than one would with just the fear. We could go on and on, stating more and more by having more and more levels of analysis, down probably down to the clothing that Marina wore during the performance.

The old saying knowledge is power is no lie. Having an emotional response to a work of art goes far beyond the pragmatic sense of the word emotion. When talking about art, we talk about how the art makes us feel, a gesture that goes to the innermost depths of the human heart and phenomenology. Being moved by a piece is only furthered through the knowledge of more and more fact about it. All of a sudden, not only are we appreciating the artwork itself, abut appreciating the intentions and cultures around it that help to make the artwork come to life. Layers upon layers of knowledge, layers upon layers of emotional attachment and investment, leads to layers upon layers upon layers of appreciation.

– Seth Tyler Black Dec. 2010


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