The Feels


My weight shifts from the heel of my left foot to the ball of my right. From taking the weight of my body, my right big toe begins to strain; the back left part of my ribcage starts to slowly shift toward the left to compensate. Then my left knee bends slightly and holds my bodyweight so that my right foot can slide forward one centimeter.

Heat is building deep in my abdomen and expands the space inside my torso. The pressure of expansion causes my breastplate to vibrate with quick, low-frequency flutters. The muscles in my chest, neck, and shoulders activate and begin to draw energy from what is now a current of warm electricity circling through my torso. Then, abruptly, the top of my right shoulder surges with energy. This same wave then shoots to my right elbow and fizzles at my wrist. Then again–an energy surge–but this time it travels down through my legs, to my knees, ankles, and feet. It escapes through my metatarsals into my shoes and dissipates as it reaches the floor. Now the floor is electrified beneath my feet and the current is grounded. The once local current now travels through my arms, my chest, my back, my legs, and the floor. My face is active; the muscles are engaged and directed to look, but they are continually receiving secondary and variable waves of radiant energy.

As the current travels through each extremity it reaches a boundary: a web of bound muscle. Just as my facial muscles are directed to do the activity of “looking,” the muscles in my body are directed to stay still. To unbind would be to cease directing my muscles and would release the current. As the current moved it would bring with it the muscles it touched and they in turn would bring the bones, with them. My entire body would be in motion.

This is what happened when I approached, then directed myself to look at Joan Mitchell’s 1960 painting, Marlin, on Saturday at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. I stood in front of the painting for the next ten minutes (or more?) I traced the colors, brush strokes, textures of the canvas and the intersections of these elements with my eyes. As my eyes moved, the current of energy simultaneously moved through my body. My mind–trained to analyze based on what it sees–periodically interrupted the kinesthetic experience of the painting. But if I do not want what I see to become a set of judgements and determinations, I choose to quiet the mental chatter and allow the sensation of motion to dominate. In this way Marlin is, for me, as much a choreographic score as a manipulation of pigmented oil paints on a stretched canvas.

Physiology might be important. (This is the Joan Mitchell painting.)

Maybe it’s too convenient that the kinesthesia I am describing was in response to an Abstract Expressionist painting. Maybe I was just having the intended experience with the work. I know nothing about Mitchell’s intention in painting Marlin, and certainly don’t know what she expected viewers to sense when they approached the painting. I do know that my kinesthesia is not limited to this type of art. For example: I walked into the Peacock Room yesterday and felt the movements associated with the labor of creating such a space.

Interoceptive kinesthesia is only part of my physiological experience of art—particularly to those works that occupy three-dimensions. When I enter a space I immediately have a swath of information to process just based in my visceral response to external stimuli. Instead of an internal current of energy, I experience aspects of the space as sensations on my skin, by the quality of my breath, or by the movements of air. My body acts as a scanner, it picks up the dimensionality of an environment and my mind notes when there are correlations between changes in the composition of the space and changes in my physiological experience.

While I rarely make claims in my research papers that my physiological response to an object is a sound basis for scholarship, I do allow what I learn from this response to direct aspects of my work. When I observe my kinesthetic response to a painting without imposing descriptors and commentary, I can later (even within the same session) return to the painting and see aspects of the form that were not apparent at first glance. When I am in the presence of a sculpture I observe my visceral response at many distances and positions. My body learns far more quickly than the analytical part of my mind so throughout the course of researching and thinking about a sculpture, I refer to my memory of the physical experience in the presence of the object. I am sensitive not to conflate my assessment of the work in an art historical context with my experiences of an object. I merely use my body memory as a guide to take me back through aspects of the work.

I can witness such feelings and sensations because I have had the privilege in certain instances to let go of many of the hegemonic forces present in a museum or institution that we’ve identified throughout this institution. My self-disclosure here is intended to show the value of sharing personal experiences of objects and to provide an example of an alternative learning style that museums can foster by breaking down the curator-as-expert model. I am certainly the type of person who benefits from engagement strategies that invite experiential access to information about an object. To me it is a shame that when people enter a museum they often believe there is one way to experience a work of art. From my experience, opportunities for alternate modes of understanding (art or anything) are restricted when all my efforts are directed at having one prescribed experience. For viewers, including myself, this stilted experience can lead to any number of negative feelings.  Potential art lovers are then driven away from the thing you, as the scholar or curator, are trying to call attention to.

Positive or negative, one person’s physiological response to an object is unique to them. As facts become easier to find and access, the museum can no longer merely serve the viewer information, it must provide the means for the viewer to have an individualized experience with art. Your feelings in the presence of art are yours alone and cannot be found on a database.

When digital tools are used to elicit experiences beyond fact gathering they can reinforce or generate new positive associations with one’s unique response to an object. An animated map triggers a kinesthetic response, a favorited Tweet triggers our reward centers, and a change on the museum’s website because of a viewer’s complaint exudes the warmth of empathy. Used well, digital tools can offer broader understanding of an object, historical narrative, or institution by tapping into the omnipresent and extremely rich functioning of our physiology.


Source: The Feels