Art beyond sight

honey locust leaves

Descending the stairs at a parking garage yesterday, I was captivated by the sight of honey locust leaves outlined by dew on a flat black roof. What does it say about me that this is my first successful picture of autumn leaves this year?


Imperfection, even shabbiness, is far more attractive to me than some idealized view of nature. On a trip to upstate New York last week, I took a number of pictures of the spectacular Taughannock Falls, but the only one that struck me as worth saving (and I still don’t think it’s all that great) features the mist rather than the waterfall.

The trouble is simply that I’ve seen too many photos of waterfalls, too many depictions of hillsides blazing with autumn colors. It becomes very, very difficult to escape the gravitational pull of the clichéd shot and see these kinds of scenes anew. The particularity of the scene becomes lost in translation into our ready-made vocabularies of perception.

French Interior

Yesterday morning, I was led to ponder the process of translating visual art into tactile experience by an exhibit on the interpretation of art for the blind at Pattee Library, University Park, Penn State. (In addition to being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October is also Art Beyond Sight Awareness Month.)

Queen Mother Head 1

Each of a number of famous works of art was reproduced and described in the manner of this bronze head from Benin: a full-color reproduction at the top, paired with a description for the sighted, then below it, a black-and-white reproduction, giving a sense of what is lost when colors are translated into contrasting textures in the adjacent tactile version — durable paper “printed” with varying kinds of embossed surfaces. A detailed interpretive description in Braille rounds out the display.

Queen Mother Head 2

For works of sculpture, I can’t help thinking that direct contact with the object itself would be far simpler (aside from the obvious fact that the sculpture in question may be located in Lagos). I wonder if there are any art museums that allow people with sight loss to handle more durable pieces of sculpture?

In any case, the “look but don’t touch” mentality of art museums really gets to me sometimes. It is perhaps an inescapable necessity for the public display of artworks that they be placed behind velvet ropes, but with this comes a strong sense that art is something apart from ordinary life. The work of art, we in the West have been led to believe, is as changeless and immortal as a Platonic form. This is of course pure fantasy, enabled in part by the ability of the sighted to gather information at a distance and to preserve it in a static form (as opposed to a sound recording, which cannot be divorced from the time required to listen to it). Those who rely on touch, taste, smell and hearing for their knowledge of the world have no choice but to immerse themselves in the ever-changing flow.

computer room

I wonder if someone blind from birth can even form a conception of the transcendental, predicated as it is upon the possibility of apartness? Does the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity even make sense for such a person? Imagine a world without visual media. Would it be as easy to destroy?

I’m going to West Virginia this weekend. See you on Monday.

12 Replies to “Art beyond sight”

  1. I should think anyone with an imagination would be capable of conceiving notions of both transcendence and subjectivity, imagination being apart from physical “reality.” And along with the visual, sensations of touch, hearing, smell, and taste can be conjured by the mind through memory and imagination as well as experienced immediately in the body.

  2. Great post! I would like to see that exhibit. Mkaes me think of discussions about which is more important, sight or hearing. I’m always surprised how many say hearing. Because I’ve been hearing-impaired all my life, I guess I’m used to it but fear losing my eyesight, which to me is far far more precious. Not just to do art, write etc but to be able to be physically free. Just the thought of it terrifies me.

    Have a great weekend, Dave!

  3. There was a school in Great Britain where the blind were trained as physical therapists. I have worked with a couple of them and am amazed at their perception of the structures of the human body and how they can analyze gait by sound and vibration. I visited Israel with a group of PTs and have an imprinted memory of a blind therapist moving his hands across the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, “seeing” the historic site in a way the rest of us would never perceive.

  4. Here’s an exhibition specifically geared towards the visually impaired and the RNIB in the UK lists art made accessible to the visually impaired. There are occasional exhibitions where objects are exhibited for touch as well as sight.

    I take your point about the temporal element in audio etc but is there not also a temporal element in the appreciation of objects by sight? The nuances and rhythms and relationships and details of something seen are also only explored and revealed through time, in my experience.

  5. An interesting exhibit. Also love that first pic of the leaves.

    I enjoyed reading this post; nice food for thought, but I am too lazy to say much more about it than that.

  6. In 1994 I saw an exhibition here in Tokyo of Richard Long’s indoor artwork (he’s an environmental artist, similar to one of my favorite artists, Andy Goldworthy). One of his installations consisted of a series of twigs laid out on the floor of one room, such that a path was formed along two sides of the room from one door to another, leaving a big, square space taking up most of the room. Within this square Long had formed a circle with some more twigs. The more I looked at the design, the more I wasw convinced that what Long wanted visitors to do was step over the twigs into the square, but not a single person dared. When I stepped over the twig line suddenly the two guards stationed at the doors came running into the room waving at me to get out. I was flabbergasted! Did no one understand what Long was trying to say?

    It was similar to one time when I was teaching drawing at the University of Oregon. Our class had reserved the university art museum all to ourselves for one day and we were free to wander about and really take things in. When we stepped into the place everyone started whispering. At one point I couldn’t stand it any longer so I shouted to all the students, “What are you whispering about? We have the place all to ourselves and we can make as much noise as we like! Feel free to DISCUSS and MAKE JOKES about the art work!”

    Isn’t art supposed to free us from the constraints of our every day perceptiions?

  7. mb – I guess I’ve lost my knack (if I ever had one) for explaining myself in these kinds of pseudo-philosophical ramblings. Of course blind people are perfectly capable of forming concepts. I do feel there is a close link between vision and the ability to substitute a web of abstractions for experiential reality, present or imagined/recalled, but hasten to add that this will only happen in certain kinds of cultures that privilege signifier over signified. Objectification happens when we treat abstactions as concrete. I wonder if we would be as prone to that fallacy if we were as immersed in the world as the blind are.

    marja-leena – I would much sooner give up sight than hearing, though no doubt if I were a visual artist I’d feel differently.

    Ruth – That’s very interesting. It reminds me of a very beautiful story I read a long time ago, by Junichiro Tanizaki, I think, about a blind masseuse.

    rr – Thanks. I guess that answeres my question about art designed to be touched! I especially liked this quote:

    One piece – made from cast nylon – shows the movements of a bird’s wings in flight, and like most of the other works can be touched as well as viewed.

    Another – entitled Pinky and Perky – is a large, latex bra with the cups sculpted into pigs’ heads.

    Although the artist, Carrie Riechardt, offered to wear it for the exhibition, it was decided that it would be better displayed on a tailor’s dummy.

    Re: seeing vs. hearing, yes, but the ears can’t take take the entire shape of a composition at one that way the eyes, at a suitable distance, can give us the illusion of taking in an entire work of art.

    twitches – Thanks.

    butuki – Your stories make me think that an art object isn’t that much different from a religious object. Both religious icon and secularized sculpture or painting possess a kind of medicine power that might be drained by too-familiar association. As the philosopher Al Lingis once put it, the sacred is that which repels our advance. That is what the high priests would have us believe, at any rate.

  8. Both religious icon and secularized sculpture or painting possess a kind of medicine power that might be drained by too-familiar association.

    This might also be a cultural idiosyncrasy, though, no? What about those religious objects of a lot of Native American or tribal African culture, where people wear or constantly touch or even, like the Aborigines, of living and wandering in? One of the big things I don’t like about the whole Judeo/Christian/Muslim philosohy is this distancing of ourselves from god, so much so that god has now become this amorphous, abstract, impossible-to-fathom construct in our imaginations, of which we must feel guilty when we don’t accept it. It also means we don’t have to take responsibility for our “imperfections” when things go wrong, as if there is some kind of perfection somewhere. I feel the same way about art. Personally, I love a life and outlook that requires us to engage fully in the the world around us, with all its beauty and ugliness, joy and pain. To me, that means using our senses to know it as best we can. Awe can be a wonderful thing, but not if it removes us from fully understanding and engaging un our lives and the life of the world around us.

    My opinions, of course!

  9. Well, I was thinking of amulets, talismans, and other kinds of fetish objects, which are usually kept tightly wrapped or are disguised in some way regardless of how closely they may be worn to the skin. Secrecy and power go hand-in-hand – that’s practically a universal. I’m not saying I completely agree with that, of course. My own position does come close to animism, though, because I believe strongly in honoring the wildness and sovereignty of every being (including charismatic abiotic entities like rocks, waterfalls, etc.). This doesn’t imply worship, in the sense of servile genuflection, but it does entail respect, which must include allowing space, self-determination and privacy to other beings. I tend to distrust all religious systems that attempt to ban laughter in church/temple/mosque/synagogue. That hushed silence in the art museum you wrote about — that bothers me, too. The sacred and the profane shouldn’t be kept so far apart.

  10. Thanks, Larry. Unfortunately, it may be a little while before I’m able to upload any more pictures, for logistical reasons I won’t go into.

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