Pleasure is a double bind. Its inherent quality of finitude keeps you under the influence. It attracts and repels at all times. Perhaps it is a continuous engagement and negotiation between the corporeal and the intellect. The physicality of the encounter that triggers pleasure melds with the intellectual stimulation brought forward by the immediate aesthetic appreciation. In the course of visiting an exhibition, the bodies inherent in the space of the encounter, such as the body of the artwork, the audience, the building, the support structures, juxtapose themselves into a corporeal exhilaration, a sensation that is felt through the body of the subject fuelled by her/his interpellation of the experience. The experience of pleasure and its texture causes fluctuation of jouissance, while triggering responses from the faculties of one’s aesthetic judgement.
Pleasure is anywhere and everywhere, appearing behind the unveiled and veiled curtains, as encounters unfold. It is a cultivation of the interior and exterior worlds (see: Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World, 1866), where your psyche meets the other. Pleasure is provoked when two bodies gather in a specific (if need be, imaginary) gravity–entropy plane, colliding, circumnavigating, surpassing one other.
In physics, momentum is defined as the product of the mass and velocity of an object. When two objects, if not more, with a certain direction and magnitude meet in a closed space, they impact on one another, conserving the energies inherent in that specificity. An obvious example is the two-dimensional pool table, where two balls meet, exchange energies, altering the momentum of one another, however equalling the initial total. To take the concept further, picture a work of art installed in a room for display: to keep things simple, imagine a painting on a wall, and a person – a member of the committed crowd – enters through the door. That very person introduces a momentum value into the space, possibly with the intention of colliding with the immediate arena of the painting. Unlike two balls on a pool table hitting one another, this encounter produces no physical sound.
At that very moment of initial ‘touch’, (hopefully) something happens, leading to what had been a closed system transforming into a field that is no longer ‘complete’, so that the total linear momentum is not conserved; on the contrary it has changed for good. The emotional and intellectual derivé, sparked at that very moment of the first encounter, keeps lingering as experiences of a different nature accumulate, spiralling into a need for more encounters of the same kind. That lingering, as time passes, transforms into a pulling force, increasingly engaging that committed member of the audience. Despite the fact that new meetings with works of art may retrieve that initial contact in some way, the meetings will be always altered, always different.
Pleasure is a force field, with multifarious manifolds and a broad spectrum of centres. It can be defined through objects and encounters, though there is an enduring intangible quality, and an inexplicable nature. The gravitational force towards any experience that cultivates pleasure proves to be the principle of pleasure. The meeting of bodies, so to speak, is its activation ground, be that the bodies of people, alongside the bodies of objects, or of buildings, for example. If we were to condense our focus onto the principle of pleasure that encounter-with-art nurtures, we can perhaps arrive at elucidations, possibly at a crystallization of an ephemeral logic. In other words, we may set ourselves the task of excavating the inner logic upon which the pleasure principle operates, through concentrating on the art experience as the case study for our exploration of the nature of pleasure. Thus, we may start to sketch ideas for that aforementioned nurturing encounter, where, for instance, an exhibition of art has assumed a catalytic role in bringing groups of people together. We may, as well, seek traces of a convincing logic in that historicity of ‘art encounters’, employing a leap through passages of time, where modalities of such ‘coming togethers’ surface. One of the most provocative examples to such an encounter may be the Salons of the seventeenth century and the infamous display structure (salon hang) where a group of paintings are hung closely next to and atop one another so as to fit them all on one wall, or in one room. The initiative dates back to the 1670s when the crown-sponsored Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) in Paris employed the aforementioned hanging technique for young students, streamlining them from their established masters. It took only almost half a century for the Academy to decide to make the work of recent graduates public, accommodating the need for their visibility. The Salon Carré (square room), provided the space for these exhibitions at the Musée du Louvre, which also granted its long-lasting name. The formal reformation of the hanging technique not only aesthetically shifted the epitome of art and the nature of its encounter, but the making public of the work also stirred the status quo in a way in which paintings were no longer products, merchandise; they surfaced as objects of pleasure that disseminate a communal cultural experience. This formal transition in the manner of displaying paintings allowed their attendants to view from close and far, concentrating on the singularity of the painting, its textural properties and its composition, whilst taking a step further out would trigger a wider set of associations, which accelerated as the proximity between the wall and the viewer grew.
Pleasure is a relation and movement. It is an outcome of an encounter, a result of an invisible dialogue between the subject and the work of art that leads to an unsettled entanglement. It is a movement; it moves the subject (emotionally, intellectually, if possible physically) from where he/she was to where she/he is in the immediate aftermath of the encounter-with-art. It is the drive that answers to some external call of appeal, in a way in which the dichotomy between the viewer and the ‘thing’ (i.e. work of art) may at times equate the duality between the subject and his/herself; it is the motion of opening to the external world. Affected by the otherness of the ‘thing’, the subject adheres to this as the only way to feel him/herself. In the specificity of a (historic) salon hang, the ‘thing’ is multiplied through multifarious surfaces of paintings, activating not only the surface of the canvas as a thematic ground for representation, but also requiring responses from its viewers to itself. Meanwhile, the member of the committed audience engages him/herself in another form of stimulation through gaze and his/her respective aesthetic experience, which then leads to an exhilaration of sensations manifested through speech acts and actions. For instance, the publication of the art-encounter at the Salon Carré led to the consequential production of pamphlets whereby members of the audience would record their thoughts on the art-event, carrying the distributed sensualities into the discursive production of the encounter. Besides the paradigm shift of the public reception of art, one could argue that something else was at stake. An intangible conversation with oneself, through the experience of art, was taking shape. The aesthetic experience of the work of art formulated into experiences of pleasure through active engagement with one’s own opinions and their out-versed manifestations. French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy pronounces this eloquent shift in the emergence of both domains of classical aesthetic and aesthetics of pleasure into one: ‘That classical aesthetics was an aesthetics of pleasure should not lead us to believe that pleasure has no place outside aesthetics. In truth, no aesthetics is exempt from a pleasure principle (whether related or not to Freud’s “pleasure principle”, which indeed we will have to address). Provided that one takes care to distinguish satisfaction – and even more, contentment, repletion, and relaxation – from the pleasure of desire, from an intensity that seeks itself and revives itself, one cannot fail to discern this pleasure, however dissimulated it might have become beneath technical, signifying, political, or philosophical theories.’1 That is, when the subject seeks that from which he/she derives pleasure, the aesthetics of the encounter play as significant a role as the intellectual derivé that the subject arrives at. Pleasure cannot solely be bound to its aesthetic articulation nor the judgement in the Kantian sense; it is beyond the subjective conditioning one nurtures through childhood as Freud suggests; it has its roots in the depths of the past experiences, jeopardized by the immediacy of the encounter defined through the conditions in which the subject is present. In this regard:
pleasure < > aesthetic experience
pleasure principle > aesthetics
pleasure > aesthetics of pleasure
aesthetics < > pleasure – pleasure principle
It may then be the case that the aforementioned domains expand, gaining a proliferation of signifiers, not only provoking a conceptualization of taste, or inherited gaze, but also the particularities of the subject who has willingly introduced herself/himself into the lapses of the art encounter. This expansion can be evoked by recalling the seventeenth-century Salon exhibitions that allowed art to be exposed to the masses, rather than the ruling upper class. Perception of art underwent an irrevocable shift in term of critical authority. This may have contributed to artists of the time changing the subjects of their works, or the manner in which they produced respective representations; meanwhile the art-istic tastes of the elite patrons of the arts were shaped by the appraisals or condemnations that the works ‘publicly’ received.2 Moreover, the plurality of works, hanging on top of one another, perhaps led to the awareness of a grander scale. This introduction of new relations and opinion-led movements then encoded pleasure as a discontinuous satisfaction from the temporary and multiple means of engagement with the arts.
Pleasure is what remains when we finish understanding; it is a feeling which seeks to preserve itself, but not as an object. The draw towards the Salon exhibits heightened the acts of participation, providing a sensual pleasure, if not a sexual undertone, to the expanded modes of perception and sensitivity through cultivating gaze and visual and aesthetic satisfaction.
The field of active forces (between people and people, art and art, and people and art) varied as the concentration into sites and zones of pleasure centred on those gatherings. A détournement from art as commodity to art as public experience amplified the different registers of perception, allowing psychosocial approaches to proliferate. Perhaps, here we can start imagining a choreography of art experience in a way in which it started cumulating almost a ritualistic structure. Bodies of works of art, waiting to be greeted, furthermore attended by bodies of the general public for a meaningful encounter, are evocative of a sensual experience, yet a sexual score. Nancy draws a distinct parallel between the different registers of sexual acts and artistic fields: ‘What Freud has allowed us to designate as a counterpoint played out, according to a sexual score [partition], between different registers – “stages”, “senses”, and “zones” – ends up as playing a type of fugue or canon between artistic fields. In their relations of simultaneity and succession, of correspondence and distinction, in their mutual references and metaphors, or in the metonymy which makes them all express “art” (this singularity that is so difficult to decipher), the arts act simultaneously like stages, senses, and zones. Moreover, they also act as if attached to an infancy that never leaves them and that makes their story the history of an interminable repetition of their own birth (of the formation of their forms).’3 The ephemerality yet tangibility of the (art) encounter is then provoked by the categorization of its phases: initial catching of sight folding into an intrigue, followed by an arousal, leading up to the closure of proximity between bodies, climaxed by suspense, resolved in a loss of control soon to be placed by a recollection (of senses).
At the core of pleasure there is affection, identifying with the purest moments of perversion, with its clandestine sites. This relationally ‘unique’ experience, as it were, produces the art object outside the concept of singularity, in a way in which it is suggestive of a hybrid form of engagement. According to Nancy, this generative moment of revelation shall be considered as a denominator of the ecstatic site of the (art) encounter. Beyond the work of art imbued with a halo of splendidness, ‘[f]irstly, an overriding belief in the singularity of the work of art and, secondly, a belief in the cultural habits of affording it, that singular work, our unfragmented attention. Therefore we have to unravel both concepts of “singularity” and those of “undivided attention” in order to rework the relations between art and its audiences through strategies of concentration.’4
Pleasure is preliminary and terminal. The tension of the form remains unemployed. Pleasure is preliminary to art in the way that there is no art without pleasure; art starts with a pleasurable experience, and expands onto its experience as a catalyst for triggering pleasure. It is terminal due to its inexplicable residue from its exhilaration, independent of the body of the work of art, and of the bodies in the space that are ‘activated’. The series of scenes in which audiences produce themselves as the subject of ‘whatever’ may have been put on view for their edification. The pleasure sublimates to the body of the art where it then ceases to exist. In Nancy’s words: ‘There is no art without pleasure. This does not mean that art is foreign to strain, anxiety, or pain in all values of the word. But it does mean that art always proceeds from a tension that searches for itself [se recherche], that enjoys reaching out, not in order to reach the goal of relaxation but to renew this tension infinitely, which also means that pleasure’s (ex)tension carries with it displeasure, or that this distinction itself is blurred.’5
Pleasure may comply with the set of illusions with which the imaginary subject surrounds itself. Pleasure is individual, but not personal. In other words, pleasure is defined in the specification of the individuation of the experiencer; the characteristics of the person that triggers the emergence of pleasure does not extend it further to a level in which its universalism connotes an agreeable understanding of what pleasure may be, as it differs according to each and every subject. To quote Nancy: ‘A certain pleasure is derived from a way of imagining oneself as individual, of inventing a final, rarest fiction: the fictive identity. This fiction is no longer the illusion of a unity; on the contrary, it is the theatre of society in which we stage our plural: our pleasure is individual – but not personal.’6 Art theorist Irit Rogoff punctuates the act of looking away from art as an art experience, evoking the potential of audiences gathered in an art context as the force of a ‘meaningful’ encounter, where the singularity of the art work is overwhelmed, if not preceded by, the multiplicity of ‘individuals’ given: ‘…but it is not only the potential of otherness within a given frame of reference; it is the pleasure of being together in the same space, the experiencing the moment with the witness. …That project is well underway and in its wake come the permissions to approach the study of culture from the most oblique of angles, to occupy ourselves with the constitution of new objects of study that may not have been previously articulated for us by existing fields. In fact, it may well be in the act of looking away from the objects of our supposed study, in the shifting modalities of the attention we pay them, that we have a potential for a re-articulation of the relations between makers, objects, and audiences. Can looking away be understood not necessarily as an act of resistance to, but rather as an alternative form of, taking part in culture? The diverting of attention from that which is meant to compel it, i.e. the actual work on display, can at times free up a recognition that other manifestations are taking place that are often difficult to read, and which may be as significant as the designated objects on display.’7 This overtly signified act of looking away is perhaps heightened by the transition of display that art works have been put through in the last century, where the distribution of ‘objects’ are scattered in the space of the exhibition with the aim of highlighting their singularity charged by the necessitation of producing a ‘unique’ art encounter or ‘specified’ get-together with ‘individual’ works of art. As time progressed, the growth of art institutions in size and scale might have been influential in the emergence of this ‘new’ technique of exhibits: one work at a time. However, this new condition is juxtaposed with the accelerated increase of bodies that are filling those spaces, i.e. the bodies of the committed crowd who are seeking the equated experience of arts. As the work is singled out at a distance from other works, the audiences centralize at various locations, directing towards the body of the respective artwork. The cumulation of bodies thus spark a tension, triggered by the intensity of an urgency to possess the exhilaration promised by the institution as a result of the encounter. Informed by the impulse to ‘engage’ with the work of art, the audiences perform an unscripted choreography of movement in space, negotiating their motion with that of others. The singularity of the hang versus the multiplicity of its audience introduces an uncalculated momentum value, amplifying the sensuality of art-encounter where the ‘individuals’ recognize, seize, trespass upon one another, if not rub against – given the concentrated state of affairs. The stages upon which these coming-togethers happen, the zones of contact, trigger another form of sensuality, determined by the participants at a given moment in time. The consensus around the pleasure of ‘seeing’ is overloaded by the multiplicity of the subjects present: what is seen is no longer devoid of the denominators; there is a (temporal) context. The expected state of affairs such as encountering a work of art (if not more) collides with the unexpected modes of engagement where senses are aroused not only by the presence of art objects, but also by the attendance of art-subjects. At these moments, something out of the blue may reveal itself such as a garment falling onto the ground or a body part may dissect attention; an ankle, wrist or neck of an audience member can come in between, beatifying the encounter with affection for others, an affection that is charged with an erotic undertone. French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes portrays an akin state in the context of a linguistic experience: ‘It is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no “erogenous zones” (a foolish expression, besides); it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater) between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.’8
Pleasure, as a decision of an arbitrary subject, belongs to, but cannot be reduced to, satisfaction. In other words, if
pleasure = satisfaction => what?
pleasure < > satisfaction => why/how?
aesthetic pleasure = satisfaction => where?
if the subject is
fully satisfied = end of pleasure.
1. Jean-Luc Nancy, Gestural Pleasure, The Pleasure in Drawing, Fordham University Press, 2013, p.37
2. This amplification of the aesthetics of pleasure is articulated as a turning point in the social structure (in France, foremost), articulated in detail in Thomas Crow’s presentation of the Salon in Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris, published by Yale University in 1985.
3. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller, Hill and Wang, 1975, p.54
4. Irit Rogoff, Looking Away: Participations in Visual Culture, After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance, ed. Gavin Butt, Blackwell Publishing, 2005, p.119
5. Jean-Luc Nancy, Gestural Pleasure, The Pleasure in Drawing, Fordham University Press, 2013, p.31
6. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller, Hill and Wang, 1975, p.62
7. Irit Rogoff, Looking Away: Participations in Visual Culture, After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance, ed. Gavin Butt, Blackwell Publishing, 2005, p.120
8. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller, Hill and Wang, 1975, pp.9–10