- The Place of Touch in the Arts
In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess, the dancers go round, they go round and around, the squeal and the blare and the tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles tipping their bellies (round as the thick- sided glasses whose wash they impound) their hips and their bellies off balance to turn them. Kicking and rolling about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those shanks must be sound to bear up under such rollicking measures, prance as they dance In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess.1
"The Dance" written by William Carlos Williams in 1944 is one of my favorites. Williams gives us a feel for that life of the kermess (a carnival) in his poem through Breughel's picture, as it were three times removed from the event itself. Of course, unlike Plato, I would argue that the vitality of the kermess is not lost in the poem; it is actually enhanced by a subtle sleight of hand. The poem is not primarily about Breughel's picture. It is about dance, about the dancers who go round, their squeal, the crude music, its rollicking measures, the dancers kicking and rolling and swinging, their hips, bellies, and butts. Reading this poem, I "see" those ordinary folk of Breughel's great picture. I "hear" their music. I "move" to their dance. The poem seems a condensation, a summary of the fine arts. Perhaps the poem is about poetry's power to reinvigorate imaginatively what we hear and see. Perhaps I think of festivities at which I have danced, how such festivities are essential to the human experience. Perhaps William Carlos Williams in 1944, World War II coming to a close, was anticipating similar good times.
The fine arts do much to educate our senses. One need only recall the many essays and books written on art, on how to look and hear, how various [End Page 90] critics draw our attention to the power of imagery and song. The well-formed visual and auditory sensations we gain from the arts are, as it were, the melody of those experiences. They are the pictures we store away, the tunes we whistle. However, here I want to draw attention to an overlooked sense—touch. I want to argue that touch is the bass line to the melody of sight and hearing in the arts, that is, that touch keeps the artwork coherent and grounded.
This is an old idea. Bernhard Berenson had the idea when he was examining the painters of the Italian Renaissance. In a sense this article is a resurrection of Berenson's idea of "tactile values." Berenson was on to something both about painting and about the arts in general. However, he lacked the scientific evidence about touch and its role in human relationships needed to develop his idea of tactile values to any great extent.
The idea of tactile values is first mentioned at the beginning of the essay "The Florentine Painters." Berenson is discussing the art of Giotto. However, prior to plunging into his subject, he says that we need to know what is essential to figure painting before we can appreciate its real value. What is essential are the "tactile values" we give to our retinal impressions, "a test of reality."2 Painting stimulates touch in order for it to stimulate our "tactile imagination."3 Giotto was a genius in stimulating the tactile imagination. Like other medieval masters, Giotto was a fine story teller and had great compositional skills. However, unlike Giotto, other medieval masters "never painted a figure which has artistic existence."4 Giotto's predecessors crafted "highly elaborate, very intelligible symbols, capable, indeed, of communicating something, but losing all higher value the moment the message is delivered."5 If such medieval symbols communicated anything at all, it was only some residue of what one might touch; whatever reality those symbols might have possessed was virtually eviscerated by the artists' emphasis on form and cognitive content. Giotto's predecessors were driven merely by ideas and, one might add, not altogether consistent and coherent ones. On the contrary, Giotto's work seemed to...