So much of how we respond to art is automatic and neurologically based. Art distills essential patterns of emotional response, revealing them for reflection. This educates the sensibility that responds to future experience. Our inner state of readiness must match our outer circumstances and is always adapting to change. Though the physical shifts may not be perceptible we are always in a dance with the changes in the scene around us. Since feeling and emotions are the first awareness of some kind of inner movement, the felt impression of what we see is the instant unconscious assessment of what it means to us, how we might need to act. When we have a strong response to art the inner adjustment reflects a resonance with meaningful inner patterns.
Though scientific method can analyze and observe the parts in detail, it can miss important qualities in larger systems, and relationships that can’t easily be named or symbolized. Art integrates and synthesizes. Throughout time art has helped viewers recognize their personal currents of feeling and what it’s like to be human at a given time in history. Today it can also show scientists the underlying structure of the whole. The importance of art for developing everyday human insight is a theme in the books of philosopher Susanne Langer. Her fascinating in-depth discussions of visual art as an extension of expressive gesture, underscores the importance of “qualia” and “relations”, how much information is in visual nuances. Her simple statement, “Art looks like feelings feel” articulates this fundamental truth. In her book, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, she writes, “Feeling is a dynamic pattern of tremendous complexity. Its whole relation to life, the fact that all sorts of processes may culminate in feeling with or without direct regard for each other, and that vital activity goes on at all levels continuously, make mental phenomenon the most protean subject matter in the world. Our best identification of such phenomena is through images that hold and present them for contemplation; and their images are works of art.”
The relationship between the complex dynamics of feelings and the structure of art makes art the best way to learn about human emotion and to understand universal patterns of response. This complexity cannot be reduced to one variable at a time, since the meaning is in the whole and the dynamic relationships involved. There are correlations between the balance of our surroundings and the feelings we experience being there, and we seek out the visual structures that show us what we need to see. Art serves others by translating feeling into expressive imagery that can help with recognizing obscure felt states.
When any group gathers to talk about art, amazing discussions evolve if the image hits a common chord. Our differences in background enrich the variety of responses evoked by the structure and emphasize the commonality beneath surface variations.
Intellectual writing that makes judgments about art can obscure the personal relationship anyone can have with the art that moves them. Every choice of where to look reflects the personal psyche. Where we linger in an art book or museum shows us feelings within that want our conscious attention. It’s a portal to the depths of our common humanity.