Body Phenomenology, Somaesthetics and Nietzschean Themes in Medieval Art

Pragmatism Today 5:40-45 (2014)
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Richard Shusterman suggested that Maurice Merleau-Ponty neglected “‘lived somaesthetic reflection,’ that is, concrete but representational and reflective body consciousness.” While unsure about this assessment of Merleau-Ponty, lived somaesthetic reflection, or what the late Sam Mallin called “body phenomenology”—understood as a meditation on the body reflecting on both itself and the world—is my starting point. Another is John Dewey’s bodily theory of perception, augmented somewhat by Merleau-Ponty. With these starting points, I spent roughly 20 hours with St. Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk (c. 1360), a work of tempera and gold leaf on panel, by Giovanni Del Biondo, active in Italy from 1356 to 1398, on display in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s permanent collection. Following Dewey’s suggestion that “[t]he eye ... is only the channel through which a total response takes place,” meaning that motor, emotional, intellectual and non-visual perceptual capacities become active when we encounter paintings, I describe how the work engaged a range of bodily modalities; and how reflecting on these, in turn, supplied phenomenal articulations of life negating, preserving and enhancing forces important in the culture that produced it, and famously discussed by Friedrich Nietzsche. By virtue of the approach adopted, I also demonstrate Dewey’s belief that intimate engagement with art entails a total coordination of one’s capacities around the artwork, while simultaneously reinforcing Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about perception and how we can find phenomenal articulations of concepts such as the Nietzschean ones just mentioned. While focusing on Del Biondo’s painting, my main purpose is to engage in body phenomenology practices, and to show, in the words of Shusterman, how “[w]e might sharpen our appreciation of art through more attention to our somaesthetic feelings involved in perceiving art” and indeed the world.
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