The art of touch: manipulation & manufacture in art

Home / Education / ARChives / Foundational Discussions

The art of touch: manipulation & manufacture in art

From Iian Neill

Published before 2005


Jeffery LeLemieux wrote:
And I'll restate again my conviction that everything that flows from within the mind of the individual into the world by a process of manipulation is by broad definition, art.... but that not every work of art is good or worthy of our attention. I believe the debate about what is good art is the central issue, and the old debate about what is and is not art is now simply a distraction.

Jeffery, I'm not sure I see how art defined as that which is shaped by a person's hands (manipulation) is substantively different from manufacture (the product of one's hands). Surely the distinction is not between art in this mechanical sense but fine art: manipulation or manufacture in the service of expression. I am inclined to agree with Brian's broad definition of expression as including the expression of 'ideas'.

Ruskin, I think, held pretty much the same view in Modern Painters v.1 in talking about 'the ideas of sensation that are communicable by art'; which included 'ideas of power', 'ideas of truth', 'ideas of beauty', 'ideas of imitation', and 'ideas of relation'. I find this definition much more satisfying than any other aesthetic I've come across as Ruskin allows for every form and degree of expression. He starts from the bottom up, as it were. From the rude carving of an Indian's paddle, or the notches on a Venetian fishing boat, all the way up to the most exquisitely telling touches in a Turner or a Tintoretto.

What I found most refreshing about Ruskin's analysis was that he did not begin at the top with a genre, or a masterpiece, or a master, and then try to force all other instances of art to conform to this definition. Rather, he accepted that from every crafted object we receive certain 'ideas of sensation' that speak to us about beauty, truth, or goodness. The idea of power, for instance, concerns the degree of exertion, bodily or mental, that one either perceives (sensually) or conceives (intellectually, from intimate knowledge of technique) from the object. This idea of power, Ruskin says, rightly impresses us with ideas of goodness also, as even the meanest carving carried to perfection conveys to us the labour the workman has bestowed on it. Ruskin calls this power of a low order, but power nonetheless, and one that is capable of giving us no mean pleasure. The pleasure derived is only mean relative to the exhibition of higher powers.

This is really one of the most subtle analyses of aesthetics that I personally have ever come across. With it Ruskin is able pay due respect to mechanical labour while still placing it in right relation to higher powers; such as the ideas of truth that we receive from the highest operations of the imagination. These may in fact require very little labour in the creation of the work but, being products of the mind, are precious to us beyond any perfection of sanding, scraping, or polishing the stoneworker can bestow on the marble block.

I guess I've come back upon myself to see the wisdom in your statement. The process of manipulation is essentially artistic - which is why we always gratefully receive handcrafted work, no matter how fallible, over perfectly machined monotony - and no one who loves art can ever ignore all the beautiful associations of the word 'touch' when it comes to art-work.

regards,
Iian