What Sense is there in Art?

What Sense is there in Art? is a research project and network that promotes a conscious awareness of multisensory experiences of art and enquires into the meaning and cultural, social and political implications of such encounters. As an initiative that traverses all periods of art history and all types of art, this project examines the evocation, mediation and representation of such experiences in art works that attend to these matters explicitly and implicitly.

The main aim is to encourage the exchange of information and ideas about art and senses among the general public, artists, scholars and curators, both nationally and internationally.

The programme was convened by Dr Irene Noy, the Sackler Research Forum Postdoctoral Fellow for 2015-16. 

Project workshop, 26 September 2016


Research Context

In recent years, there has been a re-discovery of the importance of the multisensory experience of art. Despite this sensorial revival within the art discourse, to a great extent, art perception and its appreciation is still grounded today in ideas that were developed during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century in Europe.

The Kantian theory of aesthetics and its preference of the sense of sight as a leading sense in the philosophy of art, beauty and logical thinking overshadow more liberal approaches which argue that aesthetics can relate to the whole corporeal sensorium and thus go back to its original Greek meaning, in which feelings, emotions and perception via all senses are included. Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762) was one of the key figures in this area who proposed the concept of cognition sensitive or “sensitive knowledge”, which acknowledged the senses as active generators of meaning rather than passive receptors of sensations.

It suggests that human beings could not and should not be reduced to either purely rational or purely sensual beings. Such an approach embraces the confusion of sensual experience as a sign of wholeness, since aesthetics as the philosophy of “sensitive knowledge” allows human experiences to be grasped in a way that cannot be comprehended through logical thinking alone. Given these theoretical juxtapositions and considering this hierarchy of the senses, which pervades into the twenty-first century, how can such mechanisms be addressed in an artistic practice and discourse? What can such a sensorial expansion mean to a broader context? What relevance do such concerns have to the increasing commodification of senses?

Such questions are especially pertinent at a time of dramatic sensory changes, whereby new means of production have developed numerous new ways to amplify, shield, stimulate or irritate our senses that pervade most aspects of our lives.

Research Activities

Close Encounters: Perceptions of SoundArt

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Speaker: Dr Kersten Glandien – University of Brighton

Organised by: Dr Irene Noy – Sackler Research Forum Postdoctoral Fellow

Reflecting on the conceptual implications of the two major perception shifts in the arts since the Renaissance, this talk examined the synaesthetic nature of SoundArt as nexus art.

Referring to compelling SoundArt works, it probed the specific inter-sensory relations between sound and visual, tactile, spatial, corporeal, kinetic, interactive and aural perception in the context of today’s rapidly changing sensuality and explored aesthetic issues such as experience, embeddedness, expansion, navigation and interactivity.

Dr Kersten Glandien is an author, researcher, lecturer and curator in the fields of SoundArts, Aesthetics and Experimental Music. Born in Germany, she studied Philosophy, Aesthetics and Art History at the University of St.Petersburg (Russia). She worked as lecturer and researcher at the Technical University Dresden and as a senior research fellow at the Institute of Aesthetics and Art Theory of the Academy of Science in Berlin. Relocated to England, she took on an Adjunct Associate Professorship at Richmond University where she still teaches Contemporary Visual Culture. In 2003 she was called to the University of Brighton, where she co-developed the Digital Music & Sound Arts course and teaches SoundArt studies. Publications include texts on the aesthetics of SoundArt, RadioArt and Experimental Music, and studies on the work of Heiner Goebbels, Douglas Henderson and Sabine Schäfer. Her curatorial activities encompass experimental music concerts, Radio Art series, and Sound Installation exhibitions.

Coming to Our Senses: The Sensory Turn in Contemporary Art and Ethnographic Museums

Monday 26 September 2016

Speaker: Professor David Howes – Concordia University, Montreal

Organised by: Dr Irene Noy – The Courtauld Institute of Art

This paper begins by charting the emergence of sensory studies as an autonomous field and method of inquiry. Its genesis is traced to the sensory turn in a range of humanities and social science disciplines, which gave rise to such fields as the history of the senses, anthropology of the senses, and, most recently, sensory museology. Incorporating a sensory studies approach into the curation of indigenous artifacts has resulted in a radical transformation of “the exhibitionary complex.” In place of didactic displays which isolate artifacts in glass cases, the emphasis now is on the museum space as a kind of sensory gymnasium in which visitors are invited to experiment with alternate ways of sensing through encounters with objects of diverse provenance. Citing examples which range from Iroquois false face masks to the Inca quipu (a 3-D mnemonic device composed of knotted strings of varying colours), this paper makes a case for sense-based investigations of the varieties of aesthetic experience across cultures. It also reports on some of the findings of the “Mediations of Sensation” project (on which I have been collaborating with Chris Salter, Cheryl l’Hirondelle and others) that has involved creating intercultural, performative sensory environments for the communication of anthropological knowledge, as an alternative to both the ethnographic monograph and ethnographic film. It closes with a consideration of the transformation of display practices in the contemporary art museum, such that art is no longer defined exclusively as that which meets the eye, but rather that which engages multiple senses in all manner of innovative combinations.

David Howes is Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture and Co-Director of the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. His publications range from The Varieties of Sensory Experience (1991) to Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (2014, with Constance Classen.

Museum of Portable Sound Private View

As part of What Sense is there in Art? series Dr Irene Noy curated a sound art exhibition at the Museum of Portable Sound  entitled ‘Heave and Flow’. The exhbition featured three soundscapes of labour and play recorded by London artist Jessica Akerman. These pieces were recorded as part of a series of interrelated projects commissioned for various venues between 2010 – 2014.

What sense is There in art? Soundscapes, The National Gallery

What Sense is there in Art? group and research project began with a visit to an exhibition entitled Soundscapes at the National Gallery on 4th September 2015.

The curator, Dr Minna Moore Ede, commissioned seven artists and musicians to create audio compositions in response to chosen works from the collection.

The sounds were not experienced via headphones but heard in six sonically isolated gallery spaces.

Unless we leave the headphones of our audio devices in our ears when entering an art gallery, the experience of listening to recorded sound is still unusual. Some art museums invite DJs for late opening evening but the music they play stands rarely in a direct response to the art works in the galleries.

The simultaneous activity of looking at paintings and listening to mediated sounds is perhaps more familiar from a context of audio guides that describe and analyse paintings.

Because of the immersive environment of the exhibition galleries at Soundscapes, it was impossible to conduct a ‘conventional’ exhibition tour. This is why the group met before the exhibition and continued the discussion after experiencing it together.

This was an appropriate start to a series which aims to confuse and perhaps appeal to the senses of those who participate.


“A bold and interesting experiment. A success if the exhibition does no more than encourage us all to slow down our viewing and to concentrate on fewer works at a time.”

Dr Kathleen Brunner

What sense is There in art? Tate Sensorium

On 9th September 2015 a group of sixteen art historians and conservators gathered together at Tate Britain for a private view of the IK Prize 2015: Tate Sensorium exhibition.

The format of this visit was an unconventional one as we had to split into small groups in order to experience the exhibition.

Alongside we engaged in a rotating and stimulating discussion on The Politics of (Multisensory) Experiences.

We were kindly joined by Tate Britain’s Multimedia Producer Tony Guillan and Courtauld alumnus.  Following this event the participants were asked to write a few words on their experiences:

Curator Talks - The Making of Soundscapes at the National Gallery

Thursday 19 November 2015

Speaker: Dr Minna Moore Ede – The National Gallery

Organised by: Dr Irene Noy – The Courtauld Institute of Art

This audio documentation of the event was kindly recorded and edited by the sound artist John Kannenberg. 

Soundscapes was a very different type of exhibition for the National Gallery (8 July- 6 September 2015).

Musicians and sound artists were invited to choose a painting from the National Gallery’s collection and compose a sound or musical response to it.

The diverse group included Turner prize winning Susan Philipsz and renowned Canadian sound and installation artists Janet Cardiff and George Miller, as well as leading classical contemporary composers, Nico Muhly and Gabriel Yared.

Each artist was given their own room in which their chosen painting and their musical response were installed together.

There was no text in the rooms, they were deliberately dark- the aim was to enhance the experience of looking at the pictures through very different means than the traditional art historical exhibition presentation.

The curator Dr Minna Moore Ede will discuss the making of Soundscapes in conversation with Dr Irene Noy.