There were long-term causes for the current credit crisis, going back to the deregulation of the London Stock Exchange in 1986 and beyond (the comparison with the current resilience of the Canadian banking system, which has been properly regulated over the past sixty years, is highly instructive). There are also long-term reasons as to why affect, as a way for people to value art, has been ignored or downplayed in the art world over the past half century. One reason has been that the way in which society reflects on art has been professionalized, necessitating the creation of distance between professionals and amateurs. A second is that for people on the political left (which includes the majority of academic art historians / cultural theorists) emotion has been more or less a taboo subject. This historic intellectual context was a contributory factor in my proposing ‘Touched’ as the theme for the 2010 Liverpool Biennial. I am not too optimistic about the discourse of art shifting its alliance away from the saleroom and the academic marketplace towards subjective and affective experience, but there are some welcome signs.
When I first studied the history of art in the 1970s, orthodoxy (power) within the subject was disputed between the new professionals, keen to establish their careers within what was then still a fairly novel industry, and the connoisseurs, who were aware that they were rapidly being outmanoeuvred. The cohort of students to which I belonged quickly learned that ‘art appreciation’ should be left to journalists and old-fashioned critics: our future success lay in the elaboration of theory. Any rising profession has to establish an area of specialist knowledge, and the valuing of art through personal or direct means such as affect might after all be too readily accessible to vocational experience (connoisseurship) without requiring the professionalism conferred by academic study. But for some of us there was a problem: the scholarship of connoisseurs was clearly based on love for and dialogue with the object / the other, while so much theory turned its back on the object as soon as possible, floating free into a space that gloried in the boundlessness of solipsism. What use was such theory outside an academic context; did the profession have value beyond the museum?
In the 1980s and into the 1990s, I used to receive exhibition proposals from artists written in the third person, proposed as scientific experiments without personal emotional investment. For many critics and theorists of art, as well as artists, an explicit emotional reaction to an artwork remained something to hide until even quite recently. Why would any critique or theory about art ignore the fundamental role of the emotions? Paul Ekman’s edition of Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) suggests one answer. Darwin’s book was written to show the commonality of emotions in humans and other animals, their similar expression in humans and other animals, and how these expressions are an innate outcome of evolution. He was writing against slavery and the beliefs that later underpinned apartheid. He believed that all humans were the same in ways that mattered, such as our emotions, and he hoped his observations would show this.
Ekman argues that Darwin’s Expression was entirely ignored in the twentieth century because the dominant school of social scientists was invested in the notion that all cultural expressions, such as language, are learned (not innate); any discussion of human ‘universals’ was simply unacceptable:
The first half of the twentieth century was a time of optimism about the perfectibility of man. There was no acknowledged limit to how much human nature could be reconstructed by changing the environment. Change the state, educate the parents, modify child rearing practices and we would have a nation of renaissance men and women. Nothing was innate.
As a result, ‘for decades, any scientist who emphasised the biological contributions to social behaviour, who believed in an innate contribution to individual differences in personality, learning or intelligence, was suspected of being a racist’.
The political background to this investment, which has been even now only partially discontinued and deconstructed, was the fact that both fascism and racism had proposed that ‘social Darwinism’ should be allowed to operate in order to separate the ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ humans: that certain humans were ‘innately’ inferior to others, and that nothing need be done to improve social conditions since people were born good or bad. In reaction, social scientists asserted that nothing was innate, rather than risk giving power to the wrong side:
Today most scientists reject such absolute relativism: nature and nurture both play a role in all human behaviour. Emotions are both the product of our evolution, particularly their physiology and expression, and of what we have learned, especially our attempts to manage our emotions, our attitudes about our emotions and our representations of them.
It does seem that the immediate effect of the interdisciplinary application of the social sciences to the history of art, which took place from the 1960s onwards, was to lobotomize emotions from the body of knowledge.
‘We lack a vocabulary with which to discuss emotion,’ remarked Steven Connor following his contribution to the series of Touched talks. One hundred and forty years after Darwin’s Expression and more than a century after Freud and Nietzsche’s explorations of emotion, this suggestion is intriguing, and revealing. What it reveals is this. The modernist art historical orthodoxy set up in the 1960s and 1970s has been under deconstruction for forty years by ‘minority’ interests: feminism, cultural diversity, gay and lesbian studies, identity politics and so forth. During this time, the publishable ways of writing or theorizing the history of art have become infinitely more diverse, along with the range of artworks offered to the market. Theory itself – which was then sustained by optimism born of science – has become a form of creative, or at least highly subjective, writing in which poetics are dominant. But, with some notable exceptions such as Briony Fer, a writer today who combines scholarship with reflections on the direct, emotive, subjective experience of an artwork (in the manner of Bernard Berenson or Ernst Gombrich, for instance) is unlikely to be taken seriously in the academic world (think of Robert Hughes).
David Sylvester, the pre-eminent art critic in the UK in the 1970s and 80s, remarked that ‘art affects one in different parts of one’s body. For example, sometimes in the solar plexus or the pit of one’s stomach, sometimes in the shoulder blades […] or one may get a feeling of levitation – an experience I particularly associate with Matisse.’ Sylvester’s phenomenological approach was not adopted as a ‘critical position’ (usually to be interpreted as ‘career position’) but because he wanted to be honest in communicating to his readers his reactions in front of artworks. Touched was intended to address the viewer in a psycho-somatic way – head, heart, hand. This is the ‘embodiment’ of a critical reaction to art. ‘Embodiment’ was an artistic strategy in the 1970s and 80s, when artists asked the viewer to focus on the perceiving subject as a means of avoiding existing formalist, impersonal or anti-personal orthodoxies. The politics of the personal and the politics of embodiment were allies. The globalization of the past twenty years has allowed an increasing respect for cultural difference and localism into the art critical consciousness. This has allowed the incorporation (within the idea of embodiment) of the geographical and historical context of the subject, a position best described by the word ‘emplacement’. Both embodiment and emplacement were invoked as ways in which the art gathered in Touched was intended to affect the viewer.
It may be that the tide in critical thinking – including how we think about artworks – already turned with the century from being a ‘rationalist’ to being an ‘holistic’ one. But there is still much work to be done. Michael Hardt calls attention to this positive ‘affective turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, without underestimating the challenge this represents for academic discourse.
A focus on affects certainly does draw attention to the body and emotions, but it also introduces an important shift. The challenge of the perspective of the affects resides primarily in the syntheses it requires. This is, in the first place, because affects refer equally to the body and the mind; and in the second because they involve both reason and the passions […] affects belong simultaneously to both sides of the causal relationship. They illuminate […] both our power to affect the world around us and our power to be affected by it, along with the relationship between those two powers.
 Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, ed. Paul Ekman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 ).
 Ibid., p. 368.
 Ibid., p. 369.
 Ibid, p. xxxv.
 Steven Connor, ‘Fidgets’, Touched talk, September 2010 (see below, p. XX).
 In conversation with Martin Gayford, 2001. Quoted in James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism? (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).
 Michael Hardt, Foreword to The Affective Turn, ed. Patricia Ticineto Clough with Jean Halley (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
This text is an excerpt from the forthcoming Touched: The Book. You can pre-order your copy here.