Feeling-into art: Einfühlung as reading

Often, in a gallery, I am struck by the stupidity of what gets hung on a wall or housed in a cabinet. Many works seem absent of driving ideas and show no execution of process or skill. These attempts at art, warrant a shrug and the asking, “Why?” They force me to pursue the more harsh enquiry, “Would the world be any different if this did not exist?”

Shitty contemporary artworks are often culpable in this failure. But there is also a responsibility in us as readers of art. We are, historically speaking, diminished in our capacities to ‘see’ with more than our ocular capacities. We are blind to our ocularcentrism. We are numb to conscious-reading with more than eyes as we carry a corrupted picture of ourselves as an anatomy of eyes, nerves and brain.

German aesthetics of the 19th century were rich with the exploration of the idea of Einfühlung, literally an ‘in-going-feeling’. The inspiration in Einfühlung emerged from a proposition that the human and poetic nature of a work will reveal itself to a reader who is absorbed by ‘feeling-into’. As a process of criticism and epistemological investigation, Einfühlung is a significantly embodied, rather than cognitive, inquiry.

The idea and practice of Einfühlung befell inelegant translation and insipid psychologisation; it is now often likened to what we currently call ‘empathy’. Yet, if we can imagine ourselves back to ‘feeling-into’, and perhaps animate Goethe’s diary entries, where his looking into an artwork is a ‘groping around’ (umtastet), looking for the looking that will let him engage with Einfühlung, we may be able to understand the reason and life behind many impenetrable artworks created today.

We tend to read artwork with a handful of familiar and mild methods.  For example, we read a work as a product or outcome of a process: to illustrate, we read some instances of paint that have been poured, dripped, and flung as evidence of Jackson Pollock’s mood and corporeal movement. Another method of reading is to comprehend a work as a narrative; summon the story around Picasso and his blue period. The blue period, we narrate as reflecting his journey across both Spain and personal grief. For some works, however, our familiar methods of reading are inadequate. We must stretch into discomfort, perhaps engaging with processes such as feeling-into, to be able to enter the work.

A practice of Einfühlung demands an exchange of our standard reading habits for a range of more difficult, unfamiliar reading processes; we must stretch into discomfort and grasp for an embodied form of reading that may shun our languages of word and concept. As an art-doing—the work of the work—we must abandon the typical structure of standing outside the world of the work and peering in with a critical eye. In this atmosphere we are both (reader and work) subject to the dynamic process of being written upon.


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