What are We identifying With When We Perceive/Experience A Work of Art?

Giacometti’s “The Couple”, in frontal lighting

If the person perceiving a work of art is an art specialist, he/she takes it as a measure of an artist’s talent, as an item to store in a collection, to buy and sell, or as a medium of appeal that will allow the work to become the vehicle of its author’s success, etc. If a person is a fan of art he/she assesses the work of art for its ability to stimulate the intuitive feelings and by this provide satisfaction/dissatisfaction – psychological states with which it is pleasant to play around. But if a person experiencing emanation of work of art is not so refined as a specialist or those with a bent of a connoisseur, then she/he perceives art through a reaction of a positive or negative identification – they identify with the work of art (and even with its author) or identify with their refutation (they love it or don’t), or they are indifferent to it. How will this last group perceive “The Couple” by Giacometti?

Simple people will unconsciously compare themselves with what the sculptor put in front of them and almost certainly will become infuriated by Giacometti’s “recklessness, bad taste and arrogance”. Let’s start with the “flatness” of the woman’s body in comparison with the thickness and trunk-ness of the man’s. Women among viewers will feel insulted, and the same goes for men although less. Look at the female’ hands – it’s as if she keeps her body as an object for exposition, as if it is a board on which some of the important features of her body are “engraved” for the anonymous viewing, while man’s left hand is ready to offer friendship, deal, bribe or even deliver a blow, and his right hand is expressing defensive alertness.

While the man’s mouth is closed – he is not eating nor talking, he just feels that he is a part of the social environment or is looking out not to miss anything suspicious; the woman’s mouth is opened. Is she talking, singing or just ready to respond and showing this readiness even before she is asked the question? May be, she is selling something while the man is her patron or bodyguard. May be, she is a pop-star and the man is her promoter?

But the scandal of the sculpture is the couple’s organs of vision. His giant all-observant gaze of two eyes in one is simultaneously monolithic and two-directional. The man looks in front of himself but also to the side where his spouse stands. He has to at once monitor/control these two areas – what is ahead of the couple and what’s going on around the woman: he has to protect the couple’s safety and simultaneously their couple-hood as such – his spouse as his possession. But she doesn’t have eyes at all! Isn’t traditional woman (woman as a part of the couple, without an individual destiny) the one who doesn’t need her own sight – her own eyes and gaze? Or she hasn’t been allowed to use her eyes because her man doesn’t trust her. She has to pretend that she doesn’t have eyes.

Are they harlot and pimp? – Or a salesman and a saleswoman? Or, perhaps they offer some kind of a special service? Could they be religious preachers or political propagandists? Or, may be, they are just a traditional couple witty artists like Giacometti cannot resist poke fun at? Serious artists are often simultaneously – “emotionally frivolous” and “intellectually extreme”. They happen to always be post-conservative with their post-traditional sensibility. The (simpleminded) traditionalists with their archaic (not reflected upon) emotional reactions and the cognitive and behavioral stereotypes are often targeted by artists’ sarcasm.

If particular viewers are prone to identify with the surface of what they perceive in a work of art, they can be easily insulted and humiliated by Giacometti’s “The Couple”. They can think that the artist is laughing at their human bodies and at them being a couple. But if they will try to identify not with physicality of the sculpted figures seen as content but with physicality of the sculpture as a meaningful form, as the meaning inside style, they can regain the ability to take pleasure from experiencing the work of art. In other words, if the observer of “The Couple” could identify not so much with the represented bodies in their nudity and feel a tinge of insult but with the artist’s intelligence playing with representation of human body, he/she could take full pleasure from establishing rapport with the sculpture. Intellectual identification (with the artist’s mind) can help to overcome the visual identification (with the objects in a work of art). The next step then would be to identify with the hypothetical creative intention of the work of art’s author.

If spectators feel indignant about Giacometti’s representation of male and female sexual attributes – it means that they are prone to identify with physical similarities of their own bodies with that of the statues and then perceive the metaphorical nature of artist’s images as a “disrespectful” distortion. They cannot be humorous in relation to their own sexual organs and sexual function. It means that a lot of energy of their pride is trapped in their sexual organs and in their bodies in general. As a matter of fact, it is very widespread condition in human beings. It can be overcame only through humanistic education that introduces to human mind and soul the distance from body, the attention to the less physical – less obvious realities. Without this distance intellectual development is impossible. Misogyny and machismo, racist and nationalist reactions come exactly from a lack of intellectual and spiritual distance from the body, from too direct identification with our physical being. Giacometti‘s little double statue, almost statuette – refers exactly to the point where human spiritual development can branch out from our barbaric blind identification with our bodies. In other words, people who cannot take this particular work of art without experiencing psychological problem rationalized as “I don’t like it/I hate it” position, can try to work with their perception to unlock their psychological development in a situation when they are trapped in their defensive identification with their own physical attributes too naively and too rigidly. Serious art has substantial psychoanalytical potentials to cure the points of psychological stagnation in our development.

Giacometti’s “The Couple”, in mild lighting