Living Presence Response: A Description of the Ineffable?

This post was written before and subsequently posted after the previous one. This explains any anachronisms that appear in the text.

In my previous-but-one post, I started by describing how the reconstruction of a narrative by its very nature is at best an approximate endeavour. The description of a past reality in and of itself is in all probability a chimaera made of many parts pieced together as best as one can with the sensory and intellectual tools at one’s disposal. This is the main thrust of Donald Hoffman’s thesis that proposes the impossibility to see the world as it really is. He explains that we experience reality in terms of ‘fitness payoff’ and that this evolutionary pressure has shaped the way we perceive things in terms of what is the best way for us to survive in the world, not the most accurate description of it. So is a narrative a question of convenience and advantage?

Hoffman’s shift in the way the age-old problem of describing reality is approached is another example of how contemporary paradigms are shifting and being replaced at an ever-increasing rate. Thanks to an increasing knowledge base ever more accessible, the ability to bring together disparate areas of interest in one place has stimulated holistic approaches to almost every area of study. Crossing disciplines is essential if new insights are sought.

Alfred Gell’s revision of how artworks might function in society is another example of seeing things differently. His book, Art and Agency singles out precisely the mechanism by which viewers interact with art as though the latter were similar to living beings. Gell sees this in terms of agency, i.e. influencing viewers to behave as though they were engaging with something alive rather than inanimate. An artwork lies within a context, a social environment or art nexus, as van Eck calls it. Van Eck puts it rather well:

[Gell] considers objects of art not in terms of their formal or aesthetic value or appreciation within the culture that produced them. Neither does [he] consider them as signs, visual codes to be deciphered or symbolic communications. Instead, Gell defines art objects in performative terms as systems of actions, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it. Artworks thus considered are the equivalents of persons, more particularly social agents.

Gell identified one mechanism by which viewers can be influenced as technical virtuosity. This presents something made in a way that is hard to comprehend, functioning as a form of ideal or magic. The key is that this thing is to achieve what viewers try to do in other areas. This technical virtuosity can take many forms and is not confined to the skill of carving or painting.

This view of art as a performative agent is at first sight somewhat at odds with Richard Anderson’s view of skilfully encoding culturally significant meaning in a sensuous affecting medium. The skill element is common to both as is the significant meaning. However, in Anderson, the emphasis is placed on encoding meaning, whereas Gell’s hypothesis sees agency as the main function for the artwork.

Anderson in his anthropological idea is trying to bring together very disparate areas of creativity. In his book, Calliope’s Sisters his examples are taken from across very different societies some of which do not recognise the idea of art. Gell’s approach is more art-historical. Both Anderson and Gell are trying to identify art and its function in a way that does not fall into Western artistic paradigms of aesthetics and semiotics. Anderson’s hypothesis focuses on the semiotic content of an art object whereas Gell’s focuses on the mechanism by which an art object exerts influence. Gell’s idea is closer to Bayles and Orlando’s proposition that art changes the world in that he states that the agency of the object [or event] consolidates or reforms a world view in a social setting. This is very much the case in sacred contexts but also in the way art is perceived and responded to in secular white cube spaces to mention just one of many possible examples.

Gell borrows from Peircian semiotics and TAG analysis and replaces terms such as object, meaning, interpreter, sign, signifier etc with words that are more readily applicable to the arts.

  • Agency: the power to influence the viewer, this is mediated by the
  • Index: the material object that elicits responses
  • Prototype: the thing the index is representing.
  • Artist: the immediate cause or author of the existence of the index and its properties
  • Recipients: those affected by the work or intended to be by the index.

Semiotics, structuralism and post-structuralism originally resided in the literary and anthropological domains. What this does is to slim down the complexities that arise when analysing work in terms of their function in a humanities context. Focus is placed on the visual arts aspect without losing contact with the humanities.  Most significantly, the term meaning is exchanged with prototype. This reminds me of the Jungian idea of archetypes. But rather than presenting as a Platonic overarching concept, the prototype can be specific to the index in question.

Prototype is an important departure from meaning because it enables the representation of something ineffable. The living presence of the object is enhanced by, in many cases dependent on, its social context. So the art object becomes the explanation of the ineffable rather than ‘the problem to be explained’. 1 Because of the social nexus, in appropriately reinforcing circumstances, the effect becomes proofed against rational explanation. A response mechanism is created that is emotional and volitional rather than rational and cognitive.

These taxonomies are useful when attempting to disentangle relationships and the role of each player in the social nexus in which they are enmeshed. This system of analysis may be a helpful tool in confirming putative or identifying actual causal relationships between the art object its social, anthropological and psychological effects. This form of analysis has been used primarily in art historical context but I can see how I can apply it to tease out aims and objectives from intentions in artistic practice.

I see aims and objectives as analytical descriptions of process. They are the functional and purposeful surface ideas that have to be worked out, arrived at and articulated through cognitive processes. Intentions on the other hand are more deeply rooted. They lie beneath reason, often unrevealed or tacit. To find one’s intention is like holding one’s beating heart. It can be dangerous or bring well being, we often keep intentions well hidden inside the mind; somewhere deep in the brain. Intentions are tinder waiting to be lit. They can give light and warmth or burn everything to ashes.

  1. Van Eck,[]

Living Presence Response


I was watching a video featuring the blue ringed octopus, a poisonous creature that warns would-be predators by the appearance of iridescent blue rings as part of a rapid colour change. Unusually bright colours in animals and plants are often protective warning signs that they are poisonous, a strategy used advantageously by innocuous opportunistic mimics. Equally, bright colours can also attract as part of courtship and mating in many animals as well as a means of plants encouraging the ingestion and subsequent dissemination of their seed. Animals respond to such cues just as we are attracted or repelled by colours, movement, smells and sounds. This raises the question, is there a correlation between the living presence response elicited by artworks and the way we respond to the natural world?

Gell, van Eck and others have looked at the phenomenon of living presence response from an art historical stance but it seems to me that a lot can be learnt from observing our responses to the natural world. Van Eck in Particular talks about the role of the sublime. The sublime as a topos has been written about copiously since the enlightenment, however, this is as much an area for behavioural and evolutionary psychologists as it is for those interested in art history and theory.  Responses of awe, terror, pleasure and overwhelming presence have been used by artists ever since people have been making things. Authors and facilitators have employed notions of scale, beauty and technical virtuosity to great effect. These are amongst a number of properties found in nature and religion. What could be more sublime than an idyllic landscape or an all encompassing deity whose beauty is such that it cannot be imagined let alone looked upon, maker of all the world?

Authors and enablers of art have often been motivated by the desire to possess at least a small piece of the cause for awe, sublimity, beauty and power through the facilitating and making of great works. And we raise such things to mythical heights, from the Sistine Chapel to the Pyramids. It is this close relationship between our emotional response to natural things and art objects that interests me: the reason we look upon certain art as though it were alive despite knowing it to be inanimate. We speak of such works as speaking to us, living, and we respond to them with emotions and thoughts that are close to those with which we react to animals, plants and indeed other human beings. We treasure them, often above other humans, and we make pilgrimages to see them in the hope of experiencing their purported transformative properties. Centres of power have long recognised this as self evident.

Religious icons, large painting cycles, marble statues, tribal carvings and video installations vary in the way they create responses but all hold in common the desire for us to engage with them beyond cognitive interactions. The aim in such cases. to engender a gut reaction, a psychological jolt that brings us into an emotional-volitional nexus with it. This entanglement is most often set in a social context. The art object gives rise to a dialectic and perhaps consensus of its meaning and function. There is a toing and froing between the art object and the viewers of response, inference and rule making. In this way, the art work’s agency could be seen as not only being defined by social conventions and interactions but its characteristics which are then assimilated into the social nexus and become part of the way in which it is viewed.

How this agency is created is largely the role of the artist. The artist’s charge is to imbue the work with sufficient information for the work to act with agency in its respective social setting. However, this of itself is not enough. The social setting must be receptive either by prior knowledge of the domain in which the art object functions or be informed of the aims or function of the art object so that the viewers can be guided in their response by a set of rules of reaction.

The skill of the artist is to enable this nexus of meaning and function. The artist can employ many strategies and tactics to do so, but for the work to elicit the living presence response, he or she much be aware of the context and receptivity of its audience.

NB: the terms I have used so far could be replaced with Gell’s. This would make the writing and reading of the text much simpler as in my previous post, namely: artist, index, prototype, recipient, agency.

I have not mentioned examples as this sort of post is more of a place holder for a fuller text. 

Tutorial 3: Jonathan Kearney – 17 June 2019


We spent most of the time talking around one recent post, Critique on Latest Study.


This summary is taken from our Conversation.


We discussed the ebb and flow between refined and crude thinking and handling during making and how a maquette is a condensation and clarification of this process before embarking on a large-scale project. How two approaches are kept in harmony: of keeping the dynamism of the sketch and the clarity of further finishing. That visibly incorporating both can give a sense of the kinetic essence of the process of making.

We also discussed the sense of something arising out of the material and the struggle involved. That this maelstrom of life, with crowded entities entering and exiting a surface is a metaphor of life and how this can also speak about aspects of humanity. How humans are part of and not separate from nature.

The forms represent individually more or less formal approaches and that this duality is emblematic of how I work, between the emotionally literal and the rational artificial, ritual and representational.

We discussed a variety of ideas for larger scale work: the evolutionary ideas and the mythology that arises from them leads to the whole created using modular units, interchangeable and capable of fitting together in various ways.

We discussed the central notion of seeing life in a non-anthropocentric way and how alluding to humanity in this way can be a powerful way of raising questions about our place.

The various responses to my work raised the question of whether the works are related to the idea of monsters, something we do not quite understand. Monsters are harmful, I do not see my works as monsters but rather as inhabiting a parallel world, asking the question what if we were not here?

This led to a discussion about the Anthropocene and how my work is an expression of my relationship with the world and view of human relationships, particularly the nature of individual vs individual and individual vs group dynamics.

Language is part of this argument and the image of the Tower of Babel, used in a post on my Research Paper was discussed as bearing a variety of conceptual meanings as a metaphor for difference and variety.

We continued to talk about the study as a means of opening out different elements. The sense of the emotional and rational, the Apollonian and the Dionysian and where I might place my work in relation to these paradigms. The balance appears to be constantly shifting between the material and the idea: how the two exchange during the process of making, what the trigger points might be and how they coexist in a final work. I think that this unresolved internal dialogue becomes resolved as a conversation between two works.

The material itself is neutral and whether the rational or irrational predominates is a function of how it is approached. Which predominates is part of the selection process as it is difficult to treat the material of clay with the same philosophies at the same time. It might be possible, but my personal structure prefers to oscillate between the two. The balance between the rational and irrational in a single work could be seen, as being created during the making process by alternating the two approaches. However, as I said earlier, the resolution of the two is expressed as a conversation between works rather than within a single work.

What I appear to be doing is exploring the referencing of ideas through my visual language having created a vocabulary over time. Time during which I have transitioned from working with ideas at a distance to breaking open the carapace of rationality, found in earlier works, to dig deeper beneath the surface to find what lies underneath. And if it is sound, authentic, it might ring a bell in someone else.

At his point we started to talk about how I might lead someone into the work, particularly as the current artist environment is very much centred on the overtly societal and human anthropocentric.

Jonathan sees my work as presenting an ambiguity that encourages investigation. However, a lot of visual culture exemplified by Instagram, with its dangerous description of the world, works against pausing, waiting, taking time. He thinks that sadly, most people will not engage but those that do will be richly rewarded.

I asked Jonathan how explicit does one have to be before becoming didactic (not a good thing) to open out a deeper conversation, how does one signpost possibilities? Is it not our gift to do so and alas a task for the viewer? We agreed this is an impossible question to answer but explored some ways of answering this.

We looked at how the time for “demystifying art” has hopefully passed and how confusion in a gallery is a way of catalysing a conversation in a gallery. We then looked at the importance of titles. Jonathan sees what I do as emotional and the title is the rational companion to it, a balance of the emotional and the rational. This is a very interesting idea and one I have often considered but not quite in this way. A title can be seen, as an entry into the work, a poetic entry. However, there is a caveat: not to overburden the work with a title that closes-down its meaning with the choice of words. Reducing the space for its meaning can damage it as well. Questions such as, What is the Difference?, are good.

This led to the question of Jargon and how it can cover a multitude of misunderstandings and how having simplified my language, I have been able to express complex ideas more clearly. Jonathan suggested that writing about the work, not necessarily explicitly for the reasoned discussed above but as another layer could be an interesting and effective way of rewarding further investigation. I have been thinking of ways to do this. The important thing is not to close the work down with words but rather say, ‘this is my offering to you as to what I was thinking but actually there is a space for you.

Finally, we looked at how I am planning my work and how there is still plenty of time although my methodology requires careful planning ahead.