Day 6: The Sentimental Senses

June 29, 2010 in day#6 by Isabel Gold

What is art? Pinar courteously broke the artistic experience down for us in despairingly simple terms.

Is there an emotional response?


Then it is art.

We humans are controlled by our sentimental emotions: there is no sense that escapes this human urge to connect the present to our beloved past.

When you listen to Bach’s cello suite, you are brought back to the living room couch, your head under your mother’s arms, your legs curled up under a pillow, and your eyes fluttering towards unconsciousness as your father plays.

When you see that deep purple bed sheet, you instantly think of your step-great-aunt or whatever with the outrageously fake hair that seems to change different shades of purple every Christmas. You wince. You cover your cheeks that she still loves to snatch.

When you bite* into your third har gow, you are six again, scribbling out adoring pictures of your cat onto the tablecloth with jumbo markers.

When you catch even the faintest whiff of eucalyptus, your grandmother is slathering on vats of Vick’s Vapor Rub onto your chest to stop your fever.

When you touch styrofoam, your father runs his fingernails against the surface, awaiting your spasmodic agony under stifled laughter.

But why? Why are we moved by these things? Why does the most diminutive sense push powerful emotional scenes back to our consciousness?

In a study at Keele University in London, 80 percent of adults had consistent emotional responses to certain music like tears, laughter, or fear. Why? No one quite knows, but Norman Weinberger of the Scientific American cites a woman who cannot recognize and distinguish different pieces of music, yet shows the stereotypical emotion to certain songs.

Our sight evokes similar emotions. David Barringer of the design magazine AIGA, uses the colors red and yellow to emphasize the double-meanings of every color (much like everything in life). Is this a dangerous coral snake, or is it a warm, comforting hamburger?

Barringer explains that most of your emotions connected to color are cultural rather than genetic. “Yellow is joy and cowardice, the color of oak-tree ribbons and jaundice, Asian spirituality and Egyptian mourning. Red is love and vengeance, valentines and spilled blood, symbolizing good luck and celebration in China and India and in other countries standing for socialism and slasher films. While red and yellow can be as beautiful as the robe of a Chinese emperor, they can also be as ugly as the dollops of ketchup and mustard on a cold beef patty,” Barringer writes.

What about smell? Luca Turin, the renowned biophysicist, revolutionized smell through the vibration theory of olfaction, which states that a the stenches of molecules come from the vibrational frequencies, rather than from shapes (which is based on a lock and key mechanism). The reason for such strong emotions remains a mystery, but Turin appreciates the feelings and memories stored into the nose.

“There is a new chemical beast prowling the streets, a strange molecule with the feel of a light, volatile top note and the power and tenacity of the most powerful drydown materials,” writes Turin in the book, Perfumes: the Guide, co-written by Tania Sanchez, where they explain the mechanics and chemistry of perfumes, and then review perfumes and more perfumes and even more perfumes. “Smelling it at length gives the feeling of alarm one would get from trying to pick up a two-year-old child and finding that it weighed as much as a car. This strange creature is called sclarene, an intermediate in the synthesis of Ambrox from clary sage, and has a fresh-herbaceous dry smell that simply goes on forever.”

But even stronger emotions and passions arise from multiple senses, multiple ways of thought. James Gimzewski perfectly emphasized the need to join art and science, to escape the boxes that entrap us into one school of thought to increase the passion, the love, the emotion that will help along the way to breakthroughs and new thinking.

Pinar found a way to transcend the full emotional experience in her fantastic piece, Scream: a homage to Edward Munch and all the dead raccoons. Once an invisible hand voted for the wrong person, the raccoon began his wrath. I dreaded each scream: I felt enormously guilty and tentative. But the raccoon head was admittedly hilarious. When the screaming subsided, I remained unsure of the emotions that erupted. The yelps still rung in my ears.

*Some emotions and preferences are genetic, after all! Why some think cilantro tastes like soap.