On the Power of Aesthetics and Artistic Intent
I remember the first and only time I’ve experienced something close to Stendhal’s Syndrome. I was traveling in Rome. It was 2007, and I was 18. I had just seen the Pantheon, eaten chocolate gelato for a refreshing treat, and was walking down a dusty street. As I walked past the facade of Sant’Ignazio, I felt the cool air sweep by me from the church’s open doors. A cold, Baroque church seemed like a great place to rest. I soon discovered it was more than that – it was treasure of a building. I was floored as soon as I stepped inside. The magnanimity of the art and architecture stirred a deep need in me to sit down lest I lose my breath or faint. This was not the most ornate church I had or have ever been in, but it certainly is one of the more impressive, imposing ones. It demanded a certain reaction from me – awe and wonder. It compelled me to look up and meditate on the life of St. Ignatius above me, caring nothing for my own religious creed. All this from a church, a place set apart as sacred space.
I have since seen and experienced art and architecture by my favorite artists and architects, but no matter how excited I got, no matter if I cried or did a little happy jump or stood quietly in contemplative reverence, the breath was never knocked out of me nor my mind so held captive the way it was when I stepped into Sant’Ignazio. One of my most-loved churches is Santa Maria della Vittoria, which I visited on the same trip to Rome. I was expecting to be amazed. Yet, I didn’t swoon under its kaufers or become overwhelmed when I at last saw the great masterpiece I had been anxious to see, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. I was absolutely thrilled and enamored, but I was not breathless. I was moved to emotion and pensive thought, but not because of the force of the sculpture before me: because I had read and committed to memory the powerful, mysterious story behind this sculpture, its artist, and its church.
I cannot satisfactorily attribute my reaction to Sant’Ignazio to mere surprise: I have been surprised by many wonders of architecture, some much more complex and detailed, such as the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, which is one of the most admirable and artistically expansive buildings I have been in. The magnificence of the Palazzo Ducale made me wonder if the way I was feeling about the frescoes and the ornateness around me was something intentional, or if I was so used to concrete and dry wall that I was merely impressed by anything. What do artists intend when they create art? Do they create art so that it invokes certain feelings and reactions in its viewers? In themselves? Why does some art sway us and other art does not? Is it possible to approach art too rationally?
Perhaps these questions are best answered on an individual basis. For me, knowing the background behind a work of art and knowing a little of the life of its artist increases the effect it has on me. I get a giddy sense of fulfillment when I can pinpoint, either from previous knowledge or by mere observation, how an artist achieved a certain effect or how they portrayed events and/or people. For me, viewing a work of art is more than looking at something pretty. Each artwork has a history, tells a story, and has a message. Far be it from me to ignore these vital parts of art, to not get involved in what is being displayed.
[M]ost people’s approach to art stops them succumbing to [Stendhal’s] syndrome. After a few minutes with a Florentine masterpiece, the typical tourist – well practised at putting the wonders of the world in their place – flees towards the comfort zones of pizza, wine and writing postcards home. Others … have a mental immunity, ‘always remaining rational’ despite the city’s aesthetic delights. – Melinda Guy, The Shock of the Old, Frieze, 2003.
I was recently speaking to a friend who told me that he is only emotionally swayed by one artist, Ilya Repin. He finds the history and emotional force behind Repin’s paintings to be unparalleled. I found it interesting that by my friend’s admission, only this artist moved him. All other art is merely art for its own sake. Someone else I know traveled to Paris recently and relayed that they found the architecture and art (specifically, Notre Dame and the Louvre) to be an extreme bore, and they couldn’t wait to get home. My first reaction was complete shock. My second reaction was more intellectual. Why and how could this person find the arguably great art and architecture in Paris to be boring? Is it because, as Melinda says, my acquaintance maintained a sort of “mental immunity” to the art before them? What form of artistic expression captures their attention and admiration, if not even Paris can do so? If architects and artists do indeed intend to provoke a reaction from their viewers, they are not successful with the aforementioned people. Is it their fault that they are unsuccessful? The fault of the architectural style, artwork, or iconography? I doubt I will ever have an answer for these questions, but they are worth asking.
How do you approach art? Does it matter to you if a work of art tells a story, or is art created solely for aesthetic enjoyment?
Guerrero, A.L., A. Barcelo Rossello, and D. Ezpeleta, “Sindrome de Stendhal: origen, naturaleza y presentacion en un grupo de neurologos,” Neurologia. February 2010.
Guy, Melinda. “The Shock of the Old,” Frieze Magazine. 01 January 2003.
Rufus, Anneli. “Can Art Drive Us Crazy?,” Psychology Today Blog. August 12, 2009.
Squires, Nick. “Scientists Investigate Stendhal Syndrome,” The Telegraph. July 28, 2010.