The Fragrance of Sensory Studies

fragrance 1

In a previous post I suggested that a handful of important books (mostly published within the past decade) offer a productive entry into the leading concerns of sensory history. Few have done more to promote that kind of history by way of their role as pioneers in the wider interdisciplinary field of Sensory Studies than two Canada-based scholars – the anthropologist David Howes and cultural historian Constance Classen. They’ve just collaborated on a new hit, Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (2014) that puts us in mind of the relationship between art, history, and the senses.


Howes, who directs the ambitious programs of the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University, is the most prolific essayist on Sensory Studies in the English-speaking world. Recently, he outlined the evolution of the study of the senses in social and cultural context in a most helpful overview. Previously, Howes was the series editor for the influential “Sensory Formations” (and editor of the two of its books, Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (2005) and The Sixth Sense Reader (2009). A contributor to a roundtable on sensory history in the Journal of American History in 2008, Howes has also offered intriguing suggestions on sensory biography in his sketches of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx in Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (2003). Hot stuff.

Constance Classen has also been publishing books and essays on the cultural and social life of the senses for nearly a quarter of a century. Her work has particularly focused on the senses of smell, touch, gender and early modern history. In the Sensory Formations series, she edited The Book of Touch (2005), where her poetic sensibilities grappled with the inherently ambiguous physical and lexicographical terrain of the tactile, the haptic, and the kinesthetic. Most recently, she has been general editor for the forthcoming six-volume Cultural History of the Senses. So, like Howes, she’s a big deal, an architect of Sensory Studies.

Ways of Sensing is exemplary of the themes evident in Howes’s and Classen’s large body of work and, like many of their publications, this volume teems with ambition and a corresponding potential to either inspire or frustrate historians. Rather than a defense of the anthropology of the senses and sensory history as “subfields of their respective disciplines,” Howes and Classen insist that sensory analysis “can be relevant to the study of any and all cultural fields.”

The title Ways of Sensing invokes John Berger’s classic Ways of Seeing (1972), a book that deeply influenced the study of art history and visual culture. Howes and Classen restate their long-held arguments for systematic attention to the non-visual senses, and the need to understand the dynamic interaction of the senses (“intersensoriality”). They add the notion “ways of sensing” to gesture toward “the plurality of sensory practices in different cultures and historical periods – ways – and the processual nature of perception – sensing.”

In an eclectic volume using what they describe as “a joint anthropological-historical methodology,” Howes and Classen eschew the conventional organizing principle of “a serial, ‘sense-by-sense’ approach.” Their book treats all of the senses together in such “social domains” as art, medicine, politics, law, and marketing, arguing that this approach reveals “the dynamic interaction of sensations in a given context and thus contributes to a more holistic understanding of the sensorium.”

The first chapter, one of the strongest, “Mixed Messages: Engaging the Senses in Art,” draws on their long-standing interest in art and museums to make a forceful case that the modern West has seriously underappreciated the nonvisual qualities of art objects and has excessively privileged vision in exhibition spaces, an unhappy “single-sensed understanding of art.”

The pre-industrial West had revered the hands-on craftsmanship of the artist and evaluated an object “by how it felt, as well as by how it looked. This was true of many paintings and sculptures, not just craft objects like ceramics and woodwork. Eighteenth-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder lauded the supremacy of sculpture “because it was perceptible to the sense of touch – a more aesthetic sense than sight, in his view, because of its intimacy and its thoroughness.”

Only in the following century were such arguments discarded, as the art museum “became the eyes-only space it is known for being today.” As vision alone became the exalted portal to art, so too arose the unhelpful “divide between the visual arts and handcrafts,” which elevated painting as the visual and “intellectual” media while craftwork suffered a demotion due to its “’course’ materiality and functional values of touch.” By the twentieth century, an art critic could claim without hesitation that the superior artist “paints with … his eyes.”

Caricature of Rodchenko
Georgii Petrussow, Caricature of Rodchenko (1933-34)

Sympathetically, Howes and Classen review the Western artistic rebels of the nineteenth and twentieth century who sought “sensory multiplicity.” Non-Western influences during the age of empire encouraged such experimentation. Perhaps the best known example is the Tahitian work of Paul Gauguin, whose journal Noa Noa (derived from the Polynesian term for fragrance) recorded his inspiration by local scents and sounds.

noa noa
Noa means noa

The twentieth century, however, progressively demoted the lower senses in “mainstream aesthetics.” This tendency culminated in the midcentury modern canon of Clement Greenberg, the high priest of New York’s abstract painting who cemented the fame of Jackson Pollock. Though partly inspired by the decidedly multisensory Navajo sand painting tradition, Pollock’s work, as interpreted by Greenberg, became “an icon of ‘pure’ visual values.”

Because this is purely visual

Howes and Classen conclude that things have begun to change in the museum, albeit at a frustrating pace, as “cracks have appeared in the visualist façade, cracks that allow a snatch of music or aroma to seep through, and even a visitor’s hand to occasionally insert itself.” Interactive exhibits, multimedia programs, and the use of scents in exhibitions, along with hands-on workshops, show a “new consciousness” of smell and touch. Through an occasionally difficult process of trial and error (some interactive or historical re-enactment attempts have, Howes and Classen concede, fallen flat), “the senses are indeed infiltrating the museum in many ways and to many ends, both reclaiming lost territory and exploring new domains.”

Howes and Classen summon us to our senses, urging a multisensory appreciation of art and the museum experience. For sensory historians, what seems most pertinent is the reminder that what seems like natural associations (vision with the visual arts, a hands-off experience at the museum) are historically constructed and never uncontested, and that we are living through a moment of change – its outcomes as yet uncertain – that can perhaps be enlightened by our critical engagement, our historical perspective. So, thus inspired, and in keeping with Tropics of Meta’s love of lists, here are some books on art and the senses to help us begin.

art history and senses

Art, History, and the Senses: 1830 to the Present, eds. Patrizia Di Bellow and Gabriel Koureas (2010)

Sensory World of Italian Renaissance Art

François Quiviger, The Sensory World of Italian Renaissance Art (2010)

Art and the Senses
Art and the Senses, eds. Francesca Bacci and David Melcher (2011). Howes contributes “Hearing Scents, Tasting Sights: Toward a Cross-Cultural Multi-Modal Theory of Aesthetics.”

Multisensory Museum

The Multisensory Museum: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Touch, Sound, Smell, Memory, and Space, eds. Nina Levent and Alvaro Pascual-Leone (2014). Howes contributes “The Secret of Aesthetics Lies in the Conjugation of the Senses: Reimagining the Museum as a Sensory Gymnasium.”

Sense and the senses

Sense and the Senses in Early Modern Art and Cultural Practice, eds. Alice E. Sanger and Siv Tove Kulbrandstad Walker (2012) 


Caroline A. Jones, Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art (2006)

Eyesight Alone

Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (2005)