Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 12, 1999
Constance Classen The Color of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination New York: Routledge, 1998. 234 pp.; 6 b/w ills. Paper $21.00 (0415180740)

In The Color of Angels, Constance Classen celebrates the richness of all that is unseen. More this-worldly than its title suggests, the book explores how the so-called “lower” senses (smell, touch, and taste) have shaped the religious and cultural imagination. Thus, Classen combines what one might call a “hidden history” of the other senses in European culture with a proposal for a broader sensory experience of the plastic arts. As with all hidden histories, there are culprits; and in this case the villain is modern Western culture’s love affair with all that is visual, from advertising and television to the aura of objectivity attached to visual perception. In response to the visualism of our age, Classen seeks to recover a fuller “aesthetic imagination,” by which she means one that “apprehend[s] and interpret[s] . . . the world through all the senses.”

A social anthropologist by training, Classen is an astute interpreter of sensory symbolism, one who calls attention to the ways in which sensory cues can generate social and religious meaning. Over the past decade, her own fieldwork in Andean cultures has put her at the forefront of an emerging field known as the anthropology of the senses. Perhaps better known for their critique of visualist biases in contemporary ethnography, these cultural anthropologists have generated significant cross-cultural studies of sensory symbolism and its role in “mapping” the cosmos. More so than in her previous essays (found in Worlds of Sense 1993 and Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell 1994), Classen’s newest work carries a stronger social and political critique of “ocularcentrism.” The primacy of vision, she claims, has marginalized both women and the blind in our society.

As with most hidden histories, there are nostalgic overtones in this work. According to Classen, the Enlightenment marks a critical turn in the Western sensorium; for, together, the Enlightenment, scientific revolution, and industrial age identified rationality, beauty, and power exclusively with the sense of sight. Although Classen would never say that vision is overrated, she justifiably points out how “the rule of sight” has impoverished modern Western culture. To underscore that loss, Classen marshals a broad range of evidence to illustrate both the pre-modern, multisensory imagination as well as the lone voices in a modern, “hypervisual” wilderness. Against this “grand narrative” about the visual turn in modernity, Classen packs each essay with a rich selection of illustrative examples.

To recover this lost multisensory and even cross-sensory aesthetic, Classen opens the book with a chapter describing three “sensory cosmologies” found in the writings of two German mystics, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), and a French utopian writer, Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Common to all three thinkers is the assumption that the universe is brimming with eternal truths; only right use of all the senses offers the possibility of unlocking those secrets. To Hildegard of Bingen, for instance, the “moist greenness and tangibleness and reddish fire” of a stone reveals the fullness of God, the Word, and the Virgin. For Boehme, every mineral, plant, and human owes its existence to the multisensory web of seven elemental forces: Astringency, Sweetness, Bitterness, Heat, Love, Sound, and Nature. And Fourier identifies sensory “poverties,” that is to say, misuse of the senses, as the root of all social inequities and human unhappiness. Only a sensory revolution, he claims, will redress social, economic, and political imbalances. In addition to the aesthetic pleasures and harmony in this multisensory cosmos, with right use, the senses can provide a moral compass. To these three “sensory visionaries,” at least, hell is not “other people”; it’s just the smelly ones.

The epistemological and moral power of sensory cues is more fully developed in the second chapter, “The Breath of God: Sacred Histories of Scent,” a study of how olfactory codes defined sainthood in the middle ages. Central to this chapter is “the odor of sanctity,” a concept that stands for the sweet aromas healthy, sickly, and even dead saints were said to exude involuntarily. To their devotees, such fragrances were the calling cards of the righteous and proof of their spiritual authority. As in the previous chapter, Classen uses case studies to demonstrate the importance of fragrance in the cults of three female saints: Lydwine of Shiedam (1380-1433), Teresa of Avila (1515-82), and Benoite of Notre Dame du Laus (1647-1718). According to their biographers, these three women derived spiritual authority from their fragrant wounds, lingering aromas, incorruptible bodies, and the ability to detect the stench of the demonic and the damned. Although similar examples can be found in lives of male saints, Classen rightly points out that olfactory phenomena were prominent in legends of female saints. Overall, this essay provides a stimulating introduction to smell as a vital category of analysis in the study of Christian spirituality.

Beyond the religious dimensions of smell, Classen turns her attention in chapters 3 and 4 to the role of smell in the cultural construction of the “feminine.” Central to these essays are the affinities between gender and sensory hierarchies. Simply put, the noblest or best senses (sight and hearing) have traditionally been associated with the maleness, rationality, and distance, whereas the “lower” senses (smell, taste, and touch) belong to the overlapping realms of femaleness, emotion, and proximity. This “feminization” of smell informs early modern medical texts, astrology, advice on the upbringing of girls, and even witch hunts. Her gender analysis of the senses continues in the next chapter, “Pens and Needles,” which shifts attention from “woman” to “women’s work.” As Classen argues, the close association between women and such haptic crafts as needlework reinforced male resistance to female authorship, an activity closely associated with sight. Her vignettes of three women authors, Christine de Pizan (twelfth century), Lucrezia Marinelli (fifteenth century), and Margaret Cavendish (seventeenth century), expose their keen awareness of these stereotypes. Still, her summaries of their works prove less helpful for probing the thought patterns behind these stereotypes.

In the final two chapters, Classen lays out an aesthetic programme that would offer solace to “our tyrannical and fascinating visual culture.” Chapter 5 is a brief overview of the Symbolist, Futurist, and Surrealists movements, with emphasis on their efforts to tap the power of nonvisual senses and symbolism. As Classen also points out, this predilection for “feminine” themes, spheres, and senses among male artists did not necessarily enhance the status of their female counterparts. I leave it to those with greater expertise to judge Classen’s survey of these artistic movements. Nonspecialists, at least, will take a lively interest in her conviction that visual media can fully engage all the senses, or at least, represent multisensory experience.

In one of the most clever moves of the book, Classen’s final chapter addresses sensory impairment and its import for leading us back to a fuller “sensory aesthetic.” Chapter 6, “A Feel for the World: Lessons in Aesthetics from the Blind,” focuses on the blind’s response to art, both through new technologies and new directions in exhibition. By giving the final word to the blind (and deaf-mutes), Classen forces us to consider whether in an age bereft of Hildegards or Fouriers, the blind may be the last “sensory visionaries” left to us. Central to this chapter is the problem of whether and how the blind can know, learn, and recognize beauty. Thus, Classen explores recent technologies for translating visual phenomena into tactile stimuli. Existing and imagined museums of the “tactile arts” offer a range of possibilities. Such museums would certainly be more inclusive. Whether tactile art can be “beautiful” or “transformative” are lingering questions that Classen wisely leaves unanswered.

Readers will delight in the “portrait gallery” Classen assembles to populate her hidden history. In clear and engaging prose, she allows a remarkable range of artists, saints, essayists, mystics, and social reformers to speak vividly—even lyrically—to the wonders that await those who awaken all their senses. Readers interested in a more systematic history of the senses might find Classen’s broad dichotomy between “premodern” and “modern” to be a hindrance. The sheer variety of examples and their serial presentation prevent her from tracing how attitudes toward specific senses changed within the “premodern” period. All the same, this is a rich and eminently readable survey of Western attitudes to the senses. And it is a timely work, as well. As art historians increasingly turn their attention to the “viewer,” The Color of Angels offers a vivid reminder that the viewer is more than just a pair of eyes. Each essay carries the message that no history of “visuality” is complete without considering vision’s relation to the other senses. Anyone curious about the intersection of gender, the religious imagination, and sensory worlds will benefit from these stimulating and thought-provoking essays.

Georgia Frank
Colgate University