Dr Mahnaz Shah- The Literal and Phenomenal in Art and Design

This Lecture explored the relationship between the literal and the phenomenal in art and design. We began by exploring the definition of literal; something that is true to fact, something that is not exaggerated, it is actual or factual. It tends to construe words in a strict sense or in a unimaginative way. The question therefore arises how can one be literal in art and design if you have to be unimaginative in describing the subject. Another interesting question that Shah brought up is whether it is ever possible to be literal? If you said “that object was huge”, does that not trigger you imagination and therefore one is no longer being literal because your imagination is involved?

Before moving on looking further into the literal, we examined the definition of phenomenal in an art and desig n context; a philosophical examination of structures and subjective experiences and consciousness (Edmund Husserl). The phenomenal is the opposite of literal. We then did an small exercise of looking at the of a smile and the different perceptions of a smile; whats a good smile, a bad smile, an evil smile, a happy smile. We looks at the Jokers smile from Batman; his smile is drawn on, is it therefore a literal representation of a smile, or are we having to use are imagination to imagine the smile on his face because it not actually real? Its interesting to question ones perception of things.

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We then explored what could be a genuine smile, and questioned whether this was a phenomenal smile, rather than a literal smile, and if this was the case, why? I though that the differences between a literal smile and a genuine smile is the expressions on the rest of the face. The eyes are also smiling as well as the the mouth. You can see below with Tony Blair’s smile his whole face seems to be smiling rather than just the mouth. The Mona Lisa smile is a bit different; it looks like maybe the beginning of a smile and it is left to your imagination to imagine her face breaking into a smile, therefore I would say its a phenomenal smile.

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Following this exercise we looked at boundaries. A boundary is something that indicates bounds or limits; a limiting or bounding line. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) one said “Thoughts can only advance by freeing itself from the shackles of its own subjective conditions”. So we looked at how we can create artwork that is both literal and phenomenal. To help us understand this we looked at existentialism which is the the starting point of philosophical thinking which is the experiences of the being, so one must start with oneself. Rudolf Arnheim (1904 – 2007) described visual perceptions as visual thinking and therefore a cognitive activity. So whatever you create, you create a visual perception and therefore change people thinking, which changes perception and cognitive activity. So existentialism is something that breaks free of the boundaries of the literal and phenomenal.

Then we looked at a short clip of a movie. The movie was not so much about the story, and if one took it literally, you wouldn’t take in the set, which was illogical and phenomenal. Everything was defying gravity with the windows and the walls at weird and impossible angles, like in a dream. It was interesting to notice that one naturally takes it literally and try to look at the story rather than taking it for the dream like movie that it was. So, in a way, this movie combines the literal and phenomenal.

Finally, we looked at a poem by George Trakl. The words of the poem were very literal, however the meaning behind them, how you live in to the meanings of the words and the whole meaning of the poem were phenomenal. So therefore once again the poem is combining the literal and phenomenal. We ended on the question of whether the phenomenal is literal and the literal is actually phenomenal?

This was quite a interesting lecture but I found it a little too much to take in sometimes, and didn’t really understand what Shah was talking about until I reviewed the lecture recording. I feel I understand what she was trying to get at more now and I do find it interesting to question our perceptions and why we perceive things in certain way. But sometimes one can get a bit carried away with it, and I did feel this lecture was heading that way!


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