The following text is an attempt to find connections and transfers of knowledge from art to philosophy, on the basis of Spinoza’s text, as discussed in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment, and the four points given in the title.
- Affectos Humanos
The first example to be discussed is Dore Hoyer’s Affectos Humanos(1962), a dance piece based on Spinoza’s writings. The piece comprises of five solos titled Vanity, Desire, Hate, Anxiety, and Love. When looking for videos of this piece online, one comes across an excerpt of Hate, performed by Hoyer; she wears a long costume, flowing around her body. Her movements are forceful and sudden. Martin Nachbar describes Hoyer: “quick head movements were one of her mannerisms as were rapid changes of direction and tempo. She didn’t work with a flow of movement, there was always a bit chopped off, ei- ther in direction or tempo. [Her] thing was the exposure of emotions”.
After seeing reconstructions of all five solos, it appears that her desire to em- body/manifest/show these five “emotions” has resulted in five solos which are characteristically different. Each solo consists of explicitly different move- ments, “themes” and dynamics which enable an understanding of the five different modes of being/affects.
- What significance do Spinoza’s affects and affections play?
To understand how Spinoza defines these two terms, it may be useful to first make some key statements. First, Spinoza, as explained via Gilles Deleuze, states, an idea is a mode of thought, which represents something. Whereas an affect represents nothing, it is a mode of thought, which is non-representational. Therefore, we can deduce an idea precedes an affect, e.g. to love (affect), one must first have an idea of what is loved. One could say, life is a succession of ideas and Spinoza adds that additionally, humans continuously experience a variation of a force of existing, vis existendi, or power of acting. We could see it as life force or life energy. This force of existing is continuously vary- ing, and can increase or decrease, depending on what is occurring externally (material world) or internally. These changes or variations in life force can be described as affect. Affect is a transition or passage from one “mode of existence” to another, insofar that this passage is determined by the ideas one has.
Deleuze then explains, affection as the “mixture of two bodies”. Meaning one body acts on another body, and the latter receives the traces of the first. This process of interaction or mixture, is termed affection.
Deleuze describes how the increase or decrease of our power of acting can be equated to certain affects, such as joy (Lust) and sadness (Unlust), re- spectively. (Spinoza explains that all affects are some form of joy, sadness and desire/appetite.) And in a very literal sense, our power of acting can be equated to our passivity or activity. If an idea or material triggers a decrease in one’s power of acting, one could say an inhibiting/negative affect e.g. sadness is elicited, then one may in turn be/become more passive. The process of that idea or material interacting or mixing with our own body/being is affection, whereas the resulting change in our force of existing is the affect.
- If affects are non-representational, how can one embody/manifest/show them?
From a limited and subjective point of view one could argue that art can be the attempt to evoke the non-representational. Whether that reaches the au- dience or spectator, however, is again subjective and individual.
Hoyer chose to create five solos based on affects, which are fundamentally non-representational and characterized by motion and change. Betsy Fisher describes that Hoyer was interested in ”emotion as a catalyst for movement”, but one could argue that the emotion is already the movement – the change in life force, which Hoyer is presenting through her own body’s movement.
Once an audience is observing Hoyer’s solo, another body is now involved, which can experience an ”interaction”, undergo a “mixture” with Hoyer’s mov- ing body i.e. affection. How will this affection change the audience’s force of existing, and to what end is that important? Arguably, each performer/artist has their own idea of how valuable it is to elicit an affection within its audience.
- Affection, affects and art
On the website of the Art History museum of Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Mu- seum), there are some words regarding its exhibition of Baroque artists: ”Work of art in Caravaggio’s time were judged by their ability to touch the viewer by affectation. Caravaggio, Bernini and their successors achieved this goal then as now: they still rouse our emotions”. To what extent is this the goal of artists today?
Depicted in Figure 2, a photo of Bernini’s sculpture of St. Sebastian, pinned to a tree shot by arrows, completed in 1618. One can notice how the angle of the head and neck are similar to Hoyer’s in Figure 1. We could also notice a similar facial expression – closed eyes and slightly open mouth. However, St. Sebastian’s limp arms are in definite contrast to Hoyer’s charged arms and hands. One could say both are expressive, however in different manners, and may lead to similar or different vis existendi for each individual viewer. Para- doxically, a piece such as St.Sebastian, which is arguably depicting a decrease in power of acting: defeat or misery, may elicit an increase in power of acting of the spectator e.g. awe.
There are entire fields of study, dedicated to how art influences or affects an audience/viewer e.g. psychology of art or neuroaesthetics. Some interesting, albeit perhaps common-sense findings include, artists and non-artists view and ”experience” artwork differently. In an electroencephalography (EEG) study from Northumbria University, researchers found that compared to non-artists, artists had increased levels of arousal and sustained attention while viewing 20th century visual art. This was particularly notable when viewing abstract art, as non-artists experienced a decrease in arousal and attention, compared to artists’ increase (Else et al., 2015). This could be seen as an example of how personal ”content” plays a role in how a body of art elicits affection within the individual.
Another interesting phenomenon related to affective art is frisson, or aesthetic chills – a physiological response to art, where we may feel tingling, coldness, shivers or goosebumps. A variety of scientific literature exists on this topic, trying to understand the what, why and how of this phenomenon. We have probably all experienced this at some point, and can interpret these chills in our own way. Could we interpret it as a physical manifestation of Spinoza’s concept of affectation; the other body (of art) interacting and eliciting a tin- gling sensation in our own body?
Stevan Harnad, from Princeton University writes, ”Our content-driven cogni- tions can only lead us in conventional or irrelevant directions. Only our form- governed affective judgment can guide and evaluate our performance. And what, finally, guides our affective judgments? [He takes music as an example]: Certain acoustic forms have a capacity – in part native and in part acquired – to elicit affects that are peculiarly aesthetic. The ear seems to have an innate affinity for the tonal system, and exposure to various stylistic traditions seems to selectively strengthen their affective evocativeness”.
With a certain degree of freedom, we could say the same about dance – certain forms may have a capacity to elicit affects, which we consider aesthetic. And here we can introduce our next term, technique, for the form of dance is tightly linked to the technique of the artist and/or choreographer.
To demonstrate an explicit variation in technique, Figure 3 depicts Alberto Gi- acometti’s sculpture Falling Man from 1950/1. In comparison to the Baroque sculpture from Figure 2, we see how these two pieces of art demonstrate the changes and evolution of European sculpture technique.
To relate back to dance, we can juxtapose Hoyer, who regarded ”emotion as a catalyst for movement”, to Maja Lex’s approach (life-partner and collab- orator/choreographer with Dorothee Gu¨nther), for whom, according to Karl Toepfer’s The Aristocratic City, ”the main objective of the piece was not to ’ex- press something’, but to show a ’ceaseless movement dynamic’ that animated all parts of the body with ’unending variation’. It did not matter if some peo- ple apparently suggested the piece was not dance, for a more important task was to reveal the life, the motivating power of movement forms themselves” (Toepfer, 2005). The motivating power of movement forms themselves – the affect of an affect?
In the late 19th and early 20th century, European dance was developing away from classical ballet technique, giving way to the theories of e.g. Rudolf von Laban, E´mile Jaques-Dalcroze and Fran¸cois Delsarte, and what is now termed ”modern” and ”expressionist dance”.
Bess Mensendieck had learned the ’Delsartean’ system from Genevieve Steb- bins, an advocate of ”harmonic gymnastics”, and ultimately Mensendieck de- veloped a set of exercises, which sought to teach women how to move in a beautiful and healthy way. Dorothee Günther, a student of Mensendieck de- veloped these ideas further and developed her own gymnastic and rhythmic ”Grundübungen” [basic exercises] or elementary forms. This technique would give the mover/dancer freedom to not only create complex sequences by combining elementary forms, but also urged students to ”move away from the de- sire to embody imaginary ’characters’ and toward the image of a body whose expressive power is not dependent on a specific narrative context” (Toepfer, 2005).
In some way, Günther was interested in how a specific technique for training the body (both physically and rhythmically), and the associated ”body cul- ture”, could ”mould” a body which was strong, healthy, agile and capable; as were many of her contemporaries e.g. Hedwig Hagemann, whose school was featured in the film: Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit [Ways to Strength and Beauty] (1925). Here, one can refer back to the text by Siegmund: ”It is dance technique that makes [the] accord between passioand actiopossible, since it is geared precisely toward the task of matching the dancing body with its conceptual content”.
In effect, technique enables the affection between a productive force (actio) and the passively affected (passio). And in dance this affection occurs with the dancer’s body and the body of technique i.e. conceptual content.
There are several points which could be discussed further in relation to our four starting points. One which Siegmund introduces is the significance of dance reconstruction. In regards to the ubiquitous phenomenon and attention dance reenactments have gained over the years, Siegmund asks whether it could ”be read as a symptom of the changing and uncertain position of the artist in con- temporary mediated culture”.
In the Philosophy of Dance section in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, dance is defined as an ephemeral art; each performance is unique in its own right, and arguably, this is the nature of performing arts. Therefore, watching a reenactment of a dance that was created e.g in the 1960s, or listening to a concert of J.S.Bach’s work, or watching a play by W.Shakespeare, all of these in some way are, to some extent, making the past present, and what I find more interesting, is that in a subjective way, these pieces still stir our emotions or elicit affects – independent of the ”time” in which the piece was created. Art and affects are in someway transcending time (and space).
In conclusion, this writing task has been valuable for me to dissect my own ideas about the purpose of art and artists. It has enabled me to dive into Spinoza’s literature, and find exciting ways to view art through a philosophical lens, and as always it has underlined the vast amount of knowledge, to which I am still ignorant and have yet to uncover.
Else, J., Ellis, J., Orme, E. (2015). Art expertise modulates the emotional response to modern art, especially abstract: An ERP investigation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9(525).
Franko, M. (Ed.). (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment. Oxford University Press.
Harnad, S. (n.d.). Affect and Cognition in Art: Form versus Content. Re- trieved March 31, 2020, from:
Toepfer, K. (2005). The Aristocratic City: The Dance Aesthetic of Dorothee Gunther and the Political Legacy of Francois Delsarte. Mime Journal, 23(1), 152–183.