April 5, 2014, by Stephen Mumford

A Touching Story

There being few lengths to which the author of Arts Matters would not go in order to secure the story, I found it necessary to take my first massage this week so that I could write with authority on the sense of touch. It being common knowledge that there are five bodily senses, this exploration of the arts’ connection with those sense faculties reaches its completion with touch, which has but the most tenuous sensitive involvement in the artistic sphere.

Much art aims to pleasure the eye. Music has a near artistic monopoly on hearing. We look to chefs to stimulate our taste and I learned a week ago of the rapid growth in the olfactory arts. But touch? Could we really have art to please the body’s sense of touch? Or would such sensational experience be an artistic taboo? Might it be that sensual feelings are too closely associated with libidinous arousal? It seems it would be far too intimate if the ‘art’ was for a viewer to be touched all over their body in new and creative ways. Although my suspicion is that such performances would require a special licence, I am often reminded that a function of contemporary art is the testing of its own boundaries.

The exception I could find is massage. I have often heard of this being called an art though I am not sure how seriously that should be taken. But it does suggest that the creative application of touch can indeed result in non-erotic but patently pleasurable bodily sensations. To test this hypothesis, I surrendered to the experience of my first full-body massage this very week and I can indeed report that while I reached hitherto unknown heights of joyous physical relief, none of it transgressed the conventional bounds of decency.

To secure this deep sensitive experience, I sat myself in the massage chair upstairs in Tårnbygningen on the campus of Norwegian University of Life Science, being British and opting for mechanically derived stimulation rather than permitting anyone to lay hands on my fully-clothed person. After a full 20-minute cycle, my body was stimulated in a number of inventive and unconventional ways at most of its key pressure points. Some instances produced a grimace, others an involuntary whimper, as the mechanism rubbed me up and down rhythmically and repeatedly. So intrigued was I, and so euphoric at the end of the programme, that I did repeat it thrice more and received physical stimulation from my head down to my feet, no point in between remaining untouched.

A state of total bodily relaxation ensued when I finally emerged from the room, my muscles so pliant that I struggled to remain erect, yet all the while a smile of profound satisfaction afixed to my visage. I confirm that touch is capable of offering great physical enjoyment to the happy recipient, can be full of surprises, and produces new thoughts and moments of intuition. I suspect I will allow it to tickle my fancy again. Whether it is art, I am less sure and, by the time my mechanical comforter released me, less bothered.

Posted in Art History