130. Some Notes on the Expression Theory of Art

In past posts I have considered two popular theories of art, namely, the imitation theory (here) and formalism (here and here). In this post I want to take a look at the expression theory of art and some of its possibilities. Consider Leo Tolstoy’s classic definition of the theory in his book What is Art? (1897): 

“Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”

This is a classificatory or descriptive definition of art insofar as it provides the necessary and sufficient conditions of art: if you have the specified conditions you have art; if you don’t have them you don’t have art. These specified conditions show us that the definition is neither an open definition based on family resemblances nor is it an honorific definition that includes terms of praise like ‘beauty’, ‘skill’, ‘originality’, and so on. This theory enables us to identify x as a work of art when we know someone created x to express their feelings to an observer who, in turn, experienced those feelings as well. It also enables us to evaluate a work by considering the degree, range, and value of feeling and the skill with which it was expressed. Obviously, the work itself can include interesting formal aspects and may or may not imitate something. But the focus will be expression.

This vision of art has been widely embraced and certainly helps make sense of many aesthetic experiences. For example, I walk into a club, hear someone passionately singing the blues, and feel what they are feeling. I then conclude I am in the presence of an amazing artist with whom I have communed. We have all had experiences like this with art in different mediums. In many cases the kinship we feel upon being “infected” can help explain the fascination, indeed the obsession, so many people have with the artists they admire.

However, it is important to note the following concerns about Tolstoy’s approach which can help us, on the one hand, see the limitations of his approach and, on the other hand, see how flexible the basic insight of this theory is and how it can be developed. This list is certainly not comprehensive. But hopefully it will get you thinking critically about the topic.

(1) We might argue that the artistic process is one where an artist’s feelings are only understood by working with the materials. This view was championed by R.G. Collingwood in his book The Principles of Art (1937). Collingwood argues feelings don’t exist in a fully formed state before artistic creation and then get expressed in a medium. Rather, working with a medium enables feelings to come to fruition and be articulated and focused. Collingwood claims this notion of working through one’s feelings in relation to material in order to discover something is what fine art is all about. Other forms of making, say crafts and industrial production, typically know the outcome of the process at the start and then simply apply a prefixed form to material. This may take skill, time, and so on; but it is not art. In any case, this perspective would challenge Tolstoy’s notion that artists first have feelings that they then “hand on” to others.

(2) One could argue that we shouldn’t limit expression to what human beings consciously feel. For instance, in Plato’s dialogue Ion we encounter the thesis that poets don’t have knowledge of what they express because they are blessed by the gods and out of their minds when they act. Inspiration, on this account, is about something divine working through the poet. Michel Foucault, in his essay ‘What is an Author?’, argues an author is not the sole origin of meaning for a work. In fact, the author is a social construct and therefore the so-called author’s expression is really an expression of larger sociological and historical conditions. And after Freud it seems wise to consider the possibility that unconscious factors play a role in the creation of art.

(3) Why must art only express feelings or emotions? In the expressionist movement in art (roughly 1900-1950), the central motive was indeed to communicate one’s feelings through a medium to others (and later in neo-expressionism as well). The goal wasn’t to accurately reproduce something but rather to express something. Form followed function in this movement: if a technique ended up getting the artist’s feeling across then the technique was justified. However, then abstract expressionism came along (roughly 1945-1970) and showed how action and abstract relationships could be expressed as well. And the history of art is full of works that convey ideas, teachings, stories, and so on. So a theory of expression needs to delineate what can or should be expressed. This is the case even if we think only emotions can be expressed. For example, Jenefer Robinson argues that music is very good at expressing “primitive” emotions and that these primitive emotions can help explain more sophisticated emotions. Aristotle famously argued that pity and fear should be aroused when watching a drama. And Tolstoy himself wanted to exclude works that express feelings conducive to immoral deeds and character traits. Clearly there are plenty of nuances here for plenty of debate.

(4) It is important to give an account of how expression can occur: how is it that feelings can be embedded in a medium and conveyed to another person? This is a difficult question. Indeed, Garry Hagberg has argued that classic expression theory ends up with the following “paradox of expression”: if emotions are private, internal objects, and artworks are physical, external objects, then it seems impossible to merge the internal private states with the external public states. To address this paradox, we might focus on the role of language and symbols in art. We might focus on how our brains are able to form similar associations with experiences and feelings. We might consider the Freudian thesis that humans can share common fantasies or delusions that enable expressions to be communicated. Or we might turn to the shared institutions that help foster a common world for us. Perhaps an account of how expression occurs needs to draw on a few of these possibilities. In any case, it is important for expression theorists to be able to say something about how expression can occur at all.

(5) We might stop thinking about expression in Tolstoy’s three term set up (artist, work, audience) and reduce expression to the work itself and its effect on us. Perhaps any demand to include the artist’s intentions commits what W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley called the “intentional fallacy” since “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” Many people, of course, seek to resolve aesthetic debates by asking: what was the author really thinking and/or feeling? But in many cases artists are dead, unavailable, or simply ignorant and/or inarticulate about their work and its genesis. And even if they are informed, articulate, and alive, it may be the case, as we have seen, that artists are never fully aware of the factors that go into their creations; perhaps other views of their work are as legitimate—even more legitimate—than their own.

(6) We could argue that expression need not have an external embodiment at all! For example, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) argued that expression is equal to a form of conscious intuition and that the expression of the intuition to others is secondary and not necessary. In other words, one can express something in one’s consciousness and still be an artist without ever communicating it. This controversial perspective, far from being just a philosophical speculation, is integral to the influential art movement known as conceptualism. A problem here is that it can be hard to account for imagination and creativity without reference to outside materials and the resistance they offer. Another problem with this thesis is that certain forms of art—say sculpture, dance, and architecture—cannot be realized in a non-three dimensional realm like the mind.  So this approach might fail to account for the wide variety of art forms.

For many more of my posts on aesthetics, go here.

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