Art, Expression in

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Art is an expressive business, few would deny, but this assertion has meant quite different things to the large number of thinkers who have contemplated the concept of aesthetic expression over the centuries. Certainly, the fact that art has the power to evoke potent emotions has been noticed since ancient times. Thus Plato, although perhaps more centrally concerned with the imitative or mimetic dimensions of art, worried famously about the power of poetry and tragedy to subvert the control of reason by the arousal of intense emotions (Republic 10.605c, Ion 535, Philebus 47e50b). Rather more positively, Aristotle argued that one of the beneficial functions of tragic drama is to provide a catharsis of pity and fear in an audience that is emotionally engaged with tragic personae (Poetics, Book VIII).

The Arousal Theory

The power of art to evoke emotional responses is the basis of the "arousal" theory of expression. The core idea is that an artwork expresses x if it has the capacity to arouse a feeling or sensation of x in the viewer or listener. Sad music, for example, is music that stirs sadness in the listener. The arousal theory has had many proponents, from Francis Hutcheson (1725) to Colin Radford (1989). The British associationist Archibald Alison, as early as 1790, characterized aesthetic experience in general as the employment of the imagination in the creation of a train of ideas that must be "productive of emotions."

Problems arise immediately for this thesis, however. Some writers with "formalist" inclinations flatly reject it. Eduard Hanslick, for example, in his 1891 work, On the Musically Beautiful, denied both that the purpose of music is to arouse emotions and that feelings are in any sense the "content" of music. Moreover, it has often been observed that the reactive emotions of the audience are not always those it is most appropriate to say the work expresses. A tragedy expressive of love, jealousy, and hatred may, as Aristotle said, cause feelings of pity and fear in its viewers. Furthermore, it seems possible to recognize the expressive content of a work without undergoing that very emotion or feeling. A sad or elegant artwork need not make the perceiver sad or elegant.

By contrast, Jerrold Levinson (1990) and Aaron Ridley (1995) have argued that music can arouse a truncated version of the emotions it expresses; the emotions or feelings aroused by music lack their usual contexts and intentional objects. Jenefer Robinson (1994) has pointed out that, although the emotions expressed by music are not always identical with what is aroused in the listener, certain "primitive" emotions can be directly aroused by music expressing those same emotions; music that disturbs us, makes us tense, or calms us down is disturbing, tense, or calm. However, music, as an extended composition, also expresses more complex emotions, for example, unrequited passion, which are not aroused in us, but which we attribute as true of the piece partly on the basis of the clues given by the more basic emotions aroused in us.

Expression and Nineteenth-Century Idealism

Much grander claims for the expressive power of art were made during the period of German idealism, when art was seen as a manifestation of Spirit. Schelling held that art can show what philosophical concepts cannot: the Absolute, the organic unity of the knower and the known. Schopenhauer called music a copy of the will itselfa direct presentation of the will, expressing the essential nature of emotion types. For Hegel, art provides an irreducible form of self-reflection, conveying knowledge of Spirit through a natural sensuous medium. Along with religion and philosophy, art expresses "the Divine, the deepest interests of mankind, the most all-embracing truths of Spirit" (Hegel 18351838, vol. I, p. 21).

In his earlier writings, especially Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872, later translated as The Birth of Tragedy ), Friedrich Nietzsche saw art, especially tragedy and music, as expressing the conjunction or synthesis of two strong human impulses, the "Apollonian," a love of order, measure, and formal beauty, and the "Dionysian," the spirit that glories in a state of elation and joyful acceptance of the excitements and pains of life. Later, Nietzsche allied art more closely with the Dionysian solution to the problem of living, presenting the Dionysian in art as an expression of the basic human drive called the "will to power."

The Expression Theory

Romanticism, with its general emphasis on the emotions and its shift away from classicism, embraced and fostered the view that art is a form of expression in the sense of self-reflection or self-discovery. This theory, labeled by Alan Tormey (1971) the "expression theory of art," is a rival to both high-flown idealism and the arousal theory. According to the expression theory, artworks are expressions of the emotional states experienced by the artist during the creative process. In one variation or another, this view has been endorsed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by thinkers such as Eugène Véron, Benedetto Croce, R. G. Collingwood, John Dewey, L. A. Reid, and C. J. Ducasse.

Expression theorists see expressive art as a means of articulating the artist's inner life. In fact, the view can perhaps be thought of as romanticism's alternative to the arousal theory. Very early in the period, Samuel Coleridge observed that "in Paradise Lost indeed in every one of his poemsit is Milton himself whom you see" (1833, p. 250). A systematic development of expression theory can be found in Véron's influential L'Esthetique of 1879, but the view reached its zenith in the early twentieth century in the writings of Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce.

Strongly influenced by Hegelian thought as well as by romanticism, Croce proposed that intuition is a kind of nonconceptual awareness of a mental image, and expression is the forming of "artistic intuitions," which are always infused with intense feeling. Artists express these initially inchoate feelings in the process of forming artistic, or "lyrical," intuitions. Indeed, famously and problematically, Croce identified intuition and expression, and defined art in terms of this mental process. "Intuition is truly such because it expresses intense feeling. Not idea but intense feeling is what confers upon art the ethereal lightness of the symbol" (1965 [1913], p. 25).

Clearly indebted to Croce, R. G. Collingwood took all art to be an expression of individual and unique emotions, but the process is not the mere exhibiting of the symptoms of the emotion. ("The artist never rants"; 1938, p. 22). Rather, expression is the lucid transformation of sensuous-emotional experience by the artist's imagination into an image or idea. True art, unlike the physical crafts accompanying the various arts, is made in the imagination of the artist.

The idealist tendencies seen in Croce and Collingwood are not shared by all expression theorists, perhaps for good reason. If expression is a purely mental or imaginative process, the artist's manipulation of the medium of his or her art appears to be wrongly undervalued. Although agreeing with Croce and Collingwood that expression always involves the artist's "inner" emotions in need of clarification and transformation, American pragmatist John Dewey emphasized that expression is an "outgoing activity" of interaction with the environment, involving the controlled working of a medium (1934, p. 62). In aesthetic expressiveness we find "meanings and values extracted from prior experiences and funded in such a way that they fuse with the qualities directly presented in a work of art" (p. 98).

Perhaps, then, expression theory can be rescued from the common objection that it makes art and the expressive process overly mentalistic, but it is unclear that it can be saved from another, which charges it with committing the "genetic fallacy" of mistaking judgments about the artist, the source of the art, for judgments about the art itself. The presence of expressive properties in an artwork does not entail the occurrence of prior acts of expression, any more than a cruel expression on a face entails that the owner of the face has acted cruelly.

The expression theory is correctly characterized as a theory of expression emphasizing the emotive processes undergone by the artist, but it would be misleading to think that the arousal of emotions in the viewer or audience is not at least acknowledged by most expression theorists. Dewey remarked, "Because the objects of art are expressive, they communicate. I do not say that communication to others is the intent of an artist. But it is the consequence of his work " (1934, p. 104). He and Collingwood claim that the emotional reaction of the viewer should mirror or reconstruct the artist's expressive process. When elements of the expression and arousal views are conjoined, the result is a kind of "communication" theory of the sort offered by Leo Tolstoy. In What Is Art? (Chto takoe iskusstvo? ) Tolstoy wrote, "To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and having evoked it in oneself by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds or forms expressed in works, so to transmit that feeling that others experience the same feelingthis is the activity of art" (1960 [1898], p. 55). For Tolstoy, it is essential to the "sincerity" of the art that the artist feel the emotion communicated, and a condition of "success" of the art that the audience is "infected" with the same feeling.

Of course, a theory conjoining the arousal and expression theses inherits the problems of both views. And it does seem quite possible both that an artist can create a passionate artwork without himself being in a passionate state, and that the audience can recognize that the work is passionate without being made to feel passionate themselves. Composer Richard Strauss said, "I work very coldly, without agitation, without emotion, even" (Osborne 1955, p. 162).

Guy Sircello (1972) champions the romantic view that the mind does not merely mirror or represent non-mental reality but is an original source of some of the features of art, and that it thereby infuses art with intentional or anthropomorphic properties. Although Sircello admits a variety of sources for art's expressive properties, he emphasizes that many of the expressive features that we attribute to artworks are true of them because of the "artistic acts" in which the artist is engaged as he or she creates a work. Pieter Brueghel the Elder's painting Peasant Wedding Dance (1566) is ironic, Sircello says, because Brueghel views a happy scene ironically. Nicolas Poussin's Rape of the Sabine Women (c. 16351637) is aloof and detached, even though the scene is one of violence, because Poussin observes calmly and paints in a detached fashion.

The Embodiment Theory

The "embodiment" theory of expression is a reaction to both the expression and arousal theories, and asserts that expressive properties are rightly said to be possessed by, or true of, the artwork itself either in virtue of its form or composition, or as properties that "emerge" in the work due to broader contextual considerations of a cultural, artistic, interpretational, or psychological sort. Whereas the arousal theory focuses on the effects of expressive art, and whereas the expression theory is a theory of the source of art's expressiveness, the embodiment theory is a cognitivist view of our awareness of the expressive properties that are in, or are possessed by, an artwork. A work can be expressive of x even if the artist was not experiencing x in creating the work, and the audience does not necessarily feel x when they appreciate it.

It is worthy of note that American pragmatist George Santayana, although fitting no category very exactly, is closer to the embodiment theory than to the expression theory with which he is sometimes associated. Santayana wrote quite generally about a sense of expressive beauty and did not focus on the artistic process, nor exclusively on art per se. His position may be closer to the earlier British "taste" and associationist theories such as those of Archibald Alison and Joseph Addison: A thought or mental image becomes expressive, according to Santayana, when feelings, meanings, or emotive "tones," proper to some past experience, color and reverberate in our present consciousness, indeed become "incorporated" into it (1988 [1896], pp. 121124).

Although embodiment theories of various sorts gained currency in the second half of the twentieth century, its most common variant, the "resemblance" thesis, has precursors in the eighteenth century. Johann Mattheson (1739), for example, asserted that by resembling the motion and structure of our vital spirits, music, in its structure, comes to bear a resemblance to the "emotive life," and the primary response of the listener is not to feel emotion but to perceive or recognize the emotive content present in the music. A contemporary version of this position can be found in Peter Kivy's theory of musical expressiveness. In most cases, we perceptually recognize music's expressive properties "in virtue of some perceived analogy" (Kivy 1989, p. 167) to the sound of a person's voice or the movements and gestures made by a person who is literally expressing some emotion. But the reason we animate our musical perceptions, so that we cannot but hear the music as expressive, is, Kivy says, "a divine mystery" (p. 258). Stephen Davies (1994) has a similar view. Like Kivy, he says that music's expressive properties or "emotion characteristics in its appearance" depend mainly on a resemblance that we perceive between the dynamic character of the music and human movement, gait, bearing, or carriage. Both Kivy and Davies also allow that some cases of expression are to be explained by the fact that the musical work engages some wider social conventions surrounding the expression of emotions.

Some resemblance views conclude, on the basis of the resemblance, that an expressive artwork is a symbol of, or signifies, what it expresses. Semiotic theory is then seen as a tool for understanding the nature of expression in art. The best-known signification view based on resemblance is that of Susanne Langer. Art, especially music, is, for Langer, a "presentational symbol" of human feeling. Although feelings are not denoted by such symbols (because such symbols are non-discursive and in this respect unlike language), their form is presented to us in the artwork because there is a logical "isomorphism" between the structure of the work and the "morphology" of the feeling state. Artistic form is congruent with the dynamic forms of our direct sensuous, mental, and emotional life. According to Langer, "music is not the cause or the cure of feelings, but their logical expression." (1942, p. 218).

Other theories have also emphasized the semiotic functions of art in their treatment of expression, but have downplayed the resemblance theme. In his extremely influential book, Languages of Art (1968), Nelson Goodman, like Langer, treated artworks as symbols but, unlike Langer, defined expression in terms of the semantic relations of reference and denotation. A work expresses φ if and only if the predicate "φ" metaphorically denotes the work, and the artwork, in turn, "refers back" to that predicate. Less nominalistically stated, expression is a form of property exemplification for Goodman. A works exemplifies a property if it not only possesses but "highlights" that property, much as a tailor's swatch highlights the texture and design of the material because of the conventions surrounding its use. Expression, in this view, is the exemplification of properties that an artwork actually, though metaphorically, possesses. Artworks can express more than human emotions, for example, poised power or flashing action.

Although it is unclear whether Alan Tormey's embodiment theory is committed to the resemblance thesis, he does suggest that the relation between an artwork's nonexpressive and expressive properties is analogous to the relation between human behavior and the intentional states of which the behavior is partially constitutive. Tormey (1971) says that expressive properties are those properties of artworks whose names also designate the intentional states of persons. But, since artworks have no mental states, a work's set of nonexpressive properties is wholly constitutive of its expressive properties. In an interesting though puzzling turn, Tormey claims that expressive ambiguity is ineliminable in art, and therefore expressive properties, though wholly constituted by nonexpressive features, are ambiguously so constituted. Within a certain range of compatibility, there is no objective fact whether an artwork has one or another expressive property; only critical choice leads to a unique judgment as to whether Ravel's Pavane, for example, is tender, yearning, or nostalgic. The important question of how one comes to perceive the expressive features of art is left largely unanswered by this view.

Other Views

Like all philosophical classifications, those of the arousal, expression, and embodiment theories need to be employed with an awareness of the shortcomings of pigeonholing. A case in point is the work of Richard Wollheim. Influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, psychoanalytic theory, and the celebrated work of psychologist E. H. Gombrich concerning the cognitive nature of our perception of art, Wollheim proposes that artistic expression involves "expressive perception," a kind of "seeing or hearing as," by which an artwork, because of how it looks or sounds, causes us to project an emotion or feeling onto that which we see or hear (1987, p. 138). Although the artwork does not simply arouse in us an emotion that we associate with its other features, it does arouse in us the process of projection. And, as in the embodiment theory, the expressive property is ascribed to the work, literally projected onto it, and the work is perceived as possessing it. Lastly, like the expression and communicative views, Wollheim's position suggests that correct expressive perception mirrors or recaptures the emotions that, either through direct experience or through contemplation of them, caused the artist to paint, write, or compose as he or she did.

Finally, a number of writers have introduced an imaginary or fictive element into the discussion of expression, especially regarding music. These theories suggest that artistic expression is often best described in terms of the imaginary occurrence of emotion in oneself or in a fictional persona. Bruce Vermazen (1986) thinks of the expressiveness of a musical passage in terms of an inferred ascription of a state of mind to an imagined utterer of the passage that would best explain the passage's features. Kendall Walton (1990) thinks that expressive music can induce listeners to imagine particular instances of properties expressed, such as instances of someone (perhaps oneself) or something's being exuberant, aggressive, uncertain, or resolved. Walton also claims that sometimes one is induced to imagine of one's own auditory experience that it is an expression of, say, anguish or exuberance (1994).

For Jerrold Levinson, the expressiveness of music derives from its "hearability" as a "sui generis" expression, by an imagined persona, of inner states through outer signs (Levinson 1990, 1996). What a passage of music expresses is what it can most readily and spontaneously be imagined to express by "suitably backgrounded" listeners. That is, music invites listeners to hear it, immediately and directly, as an alternate audible mode of behaviorally manifesting emotions by an imagined persona. Levinson argues against resemblance-based accounts, claiming that recognition of a similarity between music and some emotional behavior is not sufficient for hearing the music as expressive. Similarly, Gregory Karl and Jenefer Robinson (1995) claim that what a musical passage expresses can be the mental state ascribed to the imaginary protagonist of the passage that figures in the best overall interpretation of the work. Whether these "fiction-based" views are types of embodiment theory is somewhat difficult to say with confidence since, rather like expression theories, they emphasize the processes underlying expression in the arts rather than the logic and semantics involved in ascribing expressive properties to works of art.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aesthetics, Problems of; Aristotle; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Collingwood, Robin George; Croce, Benedetto; Dewey, John; Ducasse, Curt John; Goodman, Nelson; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hutcheson, Francis; Idealism; Langer, Susanne K.; Music, Philosophy of; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Plato; Romanticism; Santayana, George; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Tolstoy, Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann; Wollheim, Richard.


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John Bender (1996, 2005)