Expression and Emotion

Expression is a keyword when it comes to art, art criticism, art history, and artistic emotion. It is also vaguely defined and used frequently without much thought to its actual definition. Any word that is commonly used and nonspecific has problems, when it comes to expression the issues stem from application, more specifically, how expression is applied to our concept of art. What does it mean for a work of art to ‘express’? What exactly is, if anything communicated or expressed in a work of art?

Primary reference papers:

  • Kant, from The Critique of Judgment, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View
  • Osbourne, Expressiveness in the Arts
  • Wollheim, Art and its Objects
  • Hospers, Art as Expression
  • Tolstoy, What is Art
  • Elliot, Aesthetic Theory and the Experience of Art
  • T.S. Elliot, Hamlet and his Problems
  • Tormey, Art and Expression: A Critique
  • Scruton, Photography and Representation
  • Zangwill, Against Emotion; Hanslick was Right about Music

This essay will be an examination of these questions through in depth analysis of various philosophers. I will talk about four major theories about expression and emotion. Those theories are:

  • Self Expression Theory (Art is produced by and through the feeling of the artist)
  • Arousal Theory (The art produces a feeling in the spectator)
  • Emotional Embodiment Theory (Work itself possesses feeling)
  • Projected Structure Theory (expressive quality is located in work not subject).

None of these theories are perfect, but despite the faults and flaws in their arguments each has an important or significant point of truth. Human expression in art is hard to define because it is by nature inconsistent. In my opinion the structure theory rings most true in a logical sense. I will discuss it in depth later, but basically it claims that art in any form is not an expression of feeling; rather it is a projection of the structure of feeling. Even though this is the most elegant answer I cannot ignore the truth surrounding alternative ideas. Examples include the idea that expression in art sometimes comes from the artist’s state of mind, or the arousal theory where the role that the spectator plays is crucial to artistic expression. This will not be a paper which provides a perfect definition. Instead it will be a discussion of truths found in various flawed theories, allowing for each of us to create a definition which is accurate for ourselves. The first theory that I will discuss is the Self Expression Theory. The claim is that works of art are expressive because they were produced in a certain state of mind or feeling and the work consequently expresses this. A piece of music is sad because the composer felt sad when he wrote it. This is an idea to which many artists, me included, can relate. It is the relief of emotional tension, an outpouring of the internal. Sometimes painting, or playing a certain piece of music, makes articulate what was inarticulate.

It releases us from the unknown and formless. Sometimes I paint or play music a certain way because I feel a certain emotion. A painting of a field will look more grim and depressing when I am in a melancholy mood, conversely that same scene could be represented as sunny and positive if I am in a cheerful mood.

But why should work be expressive only because it is produced in a heightened condition? Under this philosophy the work’s expression becomes an external feature, not something we observe but rather something that we infer from what we observe; it belongs then to the biography of the artist rather than to the criticism of the work. Although above thought process would lead us to a conclusion it is important to remember that we attribute the expressive qualities to the work and not to the artist.

In opposition to the self expression theory is that natural expression of emotions (such as a cry of anguish) and the emotional expression in art are not terribly close to one another. Expression in art is not instinctive; not generally produced exclusively in a state of heightened emotion. Most art is crafted over a period of time. 

It is a process of much thought, angst, and work. The idea that an artist would have had to feel an emotion at some time in order to exhibit it seems faulty. This would mean that there could be no male expression of maternal love, however, there is. Just examine any number of great classical operas or concertos, It is also true that some great artists and composers can create hauntingly sorrowful pieces without putting their own feelings into the work at all. A great example is that of Richard Strauss who said, “I work very coldly, without agitation, without emotion even; one must be completely master of oneself to organize that changing, moving, flowing chessboard, orchestration.” This would suggest that although sometimes the self expression theory is appropriate it is not universally applicable.

Next I will examine arousal theory. Arousal theory asserts that works of art are expressive because they produce or evoke a certain state of mind or feeling in the spectator, and it is this feeling they express. The music is sad because the music makes me feel sad. Emotions have intentional content because they are about something and a qualitative aspect because they are felt.

This idea also has its fault lines. First and foremost is the problem of desiring unhappy feelings. We enjoy a well played elegy, or a tragic drama, even though they arouse feelings of sorrow. If the music really makes us feel sad or angry we would not attend, and yet we do. Instead let us add that it is possible to remain unmoved, but recognize and emotion in work. This speaks to disinterestedness, as discussed by Immanuel Kant. With distance art enriches or expands the spectator’s emotional life without the inconveniences of full commitment in real life. This theory removes an essential characteristic of the work of art to our condition; quality is located in the work, not in the subject. We hear sadness in the music. Art under the arousal theory can also be defined as emotional communication.

Another arousal expression theory is proposed by Leo Tolstoy, a Russian writer known most famously for his novels Anna Karenina and War and Peace. He also wrote What is Art; in this his contagion theory defines expression as arousal of emotion by ‘infection’. Emotion is metaphorically compared to a disease staring with the storyteller, then to the art, then to the spectators who then pass it further onwards. The stronger the infection the better is the art. Excellence in art is judged by its level of infectiousness. Tolstoy in What is Art writes:

“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and having evoked it in oneself…so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling this is the activity of art. 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.”

Socrates to Ion: “…There is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet….This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings…Do you know that the spectator is the last of the rings which, as I am saying, receive the power of the original magnet from one another?”

In the latter of these two quotations Socrates presents the same idea as Tolstoy. Poet to poem to rhapsode to spectator. The power of expression moves through this chain as if they were iron rings brushing with magnetism. Expression is communicated in this way and the effectiveness of communication depends on the goodness of the work, and as Plato says, the moral effect upon persons exposed. I think that feeling as power like magnetic force is complimentary to the eastern philosophy about nature energy in art. It draws a nice parallel; both draw expression from an external force.

The tragic drama Othello by William Shakespeare is the story of a twisted net of love, jealousy and
betrayal. The characters who are swept up in the tragedy invoke powerful feelings of love lost, anguish,
envy and the like. Still the question remains, are they Shakespeare’s, the character’s, or the audiences
feelings? Another philosopher who operates under arousal theory is R.K. Elliot in “Aesthetic theory and the Experience of Art”. Elliot’s theory revolves around the concept of experiencing a work from within. “Experiencing it as if one were the poet or the artist” and as one’s own “imaginative assumption of the expression and situation of another person.” The expression feels as if it was our own and out of this we feel pleasure. In this essay Elliot writes:

“Sometimes [the reader] seems to be there together with the poet, as if they inhabited the same body…sometimes the reader seems to be there in place of the poet, expressing and experiencing the poets emotion as it were on the poets behalf; sometimes the reader seems even to have supplanted the poet…”

Third is the emotional embodiment theory. This theory holds that the artist embodies or symbolizes an
emotion in the work of art and is therefore expressive. Alan Tormey in “Art and Expression: A Critique”
asserts that expression seen in art or heard in music does not require the artist to be expressing

“…neither playing expressively nor composing ‘expressive’ music entails that one be expressing anything.  They require only that the product of the relevant activity have certain phenomenal properties that can be characterized as non-inferentially expressive” Tormey argues that the mistake often made is the supposition that the existence of expressive traits in a work of art requires an act of expression by the artist. He claims that the link between the quality of the art and the inner states of the artist are not necessary, therefore expressive qualities out to be understood as a description of the work and not of the man. Statements attributing expressive properties to the works of art should be understood as about the works themselves.

Think about the peculiarity of ‘expressive’ in the sentence “Percy has a very expressive face.” It is descriptive but there is no inference that Percy actually expresses her feelings. “X is expressive” does not entail that there is an inner state from which this inner state is being expressed. Percy being expressive does not mean that she actually shows her feelings. This is the same with music and the same with art. Expressiveness is a characteristic, a quality, within itself. It is to paint and play, it is to create with feeling, just not a particular feeling. In expressive art the artist must have symbolized or embodied specific feelings.

What is difficult about this is that we want to hold onto the idea that there is something intrinsic in the interaction between art and artist. We want the artist to be important, and their ‘expression’ to be crucial. We want to know that an artwork is made by someone and tells us something about them. Although Tormey does stand by this pre-stated argument he also articulates that expression in art (if it exists) is no different from expression elsewhere. Tormey explains that every choice he makes reveals something about his inner self and personal dispositions. “If my style of playing poker expresses my temerity or my avarice, why should not my style of painting landscapes express something of me as well?”

This claim does not stand in opposition to his other views. He concedes that even though there is no direct relation between expressive quality of work and artist’s state the artwork still does reveal something about the artist themselves.

This disconnection between art and artist reminds me again of eastern philosophy. The artist’s feelings have no correlation with the expressive quality of the work. The difference is that in the eastern attitude the artist’s state is not related to the quality of the art because the thing that determines the quality of the work is how well the artist channels the power of nature. Beautiful art is created when nature acts through the stroke of the brush. The artist’s thoughts and current emotions have nothing to do with the expressiveness of the art.

Now let us discuss a problem that arises. If we experience an object under the concept of ‘art’ this requires that we already understand the work to be the result of human intention which, as Roger Scruton describes it, means that “we are dealing with an object that is manifestly the expression of thought.” An art object therefore could not be recognized as art and also devoid of the artist’s feelings, emotions, and expressive human touch.

This clashes with the emotional embodiment theory because it claims that the artist’s inner states must be represented in the work in order for it to be recognized as art. But if, as Tormey asserts, the expressive state of the artist is not connected to the expressive qualities of the work then nothing could be recognized as art under Scruton’s definition.

The final theory I will discuss is projected structure Theory. This concept is suggested by Osborne, Wollheim, and TS Elliot among others, it claims that expression projects the structure of a feeling not the feeling itself. The claim is that the expressive quality is located in work not subject. Art in any form is not an expression of feeling; rather it is a projection of the structure of a feeling. Art cannot actually express something, but it can describe the makeup of a certain feeling, which we then recognize. Zangwill asserts that it is not possible for music itself to have emotions; emotions must be felt by a rational being. “Music has no mental states, so it is not itself mournful, anguished, or optimistic. But it does seem that the music itself has intrinsic features that we are talking about when we describe it in these terms.”

In his essay “Expressiveness in the Arts” Osborne discusses this idea at great length.

“There is an important phenomenological difference between the feeling tone incorporated in emotion response and the embodied feelings we perceive in works of art. When we respond to an insult with anger or to a threat with fear the feeling of anger or fear is experienced in ourselves; we have no tendency to attribute these feelings to the cause of our emotion. [It is an action that we are angry towards, the emotion comes from within.] But the feelings we perceive in works of art are phenomenologically in the works and nowhere else. When we describe the music as gay, sad, serene, we are reporting qualities perceived in the music, not emotional responses in ourselves.” (p20)

“The appreciation of artworks is, ultimately, a matter of concentrated and enlarged perception…It is not now regarded as a function of artworks to stimulate emotions but to represent, display, or express the anatomy and variety of human feeling.” (p20)

But how do we understand this anatomy or structure of a feeling? This is not something that every person thinks about or analyses. How can an artist express structure without any practical knowledge of what that structure is? I suggest that being able to understand and consequently express this structure is another complex subconscious action that we are capable of doing, yet are unaware of exactly how it is accomplished.

Expression, as Wollheim defines it in Art and its Objects, is based on our natural tendencies. He asserts that our inclination to call inanimate objects expressive when in fact inanimate objects cannot logically be expressive has its roots in two instinctual inclinations. One is the tendency of finding objects to alleviate, and the other finding objects to match, our inner states. The first, finding objects to alleviate our inner states is called Ex-primere by Wollheim which means “to squeeze out or press out”. It is a secretion of an inner state.

“We think of a work of art as expressive in the sense in which a gesture or a cry would be expressive…we conceive of it as coming so directly and immediately out of some particular emotional or mental state that it bears unmistakable marks of that state upon it.” (§18)

In other words, we experience the object as directly wrought by a human being. The second, finding objects to match our inner states, happens when an object matches or corresponds to inner experience or feeling. An example of this is a piece of the environment which we take on account of the way it seems to reiterate something in us. These are often objects selected from nature. We find things that match our inner states. For example, the landscape is cheerful, the sky is grim, and the moor is melancholy.

In art this object is made: “we bring into being, where previously we discovered, [that which] correlates to our inner states.” (“Expression” On Art and the Mind.) Instead of finding it in the natural word the artist creates it. Wollheim puts Ex-primere and Correspondence in opposition of each other. I think that somewhere between these two is the old definition.A counterpoint to this argument comes from T. S. Elliot “Hamlet and his Problems” (1921): “The only way of expressing an emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlate’, in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” (pp 124-125)

Under this point of view the artist crafts the object to represent a recognizable inner state. It is created in a formulaic way. A set of objects are put together to instill someone with a specific desired emotion. I really appreciate this idea because to me it is elegant in its simplicity. Expression becomes a proof from
which we can craft expressive quality. Wollheim: “…certain elements, which can occur outside as well as inside art, e.g. colors, notes, have intrinsic link with inner states, which they are thereby able both to express and to invoke; it is through the incorporation of these elements that works of art gain or have assigned to them this or that emotive significance.” (§28)

Certain colors carry associations of feeling, certain musical keys as well. Music written in minor has a
distinctly sadder feeling than major. Now we come to the question: “what does art express?” under this structure of feeling theory. It is not that the music is sad (any more than the moor is melancholy) but that the structure of the music communicates the way in which certain feelings are experienced. This creates an interesting parallel to Kant and expression as aesthetic idea. Kant claims that artistic process “is nothing else than the faculty of presenting aesthetic ideas. But by an aesthetic idea I mean that representation of the imagination which induces much thought , yet without the possibility of any definite thoughts, i. e. concept, being adequate to it, and which language, consequently, can never get quite on level terms with or render completely intelligible.” (§49)

Art is the expression of aesthetic ideas. These aesthetic ideas are “that representation of the imagination which induces much thought” but not anything that can be covered by a concept. What is represented is an idea that we can’t quite explain. We can’t cover it with the preconceived. This makes art criticism difficult because you cannot explain the unexplainable. It is completely inaccessible to conceptual, rational thought. The artist aims “to get an expression for what is indefinable in the mental state…and to make it universally communicable” (Kant) Aesthetic ideas parallel phenomenon of feelings themselves. These feelings offer a wealth of represented thought, a multiplicity of partial representations. In a way this expression crafts a mirror to the outer world that shows our inner feelings. Expression in art coupled with the projection of aesthetic ideas or works of art as an articulation of feeling.

Conflicting and complementary theories sometimes provide us with more questions than answers. In the study and discussion of aesthetics, expression, beauty, I think that it becomes less important to find a definite answer. Rather it is the broad understanding of different theories and arguments in which we find understanding. At the beginning of this essay I stated a couple of questions: What does it mean for a work of art to ‘express’? What exactly is, if anything communicated or expressed in a work of art? Even after an in depth analysis of relevant theorists and philosophers I do not have an answer. Each theory presented, despite inherent flaws, has elegance and rationality that I both admire and appreciate. I find myself agreeing with one theory but also keeping a logical argument opposing it in the back of my mind.

Osborne: “A function of artworks is to…represent, display, or express the anatomy and variety of human feeling. Feeling is in some way embodied into the work of art and in the perception of the work we perceive the embodied feeling…The analogy we need is to be found in our direct experience of feeling and mood in ourselves”
This final quote by Osborne brings us back to expression as a secretion of our inner self, a window to our inner world.

Random, but interesting footnotes:

  • “Don’t look at me trying to understand my poem.”
  • “Surrealism: representation of the unconscious”
  • Collingwood distinguished between art & craft. Craftsperson knows what it is going to look like, the artist does not.
  • 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.”
  • Still the questions remains, are they Sharespeare’s, Othello’s, or the audiences feelings?
    “The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver…is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own…what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express.”
  • In “Physical Distance” Bullough writes: “An intentional communication is as far almost from the mind of
    the true artist as it would be from that of the ordinary respectable citizen to walk about naked in the
    streets…” (p125) Amusing Bullough. Very amusing.
  • Tourmey: “The manner of a woman’s dress, the way she wears her hair, or the arrangement of her room…my handwriting, my preferences in literature, my style at poker, and my choice of friends…reveal something of my inner states and dispositions.”
  • If we experiences an object under the concept of ‘art’ this requires that we already understand the work to be the result of human intention which, as Scruton describes it, means that ‘we are dealing with an object that is manifestly the expression of thought.” An art object therefore could not be recognized as art and also devoid of the artist’s feelings, emotions, expressive human touch.

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