Artistic expression

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M020-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

3. Arousal theory

One suggested answer to the above question is that we ascribe emotions to art works just because those emotions are awakened in us. This is the theory of emotivism or arousalism. Two cases need to be distinguished. In the first, the art work or some aspect of it is the emotional object of a response in the standard way. As a result of realizing that a character in a work is dying unloved one feels sadness for and pity towards that character. Or, believing that the dramatic potential of the last act was botched by the playwright, one feels disappointed by the play. Or one is delighted by the felicity of a turn in the melody. In the second case, one tends to respond with sadness to works called sad, or with happiness to works said to express happiness. Something in the work calls forth the reaction that mirrors the work’s expressive character. One does not then feel sad or happy about the work; indeed, the response seems to lack an emotional object, though the work is its perceptual object and cause.

Arousalism refers to this second kind of response in analysing artistic expressiveness: an art work expresses an emotion if and only if it has the power to arouse or tends to arouse that emotion without an object in an appropriate audience. In this view the sadness of the art work is like the greenness of grass; some property of the thing in question disposes it to affect the experience of those perceiving it. The sadness is attributable to the art work, not to the person in whom the feeling is aroused, because the work has the power to awaken the same feelings in a variety of suitably qualified perceivers. Similarly, we say it is the grass that is green, not the perceiving of it, just because its effect on perceivers is largely indifferent to their individuality and idiosyncrasies.

The arousal theory faces two main lines of objection. The first, pursued by Peter Kivy (1989), denies that there are any objectless responses of the kind described – sad music, for instance, never leads listeners to feel sad. A more plausible objection denies the match (postulated by arousalism) between artistic expressiveness and the audience’s tendency to respond. The audience might be unmoved, or might not feel what the work expresses, despite their correctly recognizing its expressive character. In reply to this, the arousalist points out that a tendency to respond can be blocked or inhibited – for example, where one is distracted from or overexposed to the given piece, and so on. In some cases contemporary values and sentiments might permanently block the tendency that would have triggered a response at the time of the work’s creation. Though it might deal with some counterexamples, I am doubtful that arousalism successfully accounts for all the mismatches between artistic expressiveness and audience’s reactive tendencies, where these threaten its plausibility.

One can reject the arousalist account of artistic expressiveness while accepting that sad works sometimes evoke sad reactions. One might explain the echoing response as occasioned by the work’s expressiveness. Whereas arousalism holds that art works are sad because they make us feel sad, one might instead maintain that it is because they are sad that we respond as we do. We find the emotional moods of others contagious, even if we are not aware of having anything to be happy or sad about; perhaps we react to art works similarly. And perhaps we are open to this mode of response because we approach art as human communication.

Citing this article:
Davies, Stephen. Arousal theory. Artistic expression, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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