Artistic expression

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

2. Characters in works

If the work contains characters (for example, through depiction or description), then these characters might experience emotions to which their behaviour or circumstances give expression. Unless the audience is given reason in the work’s contents, its genre, or the context of presentation to make-believe otherwise, it is to assume that the beliefs, behaviour, bodily attitudes and causal circumstances of the work’s world correspond to those of the actual world. Accordingly, the audience can learn what emotions the work’s characters experience in the same manner as it recognizes the emotions communicated by others in the ordinary world, except that the audience’s relation to the world of the work depends on make-believe rather than belief.

Some differences are worth noting, however. In the case of narratives written in the first person, the audience might come to know ‘from the inside’ what a character experiences or believes, and hence what they feel, even if that feeling is not outwardly indicated. Second, the protagonists might be non-human or unreal concoctions, such as elephants or intelligent ants. In considering the emotions of such creations, information about their point of view will be relevant – their cognitive commitments and values, their vulnerabilities and aspirations, their intellect, physiology and the like. In addition, artists create expressive contexts that do not or could not arise in the actual world. For instance, the use of leitmotiv in opera to recall actions or words might reveal that a character’s passion is meant for X despite being directed at Y. Quotation and reference, both within and between works, might establish an expressive ambience one would not normally find or look for.

In addition to the emotions of their characters, art works seem to embody and express emotions of their own. This applies to all kinds of works but is perhaps most striking in abstract pieces, including pure music, where expressiveness is present in the absence of a narrated or depicted content. Whose emotions are expressed thereby and how are they expressed?

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

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