Artistic expression

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

4. Expression theory

In creating their works, do artists express feelings? Surely this is often so. In that case, are the emotions expressed in art works those of their artists? We approach many works, including abstract ones, as dealing not merely with the affective side of life but with personal feelings. One view, the expression theory, asserts that expressiveness can be attributed to art works only where there is this discharge of feeling, and because of it: art works are expressive because they stand in relation to artists’ occurrent emotions as do tears to sadness, as both arising from and revealing the feeling. Just as emotions are presented immediately and transparently in genuine tears, so that no inference from crying to sadness is required, we experience the expressiveness of art as residing in it. Also, we find the expressiveness of art works highly evocative of sharing or empathic reactions and this is how we respond to open, primary displays of emotion.

Despite its attractions, the expression theory seems to fail by entailing that when an art work expresses an emotion, the artist experienced that emotion. This generalization is patently false. The process in which art works have their genesis allows little scope for unthinking expression or for undergoing emotions powerful enough to produce the outcome as described. Moreover, some artists turn to creation to escape their traumatic circumstances and, in doing so, produce works that do not reveal the emotions dominating their lives at the time. The expressiveness of art works is usually achieved by their artists, but this happens typically by design. So structured and conventionalized is art, and so practical is the knowledge brought to its creation, that the making of art, even of an expressive variety, cannot continue long or far without reflection, including attention to technique, detail, the nature of the medium and overall structure. Besides, art works are not the kinds of things that arise causally or naturally as immediate, transparent expressions of occurrent emotions. A tendency to create art, unlike a tendency to tears, is not an essential part of sadness, so art works should not be the kind of thing from which sadness can be read directly. In a few cases an artistic action transfers its character to the product that results – violently produced brushstrokes often display the energy that went into their making. But in general, artists’ creative acts, even where these are impelled by emotions, are not such as to transfer that expressive character directly to the resulting piece.

The theory fares no better if performers (should the work have them) are substituted for artists, or where the approach is counterfactual in suggesting that a piece expresses such and such if it is the kind of art work that a person feeling such and such would create. The first alternative encounters objections like those confronting the original theory. The second presupposes art’s expressiveness, without analysing it; one could recognize the work’s aptness for expression only if it already independently displays the appropriate character.

Now, how could it be that art works display expressive directness while expressing the artist’s feeling if they do not relate to that feeling as tears relate to sadness? One way this could be achieved would be by the appropriation of something that itself possesses or simulates the immediate, primary presentation of feeling. For instance, a grieving person might employ professional mourners to weep on their behalf, or might show how they feel by deliberately putting on a sad face or by pointing to a mask of tragedy. Artists, in a similar fashion, might express their feeling through those of characters in the work or by matching the expressive tone of the work to their feelings. But in either case, the expressiveness present in the work has its character independently of the artist’s use of it, so expressions of artists’ feelings through the works they create presuppose, rather than explain, the expressiveness of those art works.

One version of the expression theory that has been influential in the recent history of aesthetics is that propounded by Benedetto Croce §2 and R.G. Collingwood §3. In outline, their account is this: the process of artistic creation is one in which, through the articulation of inchoate feelings and impulses, the artist comes to express a particular, unique emotion, thereby bringing it to their conscious awareness. The emotion is constituted through the act of expression, having no prior identity; that is, the emotion achieves its particular character through the manner of its expression. Collingwood regards art as expression at the level of imagination; for Croce, art is intuitive expression. Both tend to dismiss creation that does not satisfy this model as not truly artistic.

The impression that this view offers an account of the psychology of the creative process and not of the nature of the art work is misleading, for the work is regarded as primarily mental, as existing in the artist’s mind and inseparable from the act of expression. The artist might work in a physical medium on a public object as they create the work, but this is not necessary, and a work can be created without being ‘externalized’. Externalization is crucial, though, if the artist wishes to communicate the work to others. The object then created is not strictly the work, but the vehicle by which an awareness of the work can be transmitted. Communication is successful when the audience comes, through contemplation of the public object, to recognize or share the mental condition that is the work’s existence. Collingwood denies, however, that it is the function of art to arouse emotion. Artists could pursue that goal only if they knew what emotion they wanted to arouse, and such knowledge comes only with successful expression and, hence, after the work’s completion. Accordingly, art is primarily concerned with the self-awareness accomplished by the artist through their act of self-expression.

As an account of the creative process, which is much more variable than is specified, the theory is too narrow, and in so far as it applies to activities not normally regarded as issuing in art works, such as formulating and clarifying one’s thoughts in language, it is also too broad. Second, in according primacy to the private, mental dimension of affective experience and in treating public expressions of emotion as dispensable ancillaries, the theory’s account of expression is questionable. In addition, it leaves under-explained the process by which an audience comes to know the work and its expressive character. How do we map elements of the work’s externalization to mental states and processes, thereby recreating those of the artist? Finally, in its account of the response appropriate to the appreciation of works of art, the theory seems at odds with the widespread view that most works admit a variety of interpretations and responses.

To the extent that it downplays the public context of presentation and appreciation, as well as the social determination and significance of artistic conventions, practices and genres, the account is committed to an uncomfortably idealist ontology for art works. It disregards the close identification we make in the case of singular pieces, such as oil paintings, between the work and the physical object in which it is realized. We speak of the properties and fate of such a work in terms of the qualities possessed and the vicissitudes undergone by that physical object. Art works are not deprived of their existence by the death of the artist, and their properties do not fade along with the artist’s memories of its creation. Also, the theory cannot readily acknowledge the importance we accord to the artistic contribution of the performer in art forms such as drama, music and ballet. In general, the theory underplays the way in which the physical properties of a medium affect a work’s artistic character by presenting distinctive possibilities and problems for the artist; or, to the extent that it admits such considerations, the account undermines the distinction it emphasizes between the (mental) act of creation and the (dispensable) activity of providing a public externalization of the work.

Citing this article:
Davies, Stephen. Expression 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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