Artistic expression

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

6. Expressiveness as a property of art works

Several attempts to divorce the expressiveness of art works from expressions of occurrent feelings are unconvincing. We do sometimes say that art is expressive without indicating what it is expressive of. But, unlike Scruton (1983), I do not think that art deals with a kind of expression that is not the expression of an emotion or the like; rather, it reveals our concern (sometimes) to highlight the manner of a thing’s being expressive, or the subtlety of its expressive nuance, above identifying or classifying the content of that expressiveness. Also unsatisfactory is the suggestion that art expresses emotions that are sui generis in being unfelt and non-cognitive, for this view, in divorcing artistic expressiveness from the world of human feeling, makes inexplicable art’s power to move us as it does. And the supporting claim that art’s expressiveness is ineffable is misplaced (in confusing description with duplication) and exaggerated (because it is only at a rather general level of expressiveness that there is sufficient interpersonal agreement to suggest that it is the work, rather than the responder, that is described). Nor does it help to call artistic expressiveness metaphorical. Metaphors take many forms and serve many purposes, so the suggestion is no substitute for an analysis of the phenomenon; analyses of literary metaphor seem not to be readily generalized to painterly or musical expressiveness; and many words for emotions seem no more lively as metaphors when predicated of art works than does talk of the necks of bottles.

Here is one argument for the view that art works are expressive without giving expression to occurrent emotions. We experience resemblances between art works and humanly expressive behaviour (voices, faces, deportment, actions). We do not notice similarities and infer a connection. (This is false to the phenomenology of the experience and, anyway, explains neither the direction of the inference nor our failure to connect art to many other things it might be seen as resembling.) Instead, as Kivy would have it, we are ‘wired’ to animate our experiences if we can. We see cars with faces, dolphins with smiles and willows with gloomy demeanours. The similarity resides, as I said, in the experiences we have of human and artistic expressiveness; basic resemblances that might underpin this experience, those between elements of human expressive behaviour and features of art works, are located, if at all, after the fact. In art, this potential for resemblance is frequently modified and structured by conventions, so it will be apparent only to those familiar with the appropriate artistic practices.

Why, though, should this experience of resemblance justify the attribution of expressiveness to art, since we know the analogy cannot be carried through because works of art cannot embody occurrent experiences? Sometimes attributions of expressiveness concern the character of an appearance (of a body, or face) without regard to feelings. We might identify a person’s bearing as sad without meaning that they feel sad, or entertaining that thought, or regarding them as prone to the feeling, but merely as a description of their deportment. (Obviously this secondary use of terms of emotion follows on the primary one in which we are interested in expressive appearances for the feelings they display or convey. The behaviour that betrays a feeling in one context is likely, in the absence of feeling, to produce an appearance with a corresponding expressive characteristic.) It is arguable that when we say, for example, that a musical piece is sad, our use concerns not occurrent emotions but emotional characteristics presented in the sound of the music as we experience it. Such appearances are more compelling in art than in nature, where they also occur, because we know them to have been deliberately employed by the artist.

Such a view meets several of the desiderata of an account of the expressiveness attributed to art works themselves. It locates the expressiveness in the work, explains the immediacy and directness with which this is experienced, and connects ascriptions of expressiveness to art with, if not the primary uses of those terms in connection with occurrent emotions, then with secondary uses of a familiar kind. Moreover, it fortunately does not describe the audience’s experience as involving conscious inference or fanciful imaginings, since these seem to be absent from the reactions of many.

Citing this article:
Davies, Stephen. Expressiveness as a property of art 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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