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Artistic expression

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M020-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

Article Summary

Many kinds of psychological state can be expressed in or by works of art. But it is the artistic expression of emotion that has figured most prominently in philosophical discussions of art. Emotion is expressed in pictorial, literary, and other representational works of art by the characters who are depicted or in other ways presented in the works. We often identify the emotions of such characters in much the same way as we ordinarily identify the emotions of others, but we might also have special knowledge of a character’s emotional state, through direct access to their thoughts, for instance.

A central case of the expression of emotion by works of art is the expression of emotion by a purely musical work. What is the source of the emotion expressed by a piece of music? While art engages its audience, often calling forth an emotional response, its expressiveness does not consist in this power. It is not because an art work tends to make us feel sad, for instance, that we call it sad; rather, we react as we do because sadness is present in it. And while artists usually contrive the expressiveness of their art works, sometimes expressing their own emotions in doing so, their success in the former activity does not depend on their doing the latter. Moreover, the expressiveness achieved has an immediacy and transparency, like that of genuine tears, apparently at odds with this sophisticated, controlled form of self-expression. It is because art presents emotion with simple directness that it can be a vehicle for self-expression, not vice versa. But if emotions are the experiences of sentient beings, to whom do those expressed in art belong if not to the artist or audience? Perhaps they are those of a fictional persona. We may imagine personae who undergo the emotions expressed in art, but it is not plain that we must do so to become aware of that expressiveness, for it is arguable that art works present appearances of emotions, as do masks, willow trees, and the like, rather than outward signs of occurrent feelings. Expressiveness is valuable because it helps us to understand emotions in general while contributing to the formation of an aesthetically satisfying whole.

Citing this article:
Davies, Stephen. Artistic expression, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M020-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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