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Expression theory



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  • 1. Expression Theory/Emotivism Ollie McAdoo, Senior Examiner
  • 2. Is our response to art emotional?
    • Good art is moving or otherwise captures a mood or feeling. We describe and appraise it using an affective vocabulary.
    • Emotion as metaphor? But how can psychological ascriptions normally attributed to persons apply to works of art? Are such descriptions merely metaphorical?
    • Whose emotion? Is it really the artists’ self-expression we value, or our own responses?
  • 3. Background to Expressivism
    • A version of this view first crops up in Plato’s Republic. He attacks the arts as promoting the emotions at the expense of calm rational analysis
    • Key recent figures: the Russian novelist Tolstoy (1828-1910), the Italian philosopher Croce (1866-1952) and the British Idealist R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943).
    • Linked to Romanticism (key C18/19 pan-European artistic movement) but emotional qualities in art do need explaining anyway.
    • Like the views of art as representation and art as aesthetic form, it seeks to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for why we value ‘art’.
  • 4. ‘Expression’ Theory:
    • says that real art work is not the material object before you (paint on canvas, musical sound, words on the page etc) but an original emotion experienced by the artist which the work serves to communicate to its audience.
    • The audience successfully experience the work when they recover the artist’s original experience in their own imagination.
    • Sad music does not so much make me really sad as enable me to experience the original sadness as experienced by the artist.
    • R.K. Elliott: ‘the emotion is present in me but not predicable of me’.
    • If the art works exists as the artist’s original emotion it will be successful (and hence of value ), if it allows me direct access to this emotion .
  • 5. Problems:
    • Can we really separate the original experience and the art work which expresses it? Croce and Collingwood are ‘idealist’ philosophers who believe art work exists as an ‘idea in the mind’. Therefore, they tend to downgrade the public, physical art work as a mere expendable vehicle
    • Where is the work of art? (the ontological question) Well, if it’s in the artist’s mind then it can exist without ever getting expressed - hopeless!
    • Expressivism commits itself to the view that there can be only one correct response to an art work - namely recovering the original experience.
    • Must there be an original emotion to recover? 1. It is quite possible to write a cheerful piece of music while feeling quite sad. Sheppard cites the case of a very cheerful Clarinet Concerto by Mozart that was written near the end of his life when he was ill, depressed and poverty stricken! 2. What of art where the original emotion cannot clearly be identified (e.g. ancient art).
    • It does not deal with aesthetic emotion - i.e. the delight that we take in the pure appearance of art works.
    • Many works of art have a cognitive component which needs explaining. They are meant to make us think , not just feel.
    • The theory owes us an account of how the emotion occurs.
  • 6. The Causal Theory of expression
    • How does the emotion occur?
    • Well, for instance, sadness makes the composer write sad music which makes the listener sad. C.P.E.Bach: ‘A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must of necessity feel all the effects that he hopes to arouse in his audience.’
    • So the artwork exists as a real emotion in the mind of the artist, and they cause the art (using artistic conventions), which then causes the emotion in the mind of the audience.
    • So because of the causal chain, the single correct response to an artwork, the artist’s original emotion, (automatically? conventionally?) arises in the audience.
    • The artist picks the means that provokes the emotion.
  • 7. Some issues with the Causal Theory
    • … on this account, the art work itself (and also the artist’s cognitive intention) gets lost sight of as the emotion itself becomes the main focus of our attention.
    • The art-work as vehicle becomes irrelevant. Form is erased by content.
    • Such a view also leads to a radical subjectivity about what we should appreciate: Slayer is equal to Bach, Banksy to Vermeer etc, as they all cause strong emotions.
    • How the emotion comes about is unimportant – that it comes about is what matters.
  • 8. The ‘Intrinsic’ View of expression:
    • Emotion e.g. sadness is in the art e.g. sad music, not outside it, imposed by an artist.
    • On this view (as put forward by philosophers like Frank Sibley) the sadness is actually an expressive property of the music itself , although
    • this is usually qualified by saying that it is actually a ‘relational property’ - i.e. one that depends on an educated audience for its perception.
    • So this way we can explain why Bach is greater than Slayer.
    • If you know nothing about sadness and the tradition of the music to which you are listening (e.g. 12 Bar Blues) then you won’t hear it.
    • … A patient and a surgeon can both look at the same x-ray but won’t see the same things in it.
  • 9. Problems with saying that expressive qualities are intrinsic
    • If the expressive qualities were really intrinsic features of the artwork, then how can the same artwork occasion different responses in different perceivers?
    • How can something inanimate like musical sounds be sad? Surely it is only people (and maybe animals) who can be sad?
    • That is, how can psychological predicates attach to something non-human? On this account, such predicates are non-metaphorical…sad art really is sad.
    • … Well, we just do, from time to time call objects like landscapes, buildings, skies, old cars etc, ‘sad’ and why should music be any different? The music just strikes us as having the quality of sadness there, in the actual chords, melody, halting rhythms etc. and (unlike the causal view) is held to be inseparable from them , although it may require a leap of imagination for others to see this.
    • Seen thus, the art work exists as a relation between the physical object and the listener (including the listener’s experience of the cultural background from which the art work comes).
    • Note also, that while the meaning of ‘sad’ here retains its standard, everyday sense (connotation), it is being extended beyond its normal referential range (denotation), which is usually limited to humans and (maybe) animals
  • 10. More general problems with valuing art for its expressive qualities:
    • Necessary and sufficient conditions:
      • Are there instances of art that are valued without being expressive?
      • Are there examples of expression which are valued without being artistic?
    • An appeal to the problems of subjectivity and interpretation could be made here. Whose emotion? How do we know for sure we are feeling the right one?
    • Elitism, if only certain individuals have the capacity to appreciate art as it should be appreciated – the causal expressivist may get round this, of course…