art as emotive expressionOverview

Poems must move us, but whose emotions are involved, the poet's or the reader's? Read this section as a caution against facile views of self-expression, to appreciate the role of medium and society, and to understand what Modernism has discounted.


Works of art so often arise from some deep personal feeling or crisis in the lives of their creators that emotion itself is commonly taken as the defining characteristic of art. Tolstoy (1828-1910) thought that art caused its audience to experience certain feelings, was art to the extent that it did so, and that its creator should have lived through those feelings to express them properly. Of course he also demanded that art express worthy feelings, preferably promoting the brotherhood of man, but even without its moral tag, Tolstoy's views raise enormous problems. Do we know exactly what an audience experiences during a play? Hardly, to judge from the comments of the audience making its way home from the theatre, or even from theatre critics, whose judgements are notoriously at odds with each other. Then, to take Tolstoy's second point, there is the question of great political orators whose words may work audiences into frenzies far exceeding those a Shakespearean play. Is theirs the greater art? Thirdly comes the inconvenient fact that composers frequently work simultaneously on "happy" and "sad" passages of music. Insincere? We should need to see inside the heads of all artists in the toils of creation if art were to be the expression of feelings actually felt. And that we cannot do — with dead artists obviously, nor even with those still living, whose reports on the creative process are unreliable but generally suggest something different. {1}

Croce and Collingwood

Nonetheless, suppose we pursue the assumption further. Art as emotional expression finds its greatest exposition in the work of Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) {2} and R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) {3}. Both ranged widely: Croce into practical criticism, Collingwood into other areas of philosophy. Both could write with subtlety and insight. But both also believed in the mental nature of art, that it exists fully fledged in the originator's head before being put on public display.

Croce starts with "intuitions", which are the immediate knowing of impressions and their transformation by the active imagination into unified images or organic wholes. The two (knowing and expression of those impressions) were linked, were indivisible indeed, and couldn't be encompassed by purely intellectual criteria. But Croce was not preaching "art for art's sake". Art was no more important than logic, economics, ethics and history. Indeed it was not even possible without a richness of the human spirit in all its manifestations.

Croce was influenced by Hegel and developed his thought somewhat analogously. Initially, Croce regarded intuition as expression of emotion ("lyricism", he called it) which was not simply letting off steam, or imitating actual feelings, but expressing the personality of the artist as it evoked some larger "soul" of man. By 1918 Croce was arguing for an intuition that included something common to all humanity, though still something individual to the art concerned. By the mid-twenties Croce's intuition had expanded to include moral ideas and conflicts. Finally, in 1936, Croce returned to his distinction between art and non-art, "poetry and literature". Only intuition-expression was art, and its externalization was a secondary, practical matter. Of course that externalization assists the communication of art, and is what the audience and critics must use to recreate the original artistic experience.

The first part of Croce's position was familiar enough. Even Aristotle had argued that poets should handle themes so as to bring out universal characteristics that are necessarily constrained and confused in historical actuality. {4} But how was communication as a secondary activity to be understood when most artists have no conception of their finished work until it is completed in their chosen medium? Croce's ideas were developments of a nineteenth century mentalism and only Collingwood in the Anglo-Saxon world continued their drift — but then Collingwood did not share in the beliefs of his contemporaries: in the primacy of logic, or the resolving powers of linguistic philosophy. For him art, religion, science, history and philosophy were separate activities of mind, with different objectives and methods.

Art for Collingwood was the originating experience. Transferring the conception to paper, dance, music and stone came later. Such fabrication of course took skill, but couldn't reach back into the imaginative experience itself. "The aesthetic experience, or artistic activity, is the experience of expressing one's emotions; and that which expresses them is the total imaginative activity called indifferently language or art." {5}. Art made no assertions, but was simply the unconscious becoming conscious. We cannot ask if an artistic conception is historically true, because such questions come afterwards, when the art is transferred to the public domain, when indeed it is no longer art as such. Art either has the emotions expressed (good), or repressed (bad), so that criticism is rather beside the point. But no matter: art is something we all do, and serves no end beyond itself.

Influence of the Medium: John Dewey

Collingwood's views seem preposterous. They omit to tell us why art is important. They succumb immediately to Wittgenstein's attack on private languages, and indeed run contrary to the attempt this century to move philosophy from private mental events to observable human activities.

But the greatest shortcoming is surely that the theory is contrary to the actual experience of artists. A few have appeared to dash off masterpieces as though they were transcribing what was already given them. Mozart had astonishingly facility, scribbling as fast as he could take the notes down. Racine claimed that a play was finished once he had every detail clear in his mind. But both had supreme mastery of their craft, the means of expression guiding and encouraging their creations. Most artists are not so fortunate. Studies and reminiscences show that there are golden moments of inspiration, but also long, long periods of working and reworking the material, struggling, despairing, succeeding in some ways but not knowing whether more or better isn't possible. {6}

The American pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952) {7} understood this interplay of medium and imagination but took a broader view of artistic activity. Even "experience" for Dewey means "a shared social activity of symbolically-mediated behaviour which seeks to discover the possibilities of our objective situations in the natural world for meaningful, intelligent and fulfilling ends." {7} Dewey was not opposed to the deification of artists, or even to the self-serving circle of dealer, critic and museum curator, but he did stress that great works of art were essentially examples of a common human pursuit. We are constantly making sense of ourselves and our surroundings, using our senses to maintain and develop our material and aesthetic needs. Experiences come to us in the light of half-remembered events, of mental and sensory constructions, of expected consequences. Art reveals to us how those experiences may be profoundly meaningful.

Art is not therefore the expression of emotion or even of the creative impulse. It arises from the interaction of many things — the artist with his medium, individual experiences with the cultural matrix, artwork with its audience. Art is a dialogue, and an artwork draws its life from the cultural life of the community. There is no one, settled interpretation, and the greatness of an artwork may lie in its profound appeal to many different groups and societies. All art has form, but that form is not something unchanging and abstract, but the way the work gives organization to experience. Art shapes by its own rules: "the working of the work", Heidegger put it. And because aesthetic experience is the most complete and integrated of our responses to the world, it is central to Dewey's philosophy. {8}


But art does somehow involve emotion and — perhaps to modify Plato's {9} condemnation of the pernicious effects of poetry — Aristotle introduced his famous "katharsis". {10} The term means cleansing, removing the bad and leaving the good, and by its associations includes ritual purification, medical purges and bowel movement. In Aristotle's view, an audience is brought to feel fear, pity and even frenzy in public performances of religious ceremonies, of plays (comedies and tragedies, but particularly the latter) and of music. Those feelings are resolved in relief at the conclusion of the performance, so that the audience comes away with heightened emotions and sharpened aesthetic judgements.

Do they? Catharsis from the first has been a troublesome term. Since Aristotle did not describe art in terms of emotional expression, purgation of emotions seems somewhat subsidiary (the more so since we lack Aristotle's explanation in his second book on "Poetics": the book has been lost). Perhaps he meant only that art raises emotions in an intense and justifiable form. Raising or releasing them? The two are very different. And cannot playwrights raise emotions without personally espousing them? As Eliot drily remarked, "poets do not express themselves in poetry but escape from themselves by a continual extinction of personality." {11} But catharsis may well have been a principle behind bloodstained Jacobean tragedy, and which today continues in art therapy. Even Schopenhauer associated art with the purgation of the aimless, self perpetuating desire he called "will". Hans Robert Jauss has made catharsis an element of his aesthetic theory, though here it approximates to communication. The essential point is surely this: whatever may be claimed, the emotional resolution of aesthetic experience is clearly something more penetrating and finely wrought than the voiding of pent-up feelings.

Aesthetic Detachment

Indeed purgation may not enter into art at all. Emotions when real are often painful. We look with embarrassment at the parents of the missing child giving their television appeal. We feel voyeurs at the raw sex act. Not art, we say, which really needs some element of aesthetic detachment or make-believe in the experience. In art we suspend belief: we feel horror in a murder depicted in a film but do not call the police.

Why detachment? Because art involves emotions different from those evoked by real life. Kant called the detachment "aesthetic disinterest", distinguishing by it beauty and sublimity from mere pleasantness. Schopenhauer saw art as withdrawal from practical application of the will into contemplation. Edward Bulloch spoke of "psychical distance". {12} Phenomenologists argued that detachment made scenes into "intentional objects" divorced from everyday considerations.

Much has been made of the aesthetic attitude. Formalists have reified the detachment into a complete divorce from feeling: true art does not express emotions, and should not attempt to. Abstract artists have turned their back on representation: since art does not employ our everyday, practical uses for objects, it should not depict them. Art for art's sake theorists denigrated art that served ends beyond the satisfaction of aesthetic contemplation: no matter how bestial the characters of a novel appear, or how subversive the attitudes depicted, none of this matters to true artistic enjoyment. {13}

The difficulties and fundamental untruths of these developments are obvious enough. Art that arouses no emotion is of no interest to us, remains only clever exercises or dry theory. Abstract art employs elements — forms, colours, compositions — that must somehow owe their appeal to our sensory equipment, either through experience or physiological inheritance. Films of Nazi war atrocities are not enjoyed as pure aesthetic contemplation. But the nature of aesthetic attitude nonetheless remains elusive. What is this detachment, distance, attitude? Perhaps it is not a simple thing, but a bundle of expectations and cultural suppositions that vary somewhat with the art form and the period? Certainly there are certain attitudes we need to adopt with art — openness, sensitivity, a willingness to enter imaginatively into the experience — but they come from us rather than from the art or artist concerned.

Emotional Representation

Perhaps art is not an expression of emotion, but a representation of that emotion. Since books, paintings, music etc. cannot express emotion as originally present in the artist's mind (supposing we persist with this approach) but only as conveyed in and with the medium concerned, art cannot in some sense escape being representational. But there is another view of representation: that art is emotion objectified in symbolic form: a philosophy developed by Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) {14} and Susanne Langer (1895-1985). Cassirer extended Kant's a priori categories so as to represent language, myth, art, religion and science as systems of symbolic forms. These forms are mental shaping of experience. They are culturally determined and are created by us. But they also and wholly constitute our world: all "reality" is a reality seen and understood through them. Outside lies Kant's noumenal world, about which there is nothing we can say.

These systems of symbolic form are not arbitrary creations but have grown up to answer human needs. Each system carries its own particular enlightenment. Langer {15} ranged over the whole field of artistic expression, though is best known for her theories of music. She rejected outright the Logical Positivist position that meaning was either tautological or statements in literal, propositional language verifiable by science. Art has its own meaning or meanings. Even in our simplest observations we transform a manifold of sensations into a virtual world of general symbols: a world with a grammar of its own, guiding our ear and eyes, highly articulated in art. In music we have a symbolic expression about feelings. Music has a logic of its own, expressing the forms of human feeling, and creating an inner lives. Certainly music does not denote as propositional language must, but it conveys knowledge directly, " by acquaintance" rather than "knowledge about". Feelings are therefore symbolically objectified in certain forms, with a detail and truth that language cannot approach.

What did the philosophic community make of this? Very little. {16} Symbolic forms, particularly "significant forms" remained very vague. How could the claim that music objectifies feeling with great truth and detail be assessed? By their influence on other musical compositions — music calling to music, no doubt Langer and many musicians would reply. But no philosopher will allow that. Philosophy (or at least analytical philosophy) requires close argumentation, and that is only possible in literal, propositional language: the very language that Langer stigmatized as inadequate. And linguistic expression is inherently ambiguous, thought Cassirer, a view which links him to Lakoff and Derrida.

But if art expresses only the forms of feeling, why does it seem so emotionally alive? Artists extract what is significant from experience, Langer argued, and then use that form to create an object which directly expresses that significance. The "meaning" of an artwork is its content. Through their symbols, great works of art powerfully express highly significant feeling, even if this feeling is only intuitively grasped, unfolding very slowly as we become familiar with the work. In this way feeling and creativity occupy a central position in Langer's philosophy, as they do in the work of many contemporary psychologists.


Once they became more than efforts to please and entertain, it was natural for works of art to make large claims of autonomy. The Romantics called art ineffable: it expressed what could not be expressed in any other way. Artists might start with some feeling they wish to express, but that feeling was only realized through the creation of the work: its form precisely articulates what was not expressed before. But larger claims are often made for metaphor — that they open up the world in ways we had not appreciated before. Metaphors become, in Paul Ricouer's words, "poems in miniature". Of course to see that world in the manner suggested by the metaphor means approaching the world in the right spirit ("comporting" ourselves, Heidegger puts it), when poems become the intellectualized registers of such "comportments". {17}

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1. Chapter 5 in Oswald Hanfling's Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (1992).
2. Douglas Anderson's Croce, Benedetto in David Cooper's (Ed.) A Companion to Aesthetics (1992).
3. Michael Krausz's Collingwood, R.G. in Cooper 1992.
4. pp. 37 - 39 in David Daiches's Critical Approaches to Literature (1981).
5. p. 275 in R.G. Collingwood's The Principles of Art, (1938).
6. Louis Sass's Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought (1994), Chapter 3 of Albert Rothenberg's Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes (1990), Chapter 4 in Albert Rothenberg's The Emerging Goddess: The Creative Process in Art, Science and Other Fields (1979), pp 176 - 179 of Howard Gardner's Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity seen through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham and Gandhi (1993), and Chapter 7 of Robert Weiberg's Creativity: Genius and Other Myths (1986).
7. Thomas Alexander's Dewey, John in Cooper 1992.
8. John Dewey's Art as Experience (1934, 1987) and Thomas Alexander's John Dewey's Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling (1987).
9. A vast literature. A start is provided by Stephen Halliwell's Plato in Cooper 1992.
10. Stephen Halliwell's Catharsis in Cooper 1992.
11. Chapter 9 of George Watson's (1986) and Chapter 1 of A.D. Nuttall's Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? (1996).
12. Edward Bulloch's "Psychical distance" as a factor in art and an aesthetic principle (1970).
13. David Cooper's Attitude, aesthetic in Cooper 1992.
14. Ernst Cassirer's Language and Myth (1946), P. A. Schlip's (Ed) The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (1949) and John Hyman's Perspective in Cooper 1992.
15. Thomas Alexander's Langer, Susanne in Cooper 1992, Langer, Suzanne K entry in Ted Honderich's The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) and pp. 202-207 in Hanfling 1992.
16. p. 115 in John Passmore's Serious Art: A Study of the Concept in all the Major Arts (1991).
17. David Cooper's Ineffability in Cooper 1992.

Internet Resources

1. What Is Art? by Leo Tolstoy. Julie Van Camp. Mar. 1998. Excerpts from Tolstoy's 1899 work.
2. Clive Bell. David Clowney.
. One of a growing number of short articles on key figures in aesthetics.
3. Art. Clive Bell. 1912. Online excerpts from his book.
4. Aristotle (384-322 BCE.) Poetics. Joe Sachs. 2003. An Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with discussion and excerpt from Poetics.
5. Poetics by Aristotle. Three excerpts from Butcher's translation.
6. Croce in America: Influence, Misunderstanding, and Neglect. David D. Roberts. 1995. Detailed article on Croce's importance.
7. Italian Theory and Criticism. Peter Carravetta. 1997.
Extended article concentrating on Croce.
8. John Dewey (1859-1952). Garth Kemerling. Aug. 2002. Introductory article and short listing.
9. John Dewey (1859-1952). Richard Field. 2001. An Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, detailed as ever.
10. Arthur Schopenhauer. Robert Wicks. May 2003. Extended article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
11. Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945). 2003. A Books and Writer's article, with good bibliography. NNA
12. Susanne Langer.
. Introduction to her ideas, with good listings.
13. Paul Ricoeur. Kim Atkins. 2003. An Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with bibliography and reading list.
14. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). W. J. Korab-Karpowicz. 2003. Balanced Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Heidegger's philosophy as a whole.
15. American Society of Aesthetics. . Free samples of papers; otherwise $70/year subscription, which includes back issues in electronic form. Excellent listing of aesthetics resources and websites.
16. Canadian Aesthetics Journal. . Free online papers from Spring 1966.