Expression of Emotion

I have managed to squirrel some time to write again (this semester was a trial by fire) and thus I will continue with my plan to explain the four most common aesthetic theories. For this post, we will look at Robin George Collingwood’s theory of expression of emotion.

In broad terms, the theory tells us that art is mostly expression, that is, viewer and artist come together to experience a mental state, or emotion. I make emphasis in the words “come together” because they highlight one of the most crucial aspects of Collingwood’s theory: shared experiences. This is important to Collingwood as he believed re-enactment, the act of being in the same place of mind and context as the subject of study, was necessary to properly understand both human history as well as art. Collingwood refers to art as:

“the imaginative expression of emotion in a way that goes from a general imprecise feeling, to an expression that allows an understanding on part of the audience of the exact kind of feeling the artist feels”

Within this definition of art we have a good explanation of the theory of expression of emotion and its implications to the art world and aesthetics in general.

Through this definition Collingwood makes a distinction over what is “truly art” and what is one of the other definitions of art we colloquially use. “True art” is not craft, a term often associated with artistic creation, as defined by Plato and Aristotle. Neither is it representation, that is, a direct attempt at mimicking the subject that is being painted, sculpted, photographed, and so on. Nor is it “Magic,” by this we mean that art is not used to create an emotional shortcut and through it elicit a practical or “useful” reaction. But more importantly it is not amusement. Of course all these constraints limit the scope of what could be considered art by a surprising margin while at the same time rejecting established works of art as well as inducting into canon works that the more conservative wing of the art world might reject. This is problematic in several levels and will be discussed further when we discuss the limitations and criticism’s of the theory.

Now we can proceed to the second part of this definition, the emotional requirements of “true art.” To express emotion  means more than to announce a general feeling. It is not enough to say “I am sad” or angry or happy or any other general emotion. To express emotion in this context is to be exact, to transmit to the viewer every nuisance of emotion, the bitter aftertaste of anger, the difficulty to swallow we feel when we become “choked up,” the combination of joy and anger when someone we love does something irresponsible and yet comes out unharmed. When both author and viewer share the almost exact emotional response to the artwork, then we have achieved expression of emotion. We must also account for intention behind this opinion, this emotion has to be free of any utilitarian conception as that would devaluate the form and turn it into a product or propaganda.

Collingwood created this theory as an attempt to accept into canon modernist works that would have failed to be accepted by academia due to their abstraction and lack of traditional pictorial qualities. And it does an admirable job at doing so, as it uncouples artistic value from traditional views of craft and opened up new avenues of thought that would, amongst other ideas, facilitate the acceptance of further media into art such as new media, performance and more.

Unfortunately the theory does not hold water under close inspection. If we are strict about the purity of emotion clause, most works of art created before the mid-nineteenth century and a considerable part of the art created afterwards would not fall into the classification of true art. Consider religious art work, these works were mostly commissioned works used to elicit a religious experience, therefore falling under the category of magic. If they do elicit an emotion, this emotion is used to evoke religiosity in the viewer thus violating the definition offered by Collingwood. Should we then address what is often called world art (read: non-western art) then we find ourselves removing from the definition works such as Olmec stone heads, Babylonian sculpture, Maasai carvings of all kinds and much more simply because such works would fall under magic, craft and even amusement. Collingwood’s theory opens the path for so much, while at the same time excluding even more, the few examples mentioned are simply the most obvious ones, and we could go on and on citing even more examples o how the clauses rejecting art as entertainment, magic and craft effectively narrow the possibilities of what can be art.

Expression of emotion poses philosophical questions as well, since it is impossible to feel the exact same emotion as another person. Emotions do not exist independent of the individual, what each person feels at any given moment is colored by a multitude of factors including the weather, previous interactions in the day and so on and so forth. Therefore, no matter how much an artist tries to communicate the exact feeling they wish,  a huge chasm exists between author and spectator. Under those circumstances, how do we know the artist elicited the correct emotion? Not only that, but even emotions being turned into propaganda as David’s The Death of Marat show us, a work of art can be ideological and be considered by all rights a proper expression of emotion, in this case the loss of a great thinker and personal friend. It could be argued that the painting was turned into propaganda by the Jacobins at a latter date (although there are indications the panting was created under commission by the Jacobin leadership), thus forcing us to consider the possibility that a work could lose its artistic “aura” through the use and further recognition it garners as time passes.

In the end, Collingwood’s theory accepts so much while at the same time excludes much more from the canons of art history. In the end it is not easy to define art through one quality as convenient as that would be. What the theory of expression of emotion does do is expose us to one of the many facets of art, that quality that moves us when admiring certain works without the need for further elucidation, its what turns Munch’s works into harrowing examinations of fear, despair and loss and It is what brings us joy as we look upon Fragonard’s works. To be able to understand the emotions put forth by the artist is indeed a great thing however it is not the only metric to be applied. Art as magic, craft and entertainment have created works as great as those of the abstract expressionists and the modernists. Some are religious in nature, others political and some others are made simply to please the eye to give us respite from the ugliness of the world. None of these are lesser for their adherence to either craft, politics or religion to deny them is to negate the possibility that art exists in all facets of human life and that as such it should reflect this life.

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