Can o' worms - the expressive theory of art

In response to the ever insightful commentary of my good friend Robert Platte on this page, I have decided to open the can of worms that is the expressive theory of art. We have recently rekindled a 20 year dialogue on the subjective/objective nature of the experience of art.

As humans, we often have powerful emotional reactions to works of art, and the nature of that experience is complicated and problematic to describe. Are the emotions somehow contained within the apparatus of the materials of the artwork itself? If so, how does the artists get those emotions to stick to the construction materials? “What the anvil, what the chain, in what furnace was thy brain?” Is the work of art somehow objective, and the emotional experience simply a result of our own subjective affect being applied to the objective work?

The history of aesthetic philosophy is littered with attempts to untie this Gordonian knot. Plato would tell you that the proportions found in a musical scale are analogous to proportions found in the universe. By listening to a specific musical scale, it can affect your ethical character. By the time the 19th century emerges, people like E.T.A. Hoffman would probably argue that the emotional content of the work of art comes from the intent of the artist and the specific emotional state the artist was in when the work was created. After 1850, everything changed, and by the time we get to early modernism, the aesthetic wars left no dominant position in the artistic community. This often leaves artists in a vacuum with little vocabulary to describe what exactly is going on when they work.

A good place to begin the discussion, is with the materials themselves. Bob Woody likes to point out in his excellent blog (which you can find here), that whatever else we disagree on, music is made up of pitches and rhythms (I’m paraphrasing). Visual art is made from images. Poetry is made from words. The question becomes whether the materials themselves have any sort of universal meaning with which an artist might construct his or her work. We often say that a piece of music is “sad”, a painting is “horrifying”, or a play is “tragic”. When we use emotionally charged words to describe art, what exactly do we mean? If I say that Goya’s “Saturn devouring his son” is horrifying, do I mean that I experience horror when I look at it? What if I do one day and not the next? Does someone in Djibouti find it horrifying in the same sense?

A good place to begin the discussion is in the work of the psychologist Charles Osgood. He constructed a series of experiments do determine whether “regardless of language or culture, human beings utilize the same qualifying (descriptive) framework in allocating the affective meanings of concepts.” Using a procedure that he termed the Semantic Differential Technique, he tested people across cultures to discover how they approached the “affective meanings of concepts”. Is loud, for example, heavy or light? Is a feather hot or cold? He expected that some regular associations would be formed. “Just as red and orange would be expected to lie closer in the color space than red and blue, so we should expect that good and nice would be in closer proximity than good and heavy.” The amazing results of these experiments are that while there are individual variations, “90% of the relationships prove to be in the same direction…the determinants of these synesthetic relations are shared by humans everywhere.” That is, people associate red with fire, danger, and intensity. They associate blue with water, peace, and tranquility across the world, everywhere, independent of culture. They universally associate jagged lines with turbulence and smooth lines with calm. The affective meaning of aesthetic symbols appears to move in the same direction for all peoples.

This does not address any of the questions about how emotional content occurs in the artistic experience, but it does provide a starting point for discussion. Is there a universal aesthetic sense about affective meaning in art work? Osgood’s work doesn’t prove that. It does suggest that no matter what culture you come from, you will find Goya’s work more horrifying than delightful.

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