Expressivist theory and lines

The expressivist theory of art runs into immediate problems in the interpretive phase. If we say that Romeo and Juliet is “sad” (a poor descriptor, I know), what do we mean? Do we mean that Shakespeare was sad when he wrote it, and some of his sadness got into the words? If I watch it and feel sad, am I feeling my sadness or Shakespeare’s sadness? What if someone doesn’t feel sad when they watch a performance? Does that mean that the ending isn’t sad? Does it have to make everyone sad or a majority of people sad?

The Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff suggests that we consider the problem like this. Using Osgood’s discovery that people across cultures interpret affective meaning in radically similar fashion, he suggests that people the world over would understand a wavy line being more expressive of tranquility and a jagged line being more expressive of restlessness. Now, if we take a piece of paper and draw a wavy line and a jagged one and “then focus our attention back and forth between the two. Are we by doing so cast first into tranquility, then into reslessness, then back into tranquility, etc?” For him the answer is no. He says that we can “even recognize that the one line is expressive of tranquility without being tranquilized, and that the other is expressive of restlessness without being made restless.”

This quality that we recognize in the symbol is something he likes to call “fittingness”.

“An object O is expressive of some quality Q when and only when, the aesthetic character of O is fitting (to a significant degree) to Q. Expressiveness is grounded in fittingness.”

There are certainly a lot of things to like about this theory. It completely avoids the “intentional fallacy”. It saves us from some of the nonsensical sides of the subjective arguments about art. I’m thinking here of people who suggest that a work can mean anything to anyone. Specifically, Beethoven’s Funeral Marches really are expressive of sadness even if you think they sound like happy music to you. It avoids some of the confusing terminology that we use. When people say that a painting is “religious”, they don’t mean that the canvas and oil “accepted Jesus into its pigmented heart.” They mean that the painting has a religious theme and possibly evokes emotions (religious or otherwise) in them when they view it.

The problem is that for the theory to work, we have to have a “fittingness police” to make it work. For Wolterstorff, he finds his police force in the “objectivity of fittingness” via Osgood’s cross-cultural semantic studies. I’m still not completely convinced. I would also add that I’m not positive about the wavy/jagged line experiment. They are simple symbols, not a Shakespeare play, but even in their simplicity, I do feel more uneasy looking at the jagged line than the wavy one.

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