Expressivst theory (some responses to questions)

Thanks so much for the responses. I received some insightful questions from Ben Koch, Brian Linell, and Jason Mendelssohn on starting to tackle the two terms theory of expressivism.

Ben immediately pointed out one of the problem areas. If we assume the third term of the “observer” of art being a necessary component of the process we get into some tricky areas. Ben asks, “does that mean that when the MOMA closes up for the night that it ceases to contain any art?” I don’t think we need to attempt to peruse the whole history of philosophical ontology here. I don’t think I have the chops for that, and I don’t think I have any insights to give. I will say that Ben brings up an issue that is very important to the discussion. There is a difference between the phenomenological reality of the art object and the intended use that object is serving. A good way to think about this problem is with totem poles. You can find totem poles in museums throughout the world. In the museum, people are using them as objects of aesthetic contemplation. Originally, they were used for religious purposes. When they enter the museum, do they cease to be religious objects? I think that the answer to that is yes. The art object has an intended use. Many (if not all) of MOMA’s collection has the special intended use of aesthetic contemplation. Without questioning the ontological reality of the objects, I would at least suggest that when MOMA’s doors close, they are not functioning in accordance with their intended purposes. They remain art objects, but they aren’t really functioning as an aesthetic experience in the way that we normally think of it. Back to Ben in a moment.

Brian Linell offers some interesting thoughts on ways in which the subjective/objective dichotomy may not be the best hermeneutic for the discussion at hand. (More thoughts on this soon.) Is the artist subjectively arranging things that are objectively beautiful. This touches on some interesting thoughts by Vincent Tomas. He points out that one of the issues involved in the two terms theory is that it tends to assume a separation between the art object and the thing to be communicated (the emotional content) in a way that is not always concomitant with the reality of our artistic experience. That is, when we hear a symphony, we don’t actually listen to sound waves and then go through some process whereby we somehow unpack the sadness evoked by the music. We actually experience the sound as sadness. Paraphrasing Carroll Pratt, he says, “music sounds the way (subjective) sadness feels.” The implication here is that in the creative process, the artists is not taking inherently objective elements and somehow “charging” them with emotion. The very substance with which the artist creates in his or her specific medium is already emotionally charged. One of the other nice features about this approach is that it gets us around the problem of the aesthetic experience when there is no artist involved. The landscape is already charged with emotion in and of itself. That’s why we can have an aesthetic experience with it that is similar to the painted landscape. Stay tuned for some exciting upcoming developments in Brian Linell’s life. He’s soon starting a new podcast which promises to be spectacular.

Jason Mendelsohn (you should check out his stuff here) brings up some of the mathematical proportions that we see pervading the universe and the concept of God as an artist. That’s a big area that I’m not going to cover at the moment. I will say two things. There are some interesting developments in the Quantam Physics world surrounding the Schroedinger principal of observation right now. Some scientists moving back toward a God as “ultimate observer” position. Secondly, there seems to me to be a fundamental difference between the idea of positing creation out of nothing (the God idea) and artistic creation out of something (the human idea). There is a long history of closely associating artistic creation with the idea of God creating. I’m not sure the two are analogous. As much as I might like to think that I am speaking something into being out of nothing, I’m really working with materials that are already given.

Finally, Ben asked me one other question that I found quite curious. Ben writes, “As a composer, how interested are you in your listener's emotional response to your work? Do you hope that they feel a certain way - perhaps (or perhaps not) how you were feeling as you wrote it? If you knew that no listener would ever feel exactly what you were trying to express, or if you knew that no listener would ever respond at all in any way to your composition (maybe not even hear it), would that change the way in which you create? Would you still write?”

I’d never considered the question in quite that way before. Off the top of my head, I would say that I don’t ever remember considering how someone else would feel when they heard what I wrote. I’m usually concerned with how I feel when I write. However, I don’t believe that I write in some sort of solipsistic vacuum. I have a fundamental belief that the things that move me emotionally will move other human beings emotionally as well. I also believe that the intellectual things that interest me will interest other people as well. In fact, I have a difficult time differentiating the two when I'm writing. If I didn’t believe that what interests me would also move others, I wouldn't write music, words, or even get out of bed in the morning. I can also say, that I tend to write whether or not a piece gets a public performance. It’s just something that I seem to have to do as part of my Kurtness. If I didn’t, I believe that I would somehow become less human. I suppose, Ben, that I’ll have to get working on a horn sonata to properly answer that question.