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.
Just out of curiosity, I looked to see what the Museo del Prado's website has to say about Goya's Saturn painting. The site calls it "one of the most expressive images of the Black Paintings." Interesting descriptor, I think…
Certainly, Goya's "Saturn" is one of the most powerful images ever painted. For me, my initial exposure to it provoked an almost physical reaction. You seem to be asking, "Why?" or , perhaps more precisely, "How?".
It is a good start to begin with the universality of symbols or concepts. This is an important discussion for almost any "science" of man, linguistics, psychology, philosophy, etc.. Osgood, Chomsky, Nietzsche, Freud, Joseph Campbell… almost anyone who has ever put a pen to paper has touched upon parts of this. Some would say this is genetic or cultural memory, something akin to instinct or perhaps opposable thumbs.
But our identification with or appreciation for any piece of art or music transcends these subliminal archetypes and must include our own private stores of experiences and emotions. This is where our experience of the work is unique and subjective. This is why one person loves Gershwin and another likes Tennessee Ernie Ford. This can be informed by the external, as well; by current cultural ideals or by knowledge of the history which formed the artist, or by perceptions of the artist's intent or experiences related to the work.. In truth, it is the synthesis of all of these that makes the exploration of any artistic work a private journey, perhaps a pilgrimage which, though populated with other travelers, is really a deeply personal quest.
Art is just paint or stone or whatever, just color and light. Music is merely an expression of mathemetical relationships, tones and rythyms, if you will. Poetry is electrons on a screen or spray paint on a wall. While some meanings may be transcend the individual, it is within the individual that these ideas and feelings find their unique form.
While I do not necessary agree with evolution and the existence of a genetic memory, I think Robert brings up a good point. there does exist a central theme of archetypes , I believed passed down by education, and simple influence of item in every environment. the mere existence of fire as a heat source attaches itself to a part of every person brain in a similar fashion. water is smooth and soothing because of how it exists in nature and how we interact with it.
We must consider however that we each have different tastes. A picture of someone stabbing themselves in the belly is going to have a different reaction in different cultures. Americans may see it as gruesome, classify it as "goth" and be somewhat disturbed by it. The Japanese however will begin to wonder what dishonor the person did for them to commit suicide. These are just two simple examples.
When it comes to even deeper ideas, we become truly unique in our ideas. I for one am a big fan of music by Linkin Park, Drowning Pool, and Metallica. many of my friends are very much not fans. There is something in the discords, and patterns I find fascinating, and they simply call "noise". The same can be true when one person or another likes a piece of art, and another does not.
I think though in addressing the purpose of the artist and the reaction of the viewer, you do not have a complete picture without both. I found as a teacher it was best to expose students to a work, let them interpret it, and than to tell them what was meant by it. Picasso's Guernica is a perfect example, as student have different reactions to it, but all come to appreciate it when they find out the meaning it had to the artist.
I do not know how it is for others, but, for me, the creation of art and my personal artistic expression is a very unpredictable thing. I use words to express my emotions and my ideas. The genesis of this expression often lies in an image my mind forms or in the sound of a phrase that has formulated in my mind. Sometimes the action of creation is very deliberate: I have an idea or emotion that I want to express. Sometimes these ideas or these stories boil around for quite a long time before I ever attempt to convey them. These are the roots of my efforts.
At the second stage of my attempted expression, I begin to convey the image, the sound, the emotion, the idea that has intrigued me. This is the most dangerous part, because I am not fully conscious of the result that may arise from this effort. Many times a poem or story begins and then leads me away from my intended target or metamorphosizes it into something unrecognizable, something I didn't know existed. Certainly, I am aware of the words and symbols, the meanings of my tools and their proper use; but, as I combine them, they reveal connections and potentialities I had not conceived. Sometimes, I tame these wild impulses and end up with the weapon I designed, merely embellished by its experience within the strange forge of my mind. Sometimes these mysterious modifications result in something unexpected, perhaps even something revelatory.
This process illuminates unknown passages within myself and draws links between seeming disparate concepts. I do not always know the meaning or intent of the finished work and am sometimes thrilled, sometimes disappointed, when I read it and experience it in this final stage of consumption or re-integration.
This creative process is almost beyond my control, but not quite. What is out of my grasp, however, is the impact my art could have on others. What they read, their experience of it, has its foundation in the same symbology, the same root of culture and language to some extent. Yet its impact and meaning are often very different things than such to me. Are they wrong, then, because they misinterpreted me and my concept; or can my words have multiple implications and subjective interpretations based upon the unique life narrative of each of my audience? How can the expressiveness of any piece of art supersede the subjective nature of our personal experience?
Robert, I'm going to table the interpretation phase of the discussion for later. You bring up all the difficult questions, and I want to discuss them. You'll have to forgive my sometimes Teutonic nature which wants to progress slowly through the issues. Right now I'm concentrating on the manipulation of the materials themselves. In the meanwhile…
I find your description of the creative process both poetic and similar to my own. That is, it is similar when I am doing truly exploratory creating which is the best kind. I am distrustful of artists who give lectures on "creativity". The market is full of books right now on how to be a more creative thinker. I fear that if the process were simply something that could be boiled down to a technique, it would loose its magical powers.
That being said, there is a joke amongst composers which I said at my recital in April. "What inspired you to write this music?" "A check and a deadline." There is another experience in the creative process. It happens when I am not doing what I termed above "exploratory creating". That is, sometimes, I do have a check and a deadline. Depending on the nature of the work, I will often utilize the discoveries that I have previously found within the tools of my specific medium. I still find surprises along the way. I still have the same sense of wonder and disappointment in the final product, but it is not as intense as when I am writing freely.
It seems that some artists discover a vocabulary and continue to work through and explore that language. Others, continually search for new vocabularies and new discoveries. I suppose my ideal could be summarized in a passage that you know well,
"We shall not seek from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
OK, if we begin with an analysis of the raw materials of art and of the manipulations thereof which are the creative process, we still have a lot of ideas to discuss. In music alone we have an infinite number of possible pitches that can be created through the modification of frequency and are within human sensory capacity. When you couple this with timbre, duration, and loudness you present a very broad palate of tools indeed. Also, these tones can be combined in myriad ways to create intervals and chords, which then create harmonics and varying tone qualities (remember the "side-bands" digital music guy from Dr. Lester's class?). And let's not forget the possibilities inherent in rhythm. As you know, there are many additional formats and refinements to play with on top of these. Further, lyrics and libretto, as well as visual stimuli can be added, revealing a vast potentiality for music alone. However, much of the result might be unlistenable by most standards and therefore our field narrows to a somewhat more finite, but still incredibly large amount of "raw material".
It can be presumed that everyone has access to these same materials, then. Why does one person turn out a cantata and another a can-can, while a third produces a monotonous drone? Your musicologist from our previous discussion cites culture and history (and rightly so as a musicologist is really an historian). This must be at least partly right. We are all influenced by a certain zeitgeist and formed by the systems of our respective societies. Certainly there are stylistic distinctions between works of different periods and of different regions or cultures.
Still, there is a commonality of human experience that seems to stretch from before history and looks to extend beyond our current era. Women give birth, people fall in love, crops are sown and harvested. There is anger, there is danger, there is joy. All humans seem to share in these to some capacity. All humans share the gift of language, the gift of rhythm, the perception of light and color and shape.
Even our stories seem to often overlap across cultural and geographical boundaries. There are myths of Great Floods found in old stories from Mesopotamia and from India and even from North America. It is possible that these all recount the same event as related from different perspectives or that syncretism has allowed disparate cultures to absorb ideas from one other. However it happens, these ideas and concepts have become nearly universal as discussed earlier.
So, what then makes any work of art unique from its creator's perception is the specific way these raw materials are utilized to form the piece. The specifics of why this note or this word and not another; why a semi-quaver and why a fermata. There is more to it than mere culture or Van Gogh's bold brush strokes and bright, gaudy colors would not contrast so with Monet's stippled shades in soft light.
Therefore we return again to the subjective, that complex inner world composed of the accretion of our experience, of our unique genetics, and of our inexplicable affinities and talents. Once again, it is not just our materials or our tools, it is not merely the world and its ideology, but rather the specific synthesis thereof that is unique to each individual. It is your "you"ness that makes your compositions different from Micheal Hedges or Ke$ha.
With this comes the question, "why"? Why do you make the artistic choices you do? Could you make others instead, or does your persona dictate your art? Also, is your unique reaction to the world and your specific interpretation of it through your music something programmed by your neural pathways? Is it some game of stimulus and response?
These are not just fundamental questions of art, they are fundamental questions of essence, of existence.
I am out of characters (you only get 4096 in any comment), but I will revisit this topic tomorrow.
Obviously brevity is not my greatest strength. But let me return to the thoughts I was working on last night and perhaps somehow condense them.
So, it seems we all have access to the same raw material for artistic creation: the same emotions, the same wealth of archetypes and stories, and the same common human experiences. However, each individual, because of their unique perspective and the choices they make, also has a private store of resources that, while similar to others, is truly their own. This cache, it seems, colors the universal materials by proximity, lending a little uniqueness to each emotion and archetype because of their interaction inside of the artist.
Similarly, we all have the same tools or types of tools ready for our use. Some may choose a djembe and some a piccolo, but all share in common notes and rhythms. But here, too, there is a private or personal element. In order to use these tools effectively, there is a requirement of "extra" knowledge and perhaps even of skill. There are eighty-eight keys on a keyboard, but only through patience and practice does one learn how and when to use them to create consonance or dissonance, to make a melody and its complimentary harmonies. So here we have secret knowledge and specialized skill.
One seems to develop this skill through repetition, through practice, and through derivation. One learns to play a song and then another. The act of learning and playing begins to open up the mind to the connections the original composer found among the notes and finds connections those tone combinations tingle within one's self.
For example, as you recall, I have a small amount of formal musical training and a somewhat larger amount of informal. I believe I can even right passable simple songs that others would derive enjoyment from. Others, without my subset of knowledge would fare much worse at even the simple melodies. They would fail because, while they had all the requisite materials and tools, they lack the skill and knowledge to utilize such. Similarly, I would fail were I to attempt to write a concerto of even a quartet because my knowledge is not developed enough to do so. I can draw a pretty picture, but I lack the specialized ability to use shades and perspective, to create depth out of my almost two-dimensional tools. Therefore I cannot paint "Waterlilies" of "Saturn…".
So the artist requires all of this, yet it still is not enough. Technical proficiency alone cannot permit an artist to convey, through his or her medium, these raw emotional materials and transfer them to the audience. They must also possess some magic, some gift that allows, as you put it, the emotions to combine and stick with the paint.
This subtle, holy gift must reside within the artist, however. It is not a trick of environment or science. We return to the materials. What has transposed them, maybe trans substantiated them, is the unique filter of the artist himself or herself. It is that unique well of experience that the artist, with their tools and skills, can tap into and apply.
Robert, I like this approach very much. In Buber's writing, he uses wonderful phrases to describe the process of the raw materials taking form. He suggests that "a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him.” The problem is that once that work is out in the world, it once again enters into the world of things and does not necessarily retain its power. It is only in special moments that the work can again "blaze up into presentness" and "body itself against us". I think that is interesting and a good way to talk about it. The materials are "transubstantiated" by the artist, but after that, they lose their holiness and enter the world of things until a special moment with an observer occurs.