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An utterance expresses a thought; a cry expresses grief or pain; a poem may express nostalgia or energy. The simplest view would be that any action that makes public or communicates a state of mind thereby expresses it. However, a mere signal seems not to express what it signals, and a mere statement (‘I feel nostalgic about the sixties’) does not express nostalgia in the way that a poem does. It seems that expression requires some concept of the action being an adequate or successful rendering of what is expressed. The words or other actions should somehow fit the states they express. The problem is to understand this conception of fit.

In aesthetic theory, a popular view is that a work of art derives its effect by expressing the feelings of its creator. The view that this is their value was forcibly presented by Croce and Collingwood and probably strikes many artists as correct. It raises the problem of the existence, and nature, of these feelings before they take shape in words, painting, or whatever other medium is chosen. In The Principles of Art (1938), Collingwood insisted that true artistic activity takes place ‘in the head’, before anything is embodied in the actual medium of the artist. The creation of an artwork is then just a matter of craft, following on the real creative moment. This theory is a manifestation of Romanticism, in that the artist is now singled out as the person of extraordinary feeling or sensibility, rather than the person of particular skills. The view can be seen as a vindication of expressionism in art, as seen in the use of exaggeration and distortion for emotional effect. But it requires undue confidence in the idea of a determinate (and interesting) inner life with its own properties, existing independently of any actual externalization. If expression is to retain a central place in aesthetic theory, a closer connection between what is expressed and the nature of the work expressing it is needed. Thus a musical movement expresses feeling not just because someone with a feeling hit upon it as a good movement to write, but because the feeling is an appropriate or fitting response to the work. The actual feelings of the artist are then no longer central, and the success of the work does not depend upon its relationship to any such previous episode as the artist feeling sad or happy. The problem for aesthetics remains that of understanding why particular sounds may be sad or funny, or why particular lines or colours in a painting can be energetic or graceful.

Subjects: Art — Philosophy.


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