Saturday, August 10, 2013

Does a Work of Art Always Express the Emotions of the Artist?

Does a work of art always express the emotions of the artist?

Ted Gracyk thinks that the answer to this question is “no.” (By contrast, I would say "yes.")  His objections are based on some credible examples.[1]  First, Muddy Waters denied that his songs were autobiographical or that he accepted the superstitions encountered there.  This counterexample would seem to work against a theory like Leo Tolstoy’s about the value of self-expression, i.e. that for self-expression to be good it must be a sincere expression of emotions one has felt in one’s own life.  However, let’s back up a bit.  Few people not bewitched by assumptions of contemporary philosophy would think that this would show that Muddy Waters was not expressing himself.   Artists express themselves:  that is what they do (this is the common sense position, and one never really refuted by philosophers).  Maybe Muddy Waters was not expressing himself sincerely (although I  reject this view, as will become clear below), but he was creating a representation that in some sense represented his own way of seeing things, including his own emotions.  One does not have to have a one-to-one correlation between a felt emotion and an emotion found in a work for that work to be a self-expression of the artist.  Self-expression can be, and usually is, much more subtle than this.  Consider Gracyk’s second example against the thesis that art involves self-expression of one’s emotions.  He notes that a novel such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings involves several characters, and asks “Is it plausible that Tolkien was always expressing his own emotional experiences in the emotions displayed” by such diverse characters.  The answer is that Tolkien was certainly expressing something about his emotional attitudes towards each one of these characters.  There is perhaps an ambiguity here.  Gracyk thinks that expressing one’s own emotional experiences requires that one have the character feel a feeling that one has directly felt oneself.  However, an artist can put him or herself into the mind of another, and a feeling can be one that has little to do with his or her own life, and still be an expression, even a sincere one.  Similarly, Gracyk denies that actors and actresses are engaged in self-expression, since clearly the emotions of the characters they portray have different life-stories than their own.  But, again, this goes against common sense.  Actors constantly talk about how they are expressing themselves on stage or in a film by way, for example, of their identification with the character they portray.  Again, art as a form of self-expression is not a one-to-one matter.  Self-expression for an actor involves creation of a character, and this involves a kind of fusion of the emotional life of the artist (in this case the actor) and the character.  For example, there is nothing in the script that says that the character must have the physical features of the actor who portrays him.  And yet the actor uses his “instrument,” i.e. his body and his repertoire of gestures and speech intonation to accomplish this.  This is what self-expression amounts to for an actor.  It is helpful to see self-expression of this sort as a fusion of the self with a fictional other.  Gracyk is right that the great actor Lawrence Olivier is not engaged in self expression of his own emotions when he plays Hamlet but only in the sense that he is not engaged in portraying prominent emotions associated with his own life-story when he is an actor on stage portraying a particular character (with his own life story).  Instead, however, he is expressing himself by way of using his instrument to express the emotions of the character in his (Olivier’s) unique way:  and this is a form of creative self-expression.  This is why acting can be rewarding:  people find it satisfying to express themselves, even in ways not directly related to their personal lives.  However, this is not to say that referring to one’s own life is irrelevant:  indeed, many actors try to find some part of their personal lives that relates to the experience of the character in order to effect a better fusion, a better self-expression.  Sincerity can come in here as well.  It would be silly to accuse Shakespeare of insincerity in providing us with a fascinating character such as Othello without ever having experienced such an extreme of jealousy.  Shakespeare’s sincerity is a function of how honest he is in his portrayal of Othello:  for example, whether he panders to the audience (which he definitely does not do.)  Tolstoy’s problem of course is that he believed that self-expression should be a one-to-one between a directly felt emotion of the artist and the emotion felt by the audience.  He thinks that   the boy who tells a story about his encounter with a wolf should give his audience exactly the feeling he had, if he is to sincerely express his emotions.   And I agree that if the boy achieves this infection then this is a powerful and valuable thing.  However, if he never encountered the wolf but is still able to express himself through telling a story (i.e. use his own emotions, for example emotions of sympathy for another boy who had this wolf encounter, or for a fictional boy imagined by him to have such an encounter) to infect his audience then this is sufficient for the experience to be one of art.  This slight revision of Tolstoy saves us from the danger that the great works of art in history fail to be art:  they transmit emotion and they express emotion, but the emotions felt by the audience need not be the same as those that are expressed by the artist, and the emotions expressed by the artist need not be the ones hypothetically experienced by the characters in the play or figures in the painting.  Also, sincere expression of emotion is possible in music.  And most music is expression of emotion of some sort.  Beethoven need not have been sad when producing a sad musical work, but his experience of creating such a work is nonetheless emotionally expressive.  The artist must express emotion since one cannot do anything without expressing emotion.  As Dewey observed, every experience (including the experience of creating), has an emotional quality that gives it a pervading sense.  We cannot escape self-expression, although sincere self-expression is difficult to achieve.

[1] Theodore Gracyk.  The Philosophy of Art (Polity, 2012) 25-28.

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