6 Minute Read
Ideology controls thought. All too often, we uncritically accept propositions as if they were true, and examine neither the history nor the logic of such "truths." Unexamined assumptions mutate into myths, and we blindly navigate through life and art using these myths as beacons. From proposition to truth to myth, ideas sometimes evolve to the point where they finally pervade every aspect of thought and action.
Recently, I conducted an experiment in a college level jewelry class. In a questionnaire, I asked the students what they thought the purpose of art was. Without exception, they answered that art is a form of expression, and most specified it to be self-expression. Amazing! In the art school subculture, where students pride themselves for their nonconformity, here was a total uniformity of opinion. One theory of art has achieved such power and status that it is accepted without question, as if it was a natural fact. We breathe air. We will die someday. Art is self-expression. Yet, the class knew neither that expressionism is only one of several competing theories of art, nor were they aware that it is, historically, a fairly recent theory.
Expressionism in the visual arts is rooted in the Romantic movement of the 18th century. Broadly, expression in an artwork has three aspects: as representation of an emotion experienced by the artist; as communication of feeling between artist and her audience; and as an art object embodying an emotion. In each case, reference to subjective emotion is essential and some degree of communication between artist and public is implicit. The first case focuses on the artist as a vessel of emotion, although it is generally accepted that the feeling in question is not necessarily experienced at the moment of creation. (Sustaining a single emotion for the duration of making a piece of jewelry would be well-nigh impossible, for instance.) The second case assumes that empathy between audience and artist is essential, and aesthetic pleasure is primarily a matter of identifying with the artwork. The third case presupposes either a natural or a socially determined code for reading emotion, and claims the artwork consists of a language of marks that serve as a physical manifestation of feeling.
The Romantic era was especially interested in genius and inspiration. The artist, it was held, was a sensitive creature blessed with an extraordinary gift of perception (which the Greeks claimed was attainable only by divine madness ) and feeling (now debased to the idea of "talent"). Theoretically, the artist has access to imaginings and feelings that the normal person is incapable of experiencing. The value of art lies in experiencing, vicariously, the highly refined sensitivity of the gifted artist. In context, this theory implies that the artist is not tied to representing immediate physical objects, but can imagine scenes that more vividly express her emotion. Seeing the artist as a receptacle of singular, emotional sensitivity turned attention away from rules of ideal beauty and toward her subjective condition.
But still, the feelings expressed in worthy art were supposed to be beyond the capability an ordinary person's direct perception. The theory assumes the genius of the artist to see and feel things that the rest of us are denied. Art, then, becomes an instrument by which the audience experiences the artist's subjective feeling-state, and it can be judged by the efficiency by which it communicates those feelings.
My students knew nothing of this. For them, expression was a simple matter: they feel something, and then stuff it into a bag called "art". No further questions were ever asked. For most, their emotions did not even need to be communicated. Instead, art was mostly a matter of externalizing feeling, and no concern was given to their audience. Some students bristled when I suggested that, because their expression was strictly a private matter, they could be easily misunderstood. Having expressed themselves, they were utterly unconcerned what anybody else might think. And I certainly didn't have the heart to suggest that their feelings were not very different from any of their peers'. Disgust with shopping malls or anger at mom & dad were hardly emotions their audience were incapable of experiencing without the inspiration and talent of the artist. All my students trusted that their experience, even if it was ordinary as mud, would be magically transformed into art as soon as it was expressed. Questions of the quality or significance of their experience were never raised.
Nor did they understand that, in the history of art education, this emphasis on self-expression is very recent. Learning about art used to be a matter of aspiring to a specific and difficult goal, whether it be the imitation of natural form, the representation of beauty or the rational redesign of the world. A century ago, an art student learned to draw from plaster casts of Greek and Roman statuary, in order to comprehend the standards of classical beauty. In the Bauhaus, students learned principles of abstract composition and applied them to mass-production technologies, so that the future worker's paradise would be inexpensive, efficient, and hygienic. Personal emotions did not enter into either system. In almost every age but our own, an absolute trust in subjectivity as method and justification for making art would have been utter nonsense. It has only been since the ascendancy of American "action painting", with its emphasis on gesture, accident, and the ostensible heroic struggle of the painter, that the outpouring of emotion has taken center stage in art education.
My students seemed to think that self-expression is the beginning and end of art. They were willing to learn technique, but mostly because they believed more skill would afford more efficiency in expressing their feelings. Learning composition and color theory was less compelling, because most could not understand how these skills would help. They were obviously unimpressed when I suggested that other theories might be more reasonable, or that numerous historical contexts exist for their work. What did that stuff have to do with feeling? For them, the circle was already complete: having expressed themselves, any considerations of larger meanings were irrelevant.
I do not condemn the expression of feeling. In fact, I believe that every student must come to grips with her feelings, and learn to express them. Feeling is the most direct and honest of subject matters. But personal emotion should serve as a platform for engagement with the rest of the world. I cannot believe that the central purpose of art (or craft) is self-expression. It is altogether too self-centered, too self-serving. It's an interminable extension of the "Me decade", wherein anything beyond our immediate emotional grasp merits scant attention. Visual art used to be the primary vehicle for communicating shared perceptions about society art, life, and cosmology. Art underlined the connections between the individual and the larger world. But this profound emphasis we now place on the self, and its every emotional tremor, diminishes the power of art to speak to others. The kind of expressionism my students believed is a theory become myth, and a myth grown crazy. Uncritical adherence to this myth results in a starved, poverty-striken art. Isn't it time to turn away from the self, and start to attend to the world?
Bruce Metcalf writes a regular column for Metalsmith.
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