Form and Expression

  1. Aesthetics and Everyday Life.

Some light can be cast on the problem of objectivity if we turn our attention away from both art and nature, and enquire into the place of aesthetic judgement in everyday life. In many commonplace activities aesthetic judgement has an important role: furnishing a room, laying a table, arranging objects on a desk; eating and speaking; playing a game. Most of these activities display the following characteristics:

(1) There is a choice of ways to carry them out, which are functionally equivalent. Hence there is no utilitarian argument for preferring one way over another.

(2) Nevertheless the decision to do things in one particular way is rational: the way is chosen because it seems right.

(3) In making the decision you are conscious of sending a signal to other people – about the kind of person you are, or the kind of social relations you are inviting.

(4) This signal is contained in the way things look or sound – in the experience of the chosen course of action.

An example: laying the table for important guests. Looking for just the right combination of opulence and modesty; just the right cutlery, plates and glasses to show respect for the guests without displaying your membership of another class from them; and so on. Think of all the motives here. But somehow these messages must be contained in the order of the table – not by throwing objects on to it, but by an arrangement. This ‘blessed rage for order’ is our way of closing redundacies in our choices: of making each decision fully rational and a manifestation of our rational nature. From the constant confrontation with choices of this kind, a kind of order is likely to emerge, as conventional solutions gather momentum, and people learn to ‘read’ the signs. This has lead some thinkers to speak of a ‘language’ of clothes, of design, and so on. We interpret each other’s aesthetic choices, and also aim to be interpreted. (This leads to confusion when people take the language metaphor seriously: as though aesthetic choices were simply a kind of code – hence the pseudo-science of semiotics, which is given a long run for its money by Barthes and others, but which is wrong from the start, because it confuses regularities with rules, and conventions with semantic constraints. Contrast semaphore signals.)

        The simple thought here is that our attempts to make things look right are associated with our desire to do right and be right. Manners fall into this category. We want to come before others in such a way that they can bear the look of us – so we don’t smear our food around, speak with our mouth full, and so on. We make gestures that can be looked at with pleasure: we try to use words in a way that appeals to our listeners, and so on – and this is again part of the search for decorum. The choice is aesthetic, concerning how things look and sound; yet it is also intricately connected with a vision of human society and its point. Conventions emerge inevitably, as we try to foresee the effect of our actions, and to guarantee the mutual understandings that we hope for. And these conventions can serve as standards – temporary, defeasible, but standards all the same. We don’t aim at disorder, since it destroys the attempt at coordination. Nevertheless, as emphasized last time, these rules should be seen as the by-product and not the ground of aesthetic judgement.

  1. Order and Style.

In addition to order, however, there is style: not the thing which unites me with others in a shared form of life, but the thing that distinguishes me from them, as the particular person I am. Style is a vital part of the artistic enterprise; but we witness it also in the aesthetics of everyday life. Flair in dressing, for example, which is not the same as an insistent originality, but consists rather in the ability to turn a shared repertoire of effects in a personal direction: to make each detail speak of me. Styles can resemble each other, and contain large overlapping idioms – like the styles of Haydn and Mozart or Coleridge and Wordsworth. Or they might be unique, like the style of Van Gogh, so that anyone who shares the repertoire is seen as a mere copier or pasticheur, and not as an artist with a style of his own. (Why should we think like that? It has something to do with our sense of human integrity: the unique style is one that has identified a unique human being, whose personality is entirely objectified in his work. It is very interesting to explore our reasons for saying that Mozart, who adopted and adapted the musical language of Haydn, is an original composer, whereas Utrillo, for example, is a derivative painter, even though he is recognizably himself, even when most obviously following Pissaro or Van Gogh.)

        Style must be perceivable: there is no such thing as hidden style. It shows itself, even if it does so in artful ways that conceal the effort and sophistication, as in the Chopin Mazurkas or the drawings of Klee. At the same time, it becomes perceivable by virtue of our comparative perceptions: it involves a standing out from norms that must also be subliminally present in our perception if the stylistic idioms and departures are to be noticed. In everyday life this is obvious: the flower in the buttonhole, the jug full of wine, the folded napkin: all such things spark off an experience of recognition in the observer, who sees a specific meaning in the specific detail precisely because he senses a background order without specific meaning, against which the gesture is to be measured. Why is the wine in a jug and not a bottle? What is it about this jug that draws my attention? Why should it be just there on the table? And so on.

        Such questions point us in the direction of the allusiveness of style. The jug alludes to a certain form of life: the mediterranean life in which rough wine is in plentiful supply, and in frictionless relation to both work and play. That is why the host chose a jug of roughly decorated earthenware, and why he put it in the middle of the table, signifying the easy-going use of it in which we help ourselves. These may not be conscious choices. The host is himself discovering, in the aesthetic endeavour, the meaning that he wishes to convey. The example shows the role of aesthetic choices in promoting self-knowledge – in coming to understand how you yourself fit in to the world of human meanings. (This thought underlies the Croce-Collingwood approach to expression.)

        Most ways of laying a table are stable explorations of the background: nothing specific is alluded to, and order is the operative goal – an order which does nothing to disturb our perceptions but which radiates a simple message of calm sociability. The hostess with style turns that order in another direction, alluding to matters that she makes visibly present at the table, and which inhabit the look of things like a narrative.

        When we study this kind of allusiveness in art we are clearly very close to the kind of meaning for which art is valued. The point is often made that works of art express or communicate a content to us, and that we understand them through recuperating that content.

  1. Content and Form.

That suggestion immediately raises a problem that has become familiar in aesthetics, in literary criticism, and in the study of the arts generally: how can you separate the content of a work of art from its form? And if you could separate it, would that not just show that it is irrelevant to the aesthetic goal, no part of what the work really means? Suppose you ask me what is the content of Van Gogh’s famous painting of the yellow chair. What exactly does it mean? you ask: what am I supposed to understand, about this chair, or about the world, from looking at this picture? I might reply: it’s a chair, that’s all. In which case, you say, what’s so special about the picture? Wouldn’t a photograph of a chair do just as well? Why travel all these miles to see a picture of a chair? I reply that you haven’t seen the point: this painting is saying something special about this particular chair, and also about the world as seen through this chair. What, then? you ask. I might try to put my thoughts and feelings into words. ‘It is an invitation to see the life that spreads from people into all their products, the way in which life radiates from the meanest things, so that nothing is at rest, all is becoming’ – or whatever. Well, you respond, couldn’t he have written that message on the bottom of the canvas? Why does he need a chair to communicate a thought like that? I am likely to respond that my words are only a gesture; that the real meaning of the painting is bound up with, inseparable from, the image – that it resides in the very shapes and colours of the chair, and cannot be translated completely into another idiom.

        We are all familiar with this kind of argument, whether about painting, about poetry or about music. We want to say that works of art are meaningful – they are not just interesting forms in which we take an unexplained delight. They are acts of communication, which present us with a meaning; and this meaning must be understood. Often we will say of a performer, that he did not understand the role he was playing. We listen to abstract music, like the quartets of Bartók and Schoenberg, and perhaps say that we do not understand them. And so on. And all this reference to meaning and understanding suggests that works of art are communicating a content, maybe that each work of art – or at any rate each work of any note – has its own peculiar content, which we must understand if we are to appreciate the work and have a sense of its value. Some works have changed the way we see the world – Goethe’s Faust, for example, Beethoven’s late quartets, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Vergil’s Aeneid, Michelangelo’s Moses. For people who don’t know those works of art, or equivalent masterpieces, the world is a different – and we are inclined to say, less interesting – place.

        Yet, when it comes to saying, of any particular work of art, just what its content might be, we find ourselves very soon reduced to silence. The meaning does not reside in a content that could be identified just anyhow. It is a particular content as presented – seen, in other words, as inseparable from its form. Thus we arrive at what has become a critical commonplace, which is the thesis of the inseparability of form and content. A particular version of this thesis in the realm of literary criticism goes by the name of the ‘heresy of paraphrase’ – an expression due to the critic, Cleanth Brooks, author of The Well Wrought Urn, leading light of the so-called ‘New Criticism’, and also of the movement in American literature known as the Southern Agrarians. The heresy to which Brooks referred is that of thinking that the meaning of a poem can be contained in a paraphrase; from which you can easily proceed to the thought that it is a heresy to think that it can be contained in a translation. (Si bella infidele; si fidele brutta, as the Italians express it.) The idea here is less simple than it looks. Brooks is pointing to several features of poetry that do not have to belong together. First, there is the fact that a line of poetry can express several thoughts simultaneously, whereas a paraphrase will at best lay them out in succession. For instance, the line ‘bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’, describes both the trees in autumn and the recently ruined choirs of the monasteries that were still frequented in Shakespeare’s youth. A paraphrase would give one of those readings, and then the other; but the power of the line consists partly in the fact that you hear them together, like simultaneous voices in music – and then the doom of autumn invades the image of the ruined monastery, just as the idea of sacrilege invades the image of the leafless tree.

        Secondly, there is the fact that meaning is also lost in any paraphrase. You could paraphrase the first line of Hamlet’s famous speech as ‘To live or to die: that’s the choice’; or ‘to exist or not to exist; the choice is mine’. But Shakespeare wanted the verb ‘to be’, with all its metaphysical resonance, as touching the very mystery of the universe – which is already a question, and an insoluble one, coming to the surface in this existential anxiety confronted by me, the prince. It is not just the meaning and association of words that count towards their sense in poetry. The sound too is important – and not just sound, sound as organized by syntax, and shaped as a language. So, thirdly, there is the sheer untranslateability of affects and effects in poetry. How could you render in English the ineffable melancholy of ‘ Les sanglot longs/ Des violons/ De l’automne’? ‘The long sighs of autumn’s violins’ is just absurd, though it means the same.

        And yet, we don’t want to conclude that the meaning of a poem, or of any other work of art, is simply mysterious, so intimately bound up with the form (with the sounds and their syntax) that nothing can be said about it. I have said a lot about those three examples already. True, there are examples where it is difficult to say anything – the poems of Celan, for instance. The imagery might be too dense to disentangle, too much a matter of suggestion, concerned indeed to avoid direct statement, lest the intensity of the experience be lost. But for the most part you can say much about the meaning of a poem, a painting – even a work of music. The point is, however, that what you say will not explain the particular intensity of meaning which makes the work of art into the irreplaceable vehicle of the thought that it conveys.

  1. Representation and Expression.

Here philosophers make a distinction between two kinds of meaning in art: representation and expression. The distinction goes back to Croce and his English disciple Collingwood, though it corresponds to thoughts that have been around for far longer. It seems that works of art can be meaningful in at least two ways – by presenting a world (whether real or imaginary) that is independent of themselves, as in prose narrative, theatre or figurative painting, or by carrying their meaning intrinsically within them. The first kind of meaning is often called ‘representation’, since it implies a relation between the work and its world of a symbolic kind. Representation can be judged to be more or less realistic – i.e. more or less in conformity with the generality of the things and situations described. It admits of translation and paraphrase; two works of art can represent the same thing, situation or event; and an accurate representation may nevertheless be meaningless as a work of art – either because what it represents is meaningless, or because it fails to convey anything about its subject-matter. All those features caused Croce to dismiss representation as inessential to the aesthetic enterprise. It is at best a frame upon which the artist composes, but never in itself the source of the meaning of his work. Of course, you must still understand the representational content of a work if you are to understand its artistic meaning: and this may require critical, historical and iconographical knowledge. But someone could understand a representation and take no aesthetic interest in it; and it can be a good representation without eliciting such an interest – as most B movies are good representations of absurd events involving boring people to no aesthetic effect.

        The burden of artistic meaning, however, lies not with representation but with expression. And this, for Croce, was the essence of aesthetic value. Works of art express things, and even abstract art, like instrumental music or abstract painting, can be an effective milieu for expression. So what does this mean? What is expressed? How do we understand expression? and why is it a value? One suggestion is that works of art express emotion, and that this is of value to us because it acquaints us with the human condition, and arouses our sympathies for experiences that we do not otherwise undergo. But clearly works of art don’t express emotion in the way that you express your anger by shouting at your son, or your love by speaking gently and affectionately to him. Most works of art are not created in a sudden heat of passion; nor do we have the knowledge that will enable us to say what passion it is that motivated the author. Even when an artist refers to the emotion that is allegedly conveyed by his work, we may not believe that his description is the correct one. Beethoven prefaced the slow movement of Op. 132 with the description ‘Hymn of thanksgiving from the convalescent to the Godhead’. Suppose you respond by saying ‘To me it is just a serene expression of contentment, and convalescence seems far from what it means’. Does that show that you have not understood the movement? Why is Beethoven any better placed than you, to put words to the feeling conveyed by his music? Maybe you, as critic, are better able to describe the emotional content of a piece of music than the composer. There are plenty of artists who are awoken by criticism to the meaning of their own works: T.S. Eliot and Helen Vendler, e.g.

        In fact all attempts to describe the emotional content of works of art seem to fall short of their target. The feeling does not have an independent life: it is there in the notes and the words, and all attempts to extract it and trap it in a description seem lame and inadequate when set beside the work. In response to this objection Croce presented an ingenious theory. Representation, he argued, deals in concepts – general capacities that describe their subject matter, and which open the way to translations and equivalences. Expression, however, deals in intuitions – particular and unique experiences, that are conveyed not in terms of generalities, but by communicating their irreplaceable uniqueness. That is what is going on in art – the communication of individual experiences, in the unique form that does not admit of generalisation, but which identifies their individuality. This is what we mean by expression; and it is why artistic expression is so valuable – it presents us with the unconceptualised uniqueness of its subject-matter.

        The theory takes away with one hand what it gives with the other. It seems to be saying that works of art have meaning because of a relation – expression – to the item (the intuition) that is their meaning, and that this item explains their importance in something like the way that the thought expressed by a sentence explains its significance in communication. But then it insists that there is no access to that intuition except in terms of the unique expression that identifies it. If asked to identify the intuition expressed by some given work of art, the only answer is to point to that work of art, and to say that it is the intuition contained in this. That which seemed like a relation (expression) is no such thing, and to say that a work of art expresses an intuition is like saying that it is identical with itself. We are back with the old form and content problem – wanting to insist on a distinction, in order only to dismiss it as unreal.

        There have been many attempts in recent years to revisit and reanimate the distinction between representation and expression, and also to give accounts of expression that will show why it is important, and how it captures that element of the aesthetic experience that we are inclined to describe in terms of meaning. We have witnessed semantic, semiotic, cognitive and similar theories of expression, and attempts – in the philosophy of music especially – to give theories as to how emotion is expressed in art, and why this is important. All these theories are useless, in my view.

  1. Back to Beauty.

Works of art are not the only things we regard as beautiful; natural objects, human forms, landscapes – these are for many people the primary objects of aesthetic interest. And when we find them beautiful we also often find them meaningful too. But we don’t deduce from the fact that they are meaningful that they have a meaning – in the sense of some definite content, something that they stand for, like the meaning of a sentence, or the historical relations conveyed by a heraldic shield. From my window I see a landscape in the Blue Ridge: pasture eaten down by cows, streams that divide the meadows, wooded hills on which a few log-cabins protrude from among the trees; old fences of locust wood and a stone corale for cows. This is, for me, a meaningful landscape as well as a beautiful one. It brings to mind a history of settlement, of conflicts and covenants, of cruelties and festivities; it is hill-billy country, with traditions of music, myth-making and moonshine; and it is impossible to observe it without thinking of all the generations who have passed across it, struggling with the heat and the vegetation and spilling their energy in the attempt to domesticate it, an attempt that was finally successful. All that goes towards making the landscape meaningful in my eyes. But it would be absurd to describe the landscape as an expression of those reflections, in the way that a sentence expresses a thought. The landscape is an expression of nothing; for although marked by human effort and intention, it is not an act of communication – unless from God. The landscape is meaningful because of its beauty, and because I can – in enjoying its beauty – simultaneously call to mind the form of life that was bred in it. Somehow I read the thoughts to which the landscape gives rise into its appearance: it does not symbolize these thoughts in the way that a sentence symbolizes the things to which it refers. Its appearance is in some way transfigured by them. And they, in turn, are transfigured by the appearance. There is a peculiar synthesis achieved here, and it is achieved in me. It is as though the experience of beauty creates a mental vortex in the one who feels it, and into this vortex neighbouring thoughts and emotions are drawn, and refocused on the beautiful object. My reflections become part of the appearance of the thing whose beauty engages my attention.

        It is difficult to put this into words, but I think we are all familiar with it. And the fusion of the aesthetic experience with reflective thought that occurs when I study a landscape surely provides a model for what goes on when I appreciate the meaningfulness of a work of art. Sure, an artist or composer intended me to find a meaning in his work. But the meaning that I find is also a meaning that I bring. And the artist himself has no way of formulating that meaning in advance of the work: it is as much a discovery for him, as it is for me, that the reflective significance that comes to inhabit the beautiful form should succeed in doing so.

        You could still speak of expression here. You could say that the artist is finding the form that matches, evokes or corresponds to his inner feeling. But you would have to add an important qualification, which is that there are not two things here – the feeling, and the thing that corresponds to it. There is only one thing, which is the process of artistic creation which, once achieved, makes possible the feelings which have precisely this as their object. Hegelians might here refer to the self-realization of the artist, who makes real his own emotion in the act of discovering it. But there is no need to add that metaphysical flourish. The point is that artistic creation generates objects onto the appearance of which we can focus a whole range of thoughts and feelings, so as to encounter in the world of objective appearances what is otherwise felt only inchoately within.

Read Lecture 4: The Place of Beauty.