There are many connections between artworks and emotions, and this chapter aims at describing the ones that are philosophically significant. For this reason, it will focus on the Expression Theory of Art and its main alternatives.
We can describe artworks as sad or cheerful for instance, and more generally as expressing emotions such as enthusiasm, admiration, and desperation. To take famous examples, Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream expresses anxiety; Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Infanta the sadness of mourning; George Miller’s movie Mad Max the rage in front of the loss of kinship. But how are we supposed to understand and explain this connection between artworks and emotions in terms of expression? And is expression the only relation between artworks and emotions? In this chapter, we will explore three main alternatives: the first section develops the idea that artworks express the artist’s emotions; the second that art elicits and represents emotions independently of the artist’s emotions; and the third that art can be said to express emotions by themselves.
Let’s present these alternatives more closely. The first one is generally termed the Expression Theory of Art: if artworks can be described with the vocabulary of emotions, as expressing emotions, it is because they express the artist’s emotions. An additional feature is that this expression of the artist enables the audience to experience these emotions. But it seems necessary to assess such a theory: is it legitimate to explain the sadness of a poem by saying that it actually expresses the sadness of its creator? The second theory involves no reference to the artist’s emotions. A more central relation lies between the artwork and the audience, as the former is made to elicit emotions in the latter or represent emotions for the latter. However, what is the difference between elicitation and representation? And what is the connection between representing and expressing emotions? The third alternative defends precisely the idea that artworks can be said to express emotions themselves, without being necessarily connected to the artist’s emotions or those of the audience.
A historical remark must first be made in order to bring out the specificity of this issue. That artworks express the artist’s emotions is an idea that appears with romanticism, at the beginning of the 19th century. Before this period, another conception of artworks is predominant: they were considered as representations of reality. This concept of representation can be understood in many ways and raises issues, but the most important for this chapter is that this concept of representation was more or less supplanted by the concept of expression, as can be seen for instance in the famous claim of the English romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850) in his preface to Lyrical Ballads: “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth and Coleridge  1991, 237). Even if, according to Wordsworth, “our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts” (237) and his aim was to describe and colour ordinary life, the expression of emotions became central, a criterion not only for judging but also defining poetry, and later any kind of art.
The Expression Theory of Art
In this section, we will begin with a description of the Expression Theory of Art, following the path of two famous defenders of it: Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) in What is Art? and R.G. Collingwood (1889–1943) in The Principles of Art. Then we’ll consider several criticisms that can be addressed to this theory.
Suppose you find and describe such or such poem as expressing anger; it is rather natural to try to explain it by saying that the poem expresses the artist’s anger. More precisely, the mention of the artist’s anger functions here both as a justification of our description, and as an explanation of the poem itself, in the sense that the poet is supposed to have experienced such a feeling and produced the poem according to his feeling. However, it is possible to refine this ordinary explanation using literary and philosophical resources.
Tolstoy presents the Expression Theory of Art in the 5th chapter of What Is Art? Its first four chapters are devoted to beauty, insofar as beauty is very often considered as a criterion to distinguish between art and non-art. Tolstoy criticises such a use of the idea of beauty in order to propose another measure: the expression of emotions. The idea of beauty is particularly contentious, and as such it can’t provide a definition of art. This is why Tolstoy considers another option, shifting art into a more general framework: “the conditions of human life” (Tolstoy 1904, 47). Art is supposed to be one of these conditions of human life, or more precisely, “one of the means of intercourse between man and man” (47). Tolstoy then defines art in this way:
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling—this is the activity of art.
Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them. (Tolstoy 1904, 50)
This definition implies, firstly, the presence of an artist, an audience, and an emotion; secondly, that the transfer of emotion from the artist to the audience is intentional (“consciously”); thirdly, that this requires an inward evocation and a clarification of what is experienced; fourthly, that the expression is based on specific artistic media (movements, lines, colours, sounds, words).
Thus Tolstoy puts together the elements of a dynamic model of art, emphasizing agents, action, and the means entailed in the experience and practice of art. Such a model is for Tolstoy more appropriate than the criterion of beauty insofar as it grasps the nature of art via its practice.
Collingwood similarly highlights these aspects of art, using the concept of expression to define art in his own version of the Expression Theory. However, his relevance and added value in comparison with Tolstoy lies in the distinction he draws between bringing out emotions and artistic expression:
When a man is said to express emotion, what is being said about him comes to this. At first, he is conscious of having an emotion, but not conscious of what this emotion is. All he is conscious of is a perturbation or excitement which he feels going on within him, but of whose nature he is ignorant. While in this state, all he can say about his emotion is: “I feel … I don’t know what I feel.” From this helpless and oppressed condition he extricates himself by doing something which we call expressing himself. This is an activity which has something to do with the thing we call language: he expresses himself by speaking. It has also something to do with consciousness: the emotion expressed is an emotion of whose nature the person who feels it is no longer unconscious. It also has something to do with the way in which he feels the emotion. As unexpressed, he feels it in what we called a helpless and oppressed way; as expressed, he feels in a way from which this sense of oppression has vanished. His mind is somehow lightened and eased. (Collingwood 1960, 109–10)
At the beginning of the process of creation, there isn’t an identified “ready-made” emotion waiting for its expression, but what Collingwood calls a perturbation, an excitement; that is to say, an internal feeling, the nature and the cause of which are still undetermined. An activity, the expression of oneself (the paradigm of which is language) clarifies, makes the perturbation conscious, and transforms it into an emotion, while alleviating the individual’s perturbation. Thus, Collingwood considers the expression of the emotions in a deeper and a more subtle way, describing more precisely its actions and effects in individuals, but leaving aside other dimensions taken into account by Tolstoy, such as the necessity of an audience and the means of artistic expression. This provides the starting point of the next section.
The audience, the identity, and the existence of emotions in artistic creation
The expression theory of art by both Tolstoy and Collingwood are questionable, and we’ll raise objections corresponding to their main elements.
The first objection deals with the necessity of an audience to which to communicate the emotions. An interesting feature of Collingwood’s (1960) version of this theory is that “the expression of an emotion by speech may be addressed to someone; but if so it is not done with the intention of arousing a like emotion in him” (110, italics mine). This introduces a difference with Tolstoy’s version. According to the latter, art consists, as an activity, in passing on emotions to other people; whereas, according to the former, the relation of art to an audience is only a possibility, not a necessity. The consequence is that there are actually two versions of Expression Theory of art, named by Noël Carroll in Philosophy of Art respectively the “transmission theory” and the “solo theory” (Carroll 1999, 65).
What is the issue? The objection to the transmission theory is that “one can make a work of art for oneself” without trying to publish it (e.g., literature) or to exhibit it (e.g., painting, sculpture) (Carroll 1999, 67). Someone else who would read or see it would deem it as an artwork, but if the artist hides it, the work is still an artwork. The rejoinder is that the mere fact of writing a poem, or producing a painting, or creating a piece of music, is a use of public media that makes the emotions public, which “indicate[s] an intention to communicate to others” (67).
A solution can be developed from two similar remarks. Firstly, there is a distinction between an actual and a potential audience. An artist may not want to address such or such audience, but create an artwork designed to communicate to a potential audience. Secondly, one can question the intention to communicate to others, without questioning the communication itself. Even if it is not the intention of an artist to communicate emotions to others, an artwork can nevertheless communicate emotions. These two remarks converge in the idea that communication is a potentiality, not necessarily an intention nor even a fact. This potentiality is actualised if the artwork is presented to a public. This idea preserves both the idea that one can make a work of art for oneself, and that the medium used is publicly accessible.
There is a second objection one can make against the transmission version. It deals with the identity of the emotion supposed to be communicated from the artist to the audience. “Identity” means firstly that the audience experiences the same emotion as the artist, which implies that the artist experienced this emotion and transmits it. But is this necessarily the case? A poet can express a feeling of sorrow, but the audience feels admiration for this expression. Let’s take for instance Victor Hugo’s poem “Tomorrow, At Dawn” (1856), related to the death of his daughter:
At dawn tomorrow, when the plains grow bright,
I’ll go. You wait for me: I know you do.
I’ll cross the woods, I’ll cross the mountain-height.
No longer can I keep away from you.
I’ll walk along with eyes fixed on my mind—
The world around I’ll neither hear nor see—
Alone, unknown, hands crossed, and back inclined;
And day and night will be alike to me.
I’ll see neither the gold of evening gloom
Nor the sails off to Harfleur far away;
And when I come, I’ll place upon your tomb
Some flowering heather and a holly spray. (Hugo 2004, 199)
The emotion expressed and the emotion experienced may not be the same: Hugo expresses sadness, annihilation, and isolation, whereas the audience may well feel sadness, but also compassion, and perhaps more generally admiration, in response to such an expression of love.
“Identity” also refers to the identification of the emotions. Is the audience supposed to experience “these” emotions, as if it were possible to clearly identify our emotions? One can highlight the generality and vagueness of certain emotions. They are not necessarily individualised, but general, shared, and they are not necessarily clearly defined, but vague. In the example above, emotions overlap, and some of them are explicitly mentioned, others only suggested. It is true that this could be precisely the function of artworks to individualise and define our emotions. But such an idea fits only with a part of artistic practice: e.g., poetry is only sometimes an evocation of entangled emotions.
Ultimately, the Expression Theory of Art assumes the artist’s experience of emotions. However it is not at all certain that she must experience this emotion herself. Does a writer of a thriller experience fear, so that the thriller expresses and produces fear in the audience? It is likely they experience excitement in trying to produce fear. This objection does not deal anymore with the identity of the emotion, but with its very existence, at the roots of the potential relation between the artist and the audience. Why should an artist even experience any emotion? Of course, it would be difficult to defend the idea of artists experiencing no emotion at all. But it does not mean that emotions are the cause, the reason, or the object of creation. In this sense, emotions are not always necessary to creation.
Eliciting and Representing Emotions
These criticisms do not imply the rejection of expression of/and emotions in art, but only of the idea that art must be defined as an expression of the artist’s emotions to an audience by certain means. Moreover, such a criticism allows other possible descriptions of the relation between artworks and emotions, such as elicitation and representation, which we consider in this section.
It is a classical idea of the rhetorical approach to literary works that they elicit emotions. Rhetoric describes the techniques by which one is able to produce reactions in an audience according to context. In the judicial field, the lawyer has to convince judges regarding past facts in order to win the case. In the political field, politicians and ordinary citizens have to convince each other to make a decision about the future, according to what is useful or detrimental to the country. In the field of public eulogies, the speaker has to praise or comfort. In all these cases, the rhetoric provides non-linguistic means such as advice about posture, gestures, etc., and linguistic means such as patterns of arguments (for instance, enthymemes) and figures of speech, that both play on and elicit emotional reactions, in order to convince and persuade.
Beyond these specific fields, literary criticism and more generally aesthetics use (among other things) the figures of speech studied and systematised by rhetoric. They do so in order not only to describe literary artworks and the style of artworks, but also to show the way artists and literary writers use these figures of speech as means to elicit emotions. Let’s consider the first stanza of Rimbaud’s “Orphans’ New Year Gifts” (1870):
The room is full of shadow and the sad
Faint whispering of two little ones,
Heads still heavy with dreams
Beneath the long white curtain, stirring slightly …
Outside, birds cluster for warmth,
Wings drooping against the grey sky.
And the New Year, dragging mist,
Trailing its snow-dress on the ground,
Smiles through tears, and shivers a song … (Rimbaud 2001, 3)
A significant feature is its general structure, organised around the contrast of two locations, a room and the outside, but also the continuity established between them by the echo of the shadow of the room in the sad whispering of the orphans, on one hand, and the mist of the New year and its “smile through tears,” on the other. But more important is the personification of the New Year, which drags mist, trails a snow-dress, smiles through tears, and shivers a song, as a presence outside that echoes the orphans’ sadness within. This figure of speech contributes to the eliciting of visual and emotional impressions, as a picture materialises gradually and a feeling of sadness arises, one that then envelops the whole stanza.
An alternative way to describe this elicitation of emotions can be found in T.S. Eliot’s essay on “Hamlet and His Problems,” under the label of “objective correlative.” There he tries to explain what is, according to him, Hamlet’s failure. A starting point is his agreement with the idea that “the essential emotion of the play is the feeling of a son [Hamlet] towards a guilty mother” (Eliot 1939, 144). If there is a failure, though, it lies in that “Hamlet is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, . . . that Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem” (145). By contrast, here is the rule T.S. Eliot defends:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. (Eliot 1939, 145)
The emotion of the play and, more generally, of a literary work is to be found in an objective correlative, which is an “exact equivalent” characterised by a “complete adequacy of the external to the emotion.” That’s to say, more concretely, the emotion is found in a description of situations, events, characters, reactions, that shows this emotion, and therefore in a full representation of the emotion that elicits it in the audience. According to T.S. Eliot one finds a good example of objective correlative in Macbeth:
You will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last events in the series. (Eliot 1939, 145)
Nevertheless, it would be superficial to present the elicitation of emotions as a causal production of emotion by means of figures of speech. As Danto puts it in his discussion of Aristotle and rhetoric in the last part of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace,
if it be anger they [rhetoricians] intend to arouse, they will know how to characterize the intended object of the anger in such a way that anger toward that object is the only justifiable response. . . . After all, like beliefs and actions–in contrast with bare perceptions and mere bodily movements–emotions–in contrast perhaps with bare feelings–are embedded in structures of justification. There are things we know we ought to feel given a certain characterization of the conditions we are under. (Danto 1981, 169)
To elicit emotions for a (literary) artwork is not merely a matter of causal relation: the artwork, its figures of speech, or its style, if successful, are such that one should have a determinate emotional response. In other words, not any emotion is admissible but only some of them are justifiable in front of a particular artwork.
To conclude this section, it is possible to argue that, even though artworks do not necessarily express the artist’s emotions, they elicit emotions in the audience by artistic means such as figures of speech in literary artworks, or representation of emotions in the choice of a certain “correlated” objectivity, such as a series of actions in a play or a set of forms and colours in a painting.
An Autonomous Expression
The idea defended in the last section, according to which artworks can represent emotions, allows us to come back to the notion of expression, but in a different way to the Expression Theory of Art elaborated in the first section. T.S. Eliot uses “representation” and “expression” almost indistinguishably, but these terms should be refined. What does it mean for artworks not only to represent but also to express emotions by themselves? A closer analysis of the notion of expression is needed here.
In our ordinary judgments, we talk about the sadness of a poem, the fact that a certain piece of music is described as joyful and another one as desperate, or that a particular style for a building is cold. Hence, the question: Can artworks be said to express emotions themselves? And why would it be a problem? As Oets K. Bouwsma explains in “The Expression Theory of Art,”
The use of emotional terms—sad, gay, joyous, calm, restless, hopeful, playful, etc.—in describing music, poems, pictures, etc., is indeed common. So long as such descriptions are accepted and understood in innocence, there will be, of course, no puzzle. But nearly everyone can understand the motives of [the] question “How can music be sad?” and of his impulsive “It can’t, of course.” (Bouswma 1959, 74)
How can we explain such a paradoxical use of emotional terms, which seems to be at the same time accepted and impossible? What is assumed in “Music can’t be sad” is “… as someone can be sad.” It is the reason why, according to Bouswma, it is interesting to consider and compare several uses of “sad,” such as: “Cassie is sad,” “Cassie’s dog is sad,” “Cassie’s book is sad,” and “Cassie’s face is sad.” In the first case, one can imagine Cassie learning the death of a next of kin and crying, or reading a wonderful but sad poem, and becoming sad herself, crying or not. In the second case, it makes sense to say that the dog can be sad, but could it cry? One does not expect the dog to express sadness in all the ways human beings do (a dog does not restrain its howls). One can paraphrase the third case saying that this book makes Cassie sad. And in the last case, one can easily describe obvious signs of sadness, however there is no guarantee that she is really sad.
What conclusion can we draw now as regards to the assertion “the music is sad”? This assertion is similar neither to Cassie being sad and crying because of a death in her family, nor to Cassie being sad but not crying, nor to her dog being sad but not crying: a song is neither crying nor holding back tears! It is much more similar to “the book is sad,” understood as producing sadness, but particularly as being sad in itself, as a face can be sad, be it a real face or a drawing: the book, the music, and the face express sadness themselves but in a specific way.
How can one account for this expression? Are these examples really on the same level? One can find an answer in Nelson Goodman’s theory of expression in Languages of Art, which is based on the concepts of exemplification and metaphor.
An expression can be considered as a kind of exemplification. Exemplification refers to a certain relation of something to some properties. For instance, a sample of fabric exemplifies cashmere, in that (1) it is made of cashmere and therefore possesses this property to be made of cashmere, (2) qua sample, it refers to this property. Indeed, something can refer to cashmere without possessing this property of being made of cashmere, as it is the case in a description of this fabric.
However, such a definition of exemplification is not enough to account for the description of an artwork as expressing such or such emotion. It is true that a sad poem possesses this property of being sad, and refers to sadness in general, but how could a sad poem be “made of sadness” or be described literally as sad? The poem is not described literally as sad but metaphorically; the possession of the property is not literal but metaphorical. Therefore, a poem exemplifies sadness in that (1) it refers to sadness and (2) possesses sadness (3) metaphorically.
One could object that this idea of metaphorical possession is obscure, as if only literal possession were without difficulty (for instance, in “this stone is hard”). However, among the different ways of describing things, events, people, etc., it is possible to attribute properties in a metaphorical way (and then to see in this possession an exemplification of the property in question). One could reply that, because it is a metaphor, the sadness is not “really” in the poem. However, the fact is that such a metaphorical description is sometimes far more objectively true than a literal one. To describe someone as a “Don Quixote” or a “Don Giovanni” (which means that this person possesses metaphorically and exemplifies the properties of Don Quixote or Don Giovanni) does not necessarily raise a question, whereas to describe literally such or such entity as a virus or an organism raises sometimes real difficulties and disagreements between scientists. In this sense, that a song or a poem expresses such or such emotion can be perfectly objective.
To conclude, there is certainly something right in the ordinary claim that artworks express emotions. This means that the issue lies somewhere else, in the philosophical accounts of such a claim. While a number of accounts can be found in contemporary philosophy, not all of them are likely to make sense of the ordinary claim about artwork’s expression of emotions.
More precisely, all the elements mentioned by Tolstoy are interesting for those who are passionate about arts: the relation of an artist and audience, the sharing of emotions, and the means used to do this. They all belong to our experience and practice of art, and one virtue of Tolstoy’s analysis is precisely to consider artworks in this broader context: our practices and experiences. At the same time, it raises a philosophical issue about what is essential in this general description if one wants to understand artworks’ specific feature regarding emotions: expressivity.
This chapter aims at showing the intrinsic expressivity of artworks, in addition to their capacity to elicit and represent emotions, ultimately leaving aside the artist’s and audience’s experience of emotions. The idea is neither to deny the reality of such an experience, nor its importance for the artist and the audience, but to highlight how artworks’ expressivity can be found in themselves, because they are themselves describable as expressing such or such emotion. To go further in this direction, one could say that the key to expressivity can be found in the functioning of works of art, for instance, the way a painting describes a landscape, possesses such or such characteristics (colours or lines), and refers to sadness or joy. What it is (characteristics) and what it does (description and reference) are central to understand how an artwork finally expresses emotions. The next step would be to come back to our experience and practice: How do they shape our ability to grasp the emotions expressed in artworks? What is the role of experience and practice in the understanding of the artwork’s expressivity?
Bouswma, Oets K. 1959. “The Expression Theory of Art.” In Aesthetics and Language, edited by William Elton, 73–99. Oxford: Blackwell.
Carroll, Noël. 1999. Philosophy of Art. London and New York: Routledge.
Collingwood, Robin G. 1960. The Principles of Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Danto, Arthur. 1981. The Transfiguration of the Commplace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. 1939. Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
Hugo, Victor. 2004. Selected Poems of Victor Hugo. Translated by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Goodman, Nelson. 1968. Languages of Art. Indianapolis: The Bobs-Merrill Company.
Rimbaud, Arthur. 2001. Collected Poems. Edited by Martin Sorrell. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tolstoy, Leo. 1904. What is Art? Translated by Aylmer Maude. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
Wordsworth, William and Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.  1991. Lyrical Ballads. Edited by R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
- Particularly in Great Britain with William Wordsworth’s poetry, for instance his Lyrical Ballads (1798), or in Germany with Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, for instance “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818). ↵
- The main representative works of this tradition are Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics, even if the overlapping of their concept of imitation and the concept of representation is problematic. The question is indeed: Do artworks have to imitate reality? If so, what does "imitate" mean here? And what is the reality that would have to be imitated? ↵
- Goodman (1968) draws a distinction between literal and metaphorical descriptions as follows. A description is literal when the words are used in their ordinary, routine way (e.g., to use “green” to describe the grass). But it becomes metaphorical when the words are applied to new things that first of all resist such a description and then accept it (e.g., to use a word of colour in order to describe a mood). ↵