Derek Matravers:  Art, Expression and Emotion

In Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2001) 


This document is a summary of Matravers. 
My personal comments are in red. 
These comments have been added to help students understand his arguments

We use "emotion terms" (e.g., words like "sad") for things that do not HAVE any emotions. We recognize that a piece of music or a poem is sad. How do we make sense of this use of these terms?

In what follows, the upper case F stands for any unspecified emotion-term. 

Expression Theories 

The simplest version of the expression theory holds that a work of art is sad if it is an externalization of the mental state of a sad person. The work of art expresses the artist's mental state. Tolstoy defended this theory. 

But the theory seems to make two unrelated claims.

  1. The mental state CAUSES the work of art.

  2. The work of art EXPRESSES the mental state (and not everything the artist does while in that mental state counts as an expression of it). 

However, (1) is independent of (2), since other products of the same mental state do not count as expressions of sadness. But then perhaps a work of art can express sadness even when created by a happy person when feeling happy. [A sad artist makes a painting, which expresses sadness. But the artist also drinks a cup of coffee, reads a magazine, and does other things while sad. Perhaps the artist bakes cookies. But these activities are not an expression of sadness, and the cookies do not express sadness. So how does the painting express sadness? It must be independent of the fact that sadness coincides with the creation of the work of art.] Defenders of the theory sometimes make the implausible claim that the qualities of the work are LOGICALLY rather than causally related to the mental state.

So what aspect or feature OF THE WORK OF ART (and not about its cause) expresses the mental state?

Wollheim offers a variation: when we say that a work expresses F, we are recognizing that it was intended to have features of the sort that a person in a mental state of F would recognize as an outward expression "corresponding" to F. A sad person naturally recognizes that certain features of the environment correspond to the way the person feels (e.g., a sad person sees that a drooping tree looks the way she feels). Artists exploit this natural human projection and intentionally design artifacts to elicit recognitions of correspondence.

But why does it have to be what the artist actually intended? Doesn't it express F if it is what the audience would read it as expressing, apart from whether the artist intended F? [See Stecker on intentions!]

The Semantic Theory 

Goodman proposes that a work has F if it metaphorically exemplifies F. This is semantic because a metaphor is a way of TALKING. It's a matter of how language groups the work with other things we call F. 

Basically, Goodman thinks that we correctly attribute F if our linguistic habits encourage us to do so, even when we don't literally think it's true that F applies.

The attractions of this theory are "mysterious" to most people. [In other words, if we didn't respect Goodman's OTHER work in philosophy, we wouldn't really pay attention to what he says about this topic.]

The Local Quality Theory

Another account says that we PERCEIVE quality F in the work of art as resembling F in human beings, just as we perceive aesthetic qualities like grace and ugliness in both humans and objects. Seeing this resemblance, we say that art is F.

Music seems a good candidate for testing this theory. 

Problem: we see as much resemblance between musical patterns and emotion as we do between musical patterns and the weather or the fluctuations of the stock market. [If you don't grasp this point, read Hanslick.]

Perhaps the resemblances aren't the basis for ASSIGNING F to the work; perhaps their appearance CAUSES us to think of F. But lots of resemblances are noticed that do NOT cause any such tendency to attribute emotions.  If we have to resort to a cause-and-effect story, this is not a philosophical issue any longer.

Better to forget about resemblance and admit that we perceive something sui generis (something unique that is noticed as a aesthetic quality).

Arousal Theories

Instead of looking to the work's causes, this account says that a work is F if it has the effect of creating F as a mental state in the audience. Sad music is music that makes us sad. [Technically, Tolstoy endorses the arousal theory, in addition to the expression theory.]

But sad music doesn't really make most of us sad. So let's make it more plausible: The work of art has F if a reaction to the work is like the reaction to a real case of F. 

Sad music produces a non-cognitive mental state that has, among its various non-cognitive results, some that are of the same kind that a person would have if reacting to a person who was in mental state F. [The reaction doesn't have to mimic the object. Sad people usually cause me to feel sad, but angry people don't always make me angry. Usually, they make me feel defensive. If a piece of music makes me feel similarly defensive, I will say that the music is angry.] 

This new proposal faces three objections:

  1. Some "dry-eyed" critics can identify F without being emotionally moved in any way.

  2. This theory puts F in the viewer, not in the work of art.

  3. We have all sorts of emotional reactions without saying that their causes are expressions of F. [The new dent in the car door when I come back to my car makes me angry, but I don't say that the dent is an expression of anger.]

Psychological speculation: Changes in the mental state of the audience are very directly or IMMEDIATELY linked to changes in the work of art; so immediately, in fact, that the audience cannot separate the two elements of experience. [Hume said something like this.] 

Reply to (1) The dry-eyed critic may HAVE the mental reaction but not notice it as a distinct part of their experience, yet we have reason to think it is present. [Their introspective "self-reporting" may not be accurate.]

Reply to (2) The music may be separate from the audience's response, but not the audience's EXPERIENCE of the music is not separate from their other non-cognitive responses.

Reply to (3) Emotions that are not IMMEDIATELY linked in the right way aren't projected back to the cause.

Appreciation and Evaluation

Some emotional responses to art are arbitrary. Some are justified. What justifies an emotional response? We think it's right to be moved by some works, and not justified to be moved by others. [If you're equally moved by a Vermeer and a painting by Thomas Kinkade, your responses aren't justified by the art.] Let's assume that emotions have both a cognitive and physiological dimension.

A feeling might be justified because the cognitive dimension of a work (its propositional content) calls for that response (the death of the hero makes us sad). [The death of Hamlet should move the audience to sadness. If one is viewing Hamlet and becomes equally moved by the death of Laertes, or by the thought of the soldiers slain by Fortinbras, then one's response is unjustified.] 

But there are cases where the propositional content is not sufficient to explain the emotional response. Something else in it is the object of our emotion. How can one identify these features (things like balance and rhythm) without simply going back to the arousal account? The problem is even more obvious with non-figurative art (art which does not depict any recognizable state of affairs, e.g., some instrumental music and some abstract visual work). 

Perhaps we have sui generis emotions for formal elements of art, and it is a mistake to think that these have anything to do with the emotions that art expresses. 

                        Last updated Nov. 15, 2007