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Expressive Theory of Art

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by John Bourne

The Expressive theory of art was born of the romantic movement, which reacted against C18th classicism and placed the individual at the centre of art. According to this theory, Art was seen as the means of portraying the unique, individual feelings and emotions of the artist and good art should successfully communicate the feelings and emotions which the artist intended to express.

Tolstoy's definition of art was very much out of the Expressive mould:
"Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one person consciously, by certain external signs, conveys to others feelings he has experienced, and other people are affected by these feelings and live them over in themselves."
Regarding weaknesses of the theory, Cynthia Freeland in "But is it art?" notes however that the Expression theory works well for Abstract Expressionism but less well for other kinds of art and that, in it's original form, it suffers from the weakness of restricting artists to expression of feelings and emotions. She then analyses later proponents of Expression theory like Benedetto Croce, R G Collingwood and Suzanne Langer, who emphasised that art can express not only feelings and emotions but also ideas.

The strengths of the Expressive theory of art are particularly in it's commitment to the communication of the artist's feelings and emotions to others and it's benchmark that good art depends on successful communication so that the recipient is similarly affected by the same emotion or feelings.

Perhaps the most balanced view of the place of expression in art came from Cezanne who was intentionally a man of few words about art but he certainly believed in the importance of expressing emotion in his work and wrote to Louis Aurenche in 1904:
"In your letter you speak of my realisation in art. I think that every day I am attaining it more, although with some difficulty. For if the strong experience of nature- and assuredly I have it- is the necessary basis for all conception of art on which rests the grandeur and beauty of all future work, the knowledge of the means of expressing our emotion is no less essential, and is only to be acquired through very long experience."
Set these few words of Cezanne against the intellectual theorising of the Conceptualists, then set his works besides theirs. As it is written in St Mathew:

"By their fruits ye shall know them."

By exalting intellectual concepts to the exclusion of almost everything else, Conceptual artists chose to bypass the emotive and expressive aspect of their world. The only aspect of their world they see fit to communicate is their ideas. Is this conceptualist position viable or do the Expressionists have more of a point?

In the light of modern research on the brain's complexity, the Conceptualists stance which, in effect links art to the activity and output of just the part of the brain that deals with concepts, is seriously inadequate. Conceptualists seriously under-value the complexity of what the brain does and is. Consequently they seriously under-value what art can be. In the bypassing of feelings and emotions for ideas, Conceptualists make one-dimensional what should be multi-dimensional.

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