Project 1 Research Point

Important note: This blog post forms the reflective part of this research task. It accompanies research and notes on contemporary works recorded manually in a paper learning-log. Due to copyright law this log will not be posted on line. It will, however, be made available in electronic form to tutors for the purposes of assessment. 

Is art really capable of expressing emotions?

Expressionism as an art movement arose in the early part of the 20th Century and in its broadest sense is described as an art form that puts subjective feelings above objective observations (Beckett, 1994). Under this definition, an Expressionistic image has the aim of reflecting the artist’s state of mind during the act of creation rather than the reality of the image itself. Over a century later the idea that a drawing or painting can convey some sense of the artist’s feeling continues. However in asking the question if art is really capable of expressing emotions we need to consider whether the viewer experiences the same emotion as the one intended by the artist during the creative process. This is may be less easy to understand.

It is hard to imagine that an artist or a viewer feels no emotion at all during either the process of creating a work of art or viewing a work of art (after all even a simple like or dislike response to the process is an emotional response). Gombrich (2006) describes art as being ‘expressive’ simply when the artist is able to make choices. If we consider a very simple drawing, that of a line, a contemporary artist has many choices to make to achieve this mark: what material to draw with and what to draw on; how much weight to give the line; how quickly to complete the stroke; and should the line be straight or curved, or in fact exist at all! Most works of art consist of more that just a single line, and with each additional mark the opportunity for varying the expression of that mark and conveying feelings through its relationship to other marks increases. The emotional space occupied by the artist at the moment of creation can effect these choices both consciously and subconsciously. Thus the idea of art expressing emotions is both complex and very individual. A quick look through some OCA Drawing 1 blog posts for Project 1 Exercise 1 Expressive lines and Marks reveals how differently perscribed emotions, such as joy, calm and anger are perceived by different individuals. Certainly one may be able to draw some general conclusions. Anger, for instance, is more likely to be represented by thick, heavy jagged lines than calm, however these kinds of marks are not and should not be prescriptive of this emotion.

As well as such expressive mark-making and choice of materials, the actual subject matter chosen by the artist can convey emotion, as can the place and time at which the art is intended to be viewed. Through all of these choices, an artist can certainly hope to convey a certain set of emotions or feelings. However, it must be remembered that humans are emotional beings whose responses to visual stimuli (and indeed aural and olfactory stimuli) are affected by their past experiences. Hence interpretation of an emotion response is hugely personal and highly subjective: what is one person’s joy may be another person’s sadness. The artist most likely has no control of the emotional background and experiences of the viewer and so can not entirely predict the effect an image will have on an audience. In essence, by the expressive choices made by the artist an image can certainly act as an emotional conduit between that artist and a viewer but perhaps the artist can not be too prescriptive as to which emotions are consequently experienced!

The question is raised as to whether it is the image, the medium or the act of creation of an image that makes a work ‘expressive’? From the points I make above I would argue that all three are necessary along with a fourth criterion that I loosely describe as the viewer’s emotional experience. My thoughts echo those of Marr (2013) who states that “without the viewer’s ability to re-imagine the drawn lines, to take them in and possess them, and feed on them [………..] drawing would be meaningless”. Marr’s words may have been referring to the portrayal of a  tree by Monet in 1862 but I believe the same to be true for the conveyance of emotion. Without the emotional background for a viewer to draw upon, an expressive drawing may be dismissed as meaningless regardless of the artist’s intent.

Beckett, W. (1994) Story of Painting. Dorling Kindersley Ltd: London

Gombrich, E. H. (2006) The Story of Art  (16th Edition). Phaidon Press Ltd: London

Marr, A. (2013) A short book about drawing. Quadrille Publishing Ltd: London

Project 1 Research Point

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