It is exceedingly common to hear art defined today as ‘self-expression’, and this has become the measuring rod for lay evaluation of music, poetry, literature and almost every other form of art.
Rather than asking whether a work of art was constructed skillfully, with great attention to detail, good choices of details, colors, etc. we are more prone to asking, “Does this work communicate the feelings/experiences/beliefs of its creator effectively?”
But this is exactly the wrong question to ask, and it’s a dangerous one. It not only affects the way we perceive art, but also the way we create art. And the longer the erroneous ‘art as self-expression’ definition persists, the worse art gets created.
Morever, art is held in increasingly low esteem. Educators and public opinion increasingly push for STEM students, and fewer students of the humanities.
Why doesn’t culture believe that art is worth studying, or reflecting upon? Why are we more eager to create another chemist or physicist than we are to create another painter, or an expert in painting?
I propose that the idea of art as ‘self-expression’ is partly to blame for this. Scientists are better respected than artists, because scientists deal in ‘facts’ rather than opinions, ‘objective reality’ rather than ‘subjective experience’. And because the Arts seem to be more concerned with the latter category than the former, their value (and I shudder to say, their ‘utility’) is not immediately apparent to everybody.
Why art isn’t self-expression
I’ve claimed that art isn’t just ‘self-expression’, and I’ll be asked to explain myself. But the claim is trivially easy to prove. All one has to do is think of a single form of ‘self-expression’ which isn’t considered a form of art, and I can suggest quite a few right off the bat:
- Toddlers throwing tantrums.
- Terrorists blowing up buildings
- Office gossip
- Boring social media statuses
Now this is not to deny the obvious possibility that any of these things may be imbued with some artistic sensibilities (terrorists are sometimes quite creative); but we can easily recognize that in and of themselves, there is nothing artistic about them, although they remain quite self-expressive. None of these things are art-forms, and if anyone claims they are, they should be treated with an intellectual cold shoulder.
If self-expression can exist without being artful, then it is not right to say that art is ‘self-expression’. The category is too broad. It may plausibly be a superset of art, but it can’t be equivalent with it. In fact, all art may include an element of self-expression. But self-expression alone does not qualify something as artful.
Art as mimesis
Classically, art was understood to be an expression, but a particular type of expression. Art was understood to reflect the world of nature, and real things. Art was indeed synonymous with realism, and the ability of art to conform to physical forms or objective reality was the measuring stick of its worth.
Modern artists have made great sport out of the limited confines of realism. And while I’m happy to throw most of these experiments into the gutter, it cannot be denied that some of them have legitimately artistic value.
There remains no small effort to go backwards to the realistic view of art (take the efforts of the Art Renewal Center, or the Stuckists). And while I think that view is a bit too limited, it would put us in a much better situation than our present one. For while some possibilities would go unexplored, at least a great deal less effort would be spent exploring possibilities that are meaningless, freeing artists up to do what they should be doing: making great, magnificent art, even if that means following tired conventions and formulae.
If we are too enlightened to be strict realists, but also too enlightened to say that art is a form of ‘self-expression’, how then should we think of art?
Let’s go back to the logic behind mimesis. It’s important to understand why mimesis became a standard artistic paradigm in the first place. For that, we must visit our old friend Plato.
This is not the time or place to flesh out Plato’s theory of forms; in short, Plato thought that the physical Earth itself was a kind of physical ‘shadow’ of metaphysical things called ‘forms’. These forms included transcendentals, such as ‘the form of the Good’. And everything which exists in this realm exists contingently, while the things which the Earth reflects are eternal, unchanging, and self-existent.
Since nature therefore represents eternal and transcendent things – on this Platonic view – art should represent nature; thereby, art will also represent eternal and transcendent things.
Now when it comes to the point, it might be possible to represent eternal and transcendent things without strictly imitating nature. Pure mathematical concepts can turn out beautiful things worthy of artistic consideration. Take for instance the Mandelbrot set:
Realism a solid way of creating good art. It may not be the only way, but it’s a tried and true method which works for any art form, including literature, music, and the visual arts.
Although it is understandable that artists don’t want to be limited by the confines of realism, by sacrificing the value of their craft to the subjective notion of ‘self-expression’, they also shoot themselves in the foot, destroy their chances at taking part in a pursuit that is as much about objective reality as any STEM field, and moreover, create lousy art.
The best art is not about self-expression
I’m going to bring up two famous poets: Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth.
I am convinced that one of these poets is a million times better than the other, and I’m going to quote some of their most popular works.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread,
crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the
passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and
dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Have I been so beguiled as to be blindTo my most grievous loss!—That thought’s returnWas the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;That neither present time, nor years unbornCould to my sight that heavenly face restore.William Wordsworth, Surprised by Joy
In a perfect world, it would not be necessary for me to do anything more than share these two examples. But I know I will have to elaborate.
Both poems share some similarities. Both are indisputably self-expressions. But one is an expression that begins with self, and ends there. It is both self-indulgent and shallow, giving us no insights which surpass the immediate psychological conditions of its author. The other is an expression of something timeless, eternal, and universal. It carries us outside of the author, and helps us to understand both ourselves and him better.
One is arbitrary, lacking any form, meter or rhyming sequence. It has an admittedly impressive array of adjectives and nouns that are, in and of themselves, pleasing enough to say, but without any unifying structure. The other conforms to a haunting pattern that is pleasurable enough to repeat, and bury itself into the head. It is mathematically quantifiable. It is in a completely objective way, orderly.
Both poems involve self-expression. As it turns out, while self-expression can be divorced from art, art cannot be divorced from self-expression. By creating a work of art, an artist inevitably lets us in on his or her internal condition. But some self-expressions reflect on something that surpasses the internal condition of the writer.
Some internal conditions are more worthy of expression than others, and those are the ones that constitute the most lasting and effective works of art.