Art is more than self-expression

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.


This can go.


This can stay.

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 blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was 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 unborn
Could 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.

Why engineers leave STEM for art

Six months ago, I walked into the Department of Arts and Humanities at the University of Tennessee as a Computer Engineering major. When I left that department an hour later, I was an English major, and I haven’t looked back since. Many have disagreed with my decision. Some have laughed and scorned, and quite a few have expressed the unoriginal but provocative concern, “You won’t make any money that way.”

Even fellow writers have given me cautions. “Books feed your soul,” an administrator of the Tennessee Author’s Guild said to me. And as I turned to leave, she quickly added, “But you have to feed yourself too!”

So why have I persisted on this path? I’m not afraid to answer an unoriginal dilemma with an unoriginal answer: because there’s more to life than money, and I love writing.

But I am pretty sure this sentiment is no more satisfying than the question it responds to. In fact, questions and answers posed in this way tend to be weak by their very nature. When it comes to choosing a vocation and making significant life choices, more often than not, we turn from calculated reasoning to role models. In these matters, we look to parents, teachers, celebrities and famous people as guides; their stories, failures and successes shape our paths.

As such, I’ll begin by briefly describing some famous people – both living, and dead – who started their careers in STEM fields, before leaving it behind to become influential artists.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Fyodor Dostoyevsky is without a doubt one of the greatest writers of all time. His many works include the Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment and Notes From Underground. Although sometimes dealing with obscure themes and set against the backdrop of 19th century Russia, these works have been translated into more than 170 languages, and are broadly studied by students of English as essential works of literature.

But the world might have missed out on the genius of Dostoyevksy if he had continued in his first occupation. To fulfill the wishes of his father, Dostoyevsky studied to become a military engineer at the Saint Petersburg Nikolaevsky Engineering Academy.

Dostoyevsky was evidently unsuited for such an occupation. … Not long after completing his [military engineering] degree (1843) and becoming a sublieutenant, Dostoyevsky resigned his commission to commence a hazardous career as a writer living off his pen.¹

Thankfully, Dostoyevsky hated every second of his studies and his work, and made the unpopular decision to leave it all for his true calling. If he’d made the easy choice to stay, Dostoyevsky – who struggled with money all his life – would have been richer, and the world would have been poorer.

Rhett McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln “Link” Neal


We jump more than a century ahead to some of the most influential ‘internetainers’ in the world. Every day, upwards of four million YouTube subscribers take their morning coffee with the latest episode of Rhett and Link’s comedy show Good Mythical Morning. With warm personalities and eccentric senses of humor, Rhett and Link have established a tremendous platform as comedians, musicians and entertainers.

But things weren’t always so. Although the two always managed to make their friends laugh, they had never intended to make a career out of it. Together, Rhett and Link pursued degrees in Civil and Industrial engineering respectively at North Carolina State University. For some time, Link even worked for IBM, and Rhett for Black & Veatch.

Fortunately for millions of people, R&L both had spouses who realized engineering wasn’t going to work out forever.

They saw that we weren’t happy in our engineering jobs and encouraged us to follow our dreams. ²

Sir Alfred Hitchcock


The contributions of Alfred Hitchcock to cinema were so significant that he was appointed Knight Commander by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980. Known for his masterpieces in the genres of thriller and horror such as Psycho, The Birds and Rear Window, Hitchcock was a revolutionary and historic filmmaker.

But as the reader will suspect, Hitchcock was not headed in the path of a movie maker, nor an artist of any kind, but began studying at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation at the age of 15. He went on to join the Royal Engineers during WWI, but quickly realized through experimentation that his talents were better suited for the silver screen.

He began to write short stories for The Henley Telegraph, and soon became its editor before going on to join a film company.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Scott Adams

Even if you aren’t an avid comic reader, you are bound to have encountered Scott Adam’s ‘Dilbert’ at some point. Adam first published a Dilbert cartoon in 1989, and continued to draw them throughout the 1990s. By the year 2000, the comic was being published in 2,000 newspapers across multiple countries, and Adams was able to pursue a career as a full time cartoonist. Since then, Adams has written influential satirical works which have been tremendously influential on the white-collar business landscape in the United States.

Adams did not study engineering, but after receiving a degree in Economics from Hartwick College, went on to work in various fields of expertise, including Computer Programming. He worked closely with Telecommunications Engineers at Crocker National Bank.

After the tremendous and unexpected success of his comics, Adams was able to leave behind his office job for good, and continues to create comics for his international fan-base.

Clarence Brown


One-time engineer and World War I aviator who became one of the film world’s most prolific directors

-From Clarence Brown’s obituary in the LA Times

Not many people will immediately recognize the name of Clarence Brown, but I’ve included him anyways, not only for his achievements as a motion picture director, but as a nod to our shared Alma Mater. In the course of his prodigious life, Brown directed over 50 pictures. His films received a total of 37 academy award nominations, and 9 oscars. Classic movies directed by Brown include National Velvet, The Yearling and Anna Karenina.

Brown also began his career as an engineer, graduating from The University of Tennessee at the age of 19 with degrees in Mechanical and Electrical engineering. He spent some years of his life working in the automotive industry, before he left engineering to study directing under Maurice Tourneur.

So, why do Engineers leave STEM for art?

My answer is simple: because the wrong people have the wrong role models, and some of them realize it after starting down a path they weren’t made for. And it may be that the next Beethoven or the next Ernest Hemingway grew up believing that they should be the next Steve Jobs, or the next Stephen Hawking.

Even though there is as much room in the world for a Hemingway as there is for a Hawking, our culture has made the questionable assumption that there are simply not enough Engineers or Scientists to go around. As a result, our universities are flooded with too many mediocre Engineers and Scientists who are not motivated so much by aspirations to make the world a better place as they are to make a fat paycheck.

Now the point about money stands, but it’s easier to answer. It’s probably true that more engineers are rich, and more artists are poor. But it might be a better thing to find happiness doing something that is important and fulfilling to you than it is to make twice the money doing something monotonous and miserable.

I always remember the author who told me that books feed the soul. I’ve realized that if one path feeds my soul twice as much as the other path, half the food is worth the compromise. If you feel that you enjoy studying Aristotle more than you enjoy studying Calculus, don’t worry too much about money. Hard workers can get that anywhere. The world needs you, and it will be just fine without one more Engineer.