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.

C.S Lewis and why astrology still matters

You may have opened up your social media platform of choice one day to discover this bit of humor on your dashboard:

I laughed when I saw this ‘horoscope’ for the first time, but I also frowned. Why I laughed is obvious, but I will need to explain why I frowned.

Since the image is supposed to be humorous, let me begin with a lighthearted observation:

Scientifically speaking, the stars and planets actually do affect your life.

According to Newton’s law of universal gravitation, every particle in the universe attracts every other particle in the universe. In other wards, the particles which make up VY Canis Majoris have been tugging at you from the moment you were born, and are still tugging on you this moment.

Now, as I said at the start. This is merely a lighthearted observation. I don’t mean to say that because the stars and planets affect you through gravity, you can learn something about your destiny or the fate of mankind simply by observing their motion. Like you, I regard that as unscientific poppycock.

However, that’s where my real concern truly begins. Most people think they are above ‘astrological thinking’, simply because they don’t open the dailies to have a look at their weekly horoscope, and they don’t obsessively dig for the Zodiac sign of their significant others.

But in his work The Discarded Image, C.S Lewis gave some great insight into the reasoning behind astrology, and why it was once regarded as a useful practice by the Medievals.

As above, so below

As far as the Medievals were concerned, celestial bodies moved with an exact precision which admitted no idiosyncrasy. Lacking instruments to observe minute details about the stars or planets, the sky they observed seemed absolutely fixed, and never varied or changed in any way.

Of course, we know the Medievals were wrong on this point. We know that stars explode and collide, that new stars form, and that galaxies shift very slowly (on a scale of billions of years). But the Medievals didn’t know any of that, and they can’t be blamed for not knowing any of that. To them, outer space seemed like a fixed system, and this sort of perfection demanded a very rigorous, mathematical explanation.

Therefore, in Medieval scientific thinking, motion in the universe could be described from the top down, beginning with God who moved the Heavens, which in turn moved the planets and the stars. Lest anyone blame Christian Theology for this idea, we should recognize that the model was largely based on the thinking of Aristotle, who – in his De Caelo – tried to work out the origin of motion in a similar way.

Lewis puts it this way in Discarded Image,

All power, movement, and efficacy descend from God to the Primum Mobile and cause it to rotate; the exact kind of causality involved will be considered later. The rotation of the Primum Mobile causes that of the Stellatum, which causes that of the sphere of Saturn, and so on, down to the last moving sphere, that of the Moon.

This system, in turn, transmits motion to the Earth. Not that the Earth itself moves (of course, Medievals thought it was stationary), but things on the Earth move quite a bit. As such, the moon, along with all the other celestial bodies, exerted subtle affects on the Earth itself.

Besides movement, the spheres transmit (to the Earth) what are called Influences – the subject-matter of Astrology.

So it followed to the Medieval thinker that by understanding the motion of stars, planets and galaxies, one could also predict what would happen on Earth – calamity, the path of an individual’s life, and so on.

A modern kind of astrology

While it’s good to understand why people a long time ago believed what they believed, I worry that we are not careful enough to realize we aren’t so different. In our own age, we have of course discovered that the Universe is quite different from how the Medievals imagined it.

However, we may not be so different from the Medievals after all, at least when it comes to our general approach to understanding life.

While the Medievals thought ‘influence‘ began at the very top of the food chain and trickled down to human beings, we are rather inclined to believe the reverse. Because we have learned about DNA, molecules, quantum physics and biology, we might very well believe that ‘as below, so above‘.

As Richard Dawkins the eminent evolutionary biologist and atheist put it,

DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

The idea of human beings ‘dancing’ to the order prescribed to them by DNA is really no different from the Medieval idea that humans ‘dance’ to the motion of the stars, and as such, modern Science has put Christians in the same predicament that Astrology put the old Christians.


Yet Dawkins is no longer in vogue, and neither is pure determinism. Though there are still many sworn fatalists in the world, there are many more compatabilists. Beware, all the same. Old habits die hard, and astrological thinking can still be found in many forms. The atoms, molecules, DNA strands and chemicals of our body; our upbringings, social status, economic class and racial ‘privileges’ form constellations of stars and planets within us, and to them, many are prepared to pay the same homage as the Medievals did to the stars and planets without us.

Lewis notes about the opinion of the Medieval church on Astrology,

She fought against…astrological determinism. The doctrine of influences could be carried so far as to exclude free will. Against this determinism, as in later ages against other forms of determinism, theology had to make a defence. Aquinas treats the question very clearly. On the physical side the influence of the spheres is unquestioned. Celestial bodies affect terrestrial bodies, including those of men. And by affecting our bodies they can, but need not, affect our reason and our will. They can, because our higher faculties certainly receive something (accipiunt) from our lower. They need not, because any alteration of our imaginative power produced in this way generates, not a necessity, but only a propensity, to act thus or thus. The propensity can be resisted; hence the wise man will over-rule the stars.

I believe we can learn a valuable lesson from the struggles faced by the old theologians in light of an apparent scientific fact, which is now known to be hogwash. On the one hand, we cannot deny the influences which human beings receive from genes, sociological factors, hormones in the brain, etc. But on the other hand, we must never suppose that we ‘boil down’ to these things; that our whole nature and character are really exactly that of our influences.

We must recognize them for what they really are: influences, and not excuses, not causes, nor shackles nor laws.

How to deal with smug critics

The Medievals referred to Philosophy as the handmaiden of Theology. In their view, Theology was the more important of the two, because it laid down important incontrovertible truths, while Philosophy merely analyzed the secondary truths of nature. It wasn’t that the Medievals thought Philosophy was unimportant; they just realized its proper place.

The same sort of hierarchy applies to Literature and Literary Criticism.  

Literature provides the source material for Literary Criticism. This is sort of common sense, as most of us would rather read our favorite novels than books about our favorite novels.

But Literary Criticism is important, especially for the budding writer. It allows us to analyze books and tells us how they’re shaped. Literary Criticism is to Writing what Music Theory is to Musicians. It helps to deepen your understanding of your craft, beyond the knowledge gained from practicing it.

The first sort of objection that opponents of literary criticism make is that it’s snobbish or elitist. This is the probably one of the worst objections that one can hurl at literary criticism since it’s one that most of the people who use it face regularly. If you’re thinking about writing a book (unless said book is a trashy romance novel or legal fiction), you’re already more snobbish than 95% of the population. There’s no use in doing things halfway.

If you’re thinking about writing a book (unless said book is a trashy romance novel or legal fiction), you’re already more snobbish than 95% of the population. There’s no use in doing things halfway.

Why we hate critics

There is, however, a rational reason behind this reaction. Most of us have watched a movie, or read a book, feeling amazed and awed by the sheer brilliance of it. We then proceeded to log onto the internet to see what others thought about the thing we thought was brilliant, and lo and behold, the first article we read is something written by a self-important literary critic who goes on to make mincemeat of our precious masterpiece. It leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

Who do they think they are? That book/movie was good! The critic is just a cold, grumpy intellect. On the other hand, we get the spirit of things.

Fortunately enough, pop culture has granted us an excellent illustration of this principle only in the last few weeks. The premiere of the long anticipated Suicide Squad by Warner Bros. ushered in a tremendous amount of negative feedback from film critics, while many moviegoers found it enjoyable. This clash between popular and professional opinions culminated in a well publicized petition to shut down review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, and the petition is (at the time of writing) at 22,304 supporters.


But this sort of reaction throws out the baby with the bathwater. Literary Criticism is no more the villain in this situation than Philosophy is when we’re confronted with Postmodernism or Materialism. Just because bad Literary Criticism exists does not mean we should abandon the subject entirely. By studying literary criticism, not only can you improve your writing skills, but you’ll also gain proper tools to understand why that critic you hated was so wrong. Literary Criticism can be a vehicle of smugness, but it can also be an effective weapon against it.

Literary Criticism can be a vehicle of smugness, but it can also be an effective weapon against it.

Instead of trying to silence the voices of professional critics who despised Suicide Squad, loyal patrons of the film should have been prepared to argue why the critics attacking it were wrong in their assessment. Likewise, if your own writing is being attacked by others, you should be prepared to listen. If you are acquainted with good criticism, you should be prepared to counter bad criticism.

Another objection to learning literary criticism, which is pretty reasonable, usually goes something like this: “But, honestly dude, I’m not trying to write some great literary work. I just want my novel to be fun. Why should I study literary criticism?”

Because honestly, to write really good pulp fiction, a writer should usually have one foot in the literary. At least get your feet wet. The reason why fiction like Firefly, Warhammer or Star Wars is so dang good is that the writers usually know their literature and literary criticism.

That being said, it does take more than just lit theory to write decent lit theory. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

Now, if you aren’t quite the literary type, I suggest you tackle some of the great works of literature before you start tackling literary criticism. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a great place to start. If you are the literary type, but still sort of vague on what criticism’s all about, try Matthew Arnold’s The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.

It’s public domain, so like all things both worthy and unworthy, you can find it on the Internet.