Sunday, January 4, 2009

Transmitting Emotion

There are many ways to define art. Some definitions revolve around concepts of beauty or pleasure or creativity or imitation or individuality.

But one useful definition is based on the principle of the transmission of emotion from one person to another.

Consider the following statements:

“Art is the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others.” —Leo Tolstoy

“The purpose of the painter is simply to reproduce in other minds the impression which a scene has made upon him.” — George Inness

“The person who can communicate his emotions to the souls of others is the artist.” — Alphonse Mucha

“Art must contain a human experience, and, through a personality, skilfully communicate this experience in an understandable language to the greatest number of thinking people for the longest length of time.” — Frank Reilly

There are a few corollaries to this conception of art-making. The artist must truly feel something for art to be possible. Charles Hawthorne said, “If you are not going to get a thrill, how can you give someone else one?”

This definition of art doesn’t concern itself with the formal qualities of the work. It doesn’t matter if the artwork has elegant compositional structure or graceful lines or the Golden Mean; it simply has to evoke in the viewer the emotion that originally drove the creator.

The artist isn’t the only one who matters. The viewer is part of the equation. Art can’t just be an isolated expressive activity that one person does to amuse himself.

The success of art can be measured by the strength of its effect on the audience. What do you say about your favorite movie?: “It made me laugh, it made me cry.”

What kinds of emotions are appropriate for art? Joy? Terror? Wonder? Uneasiness? All are legitimate, though Tolstoy holds in the highest regard the feeling of universal brotherhood.

Tolstoy is interested in authentic emotions. He excludes sarcasm, irony, cynicism, melodrama, and sentimentality, all of which are counterfeit emotions. He also excludes work that is merely technical or intellectual.

The emotion-transmission definition has universal strength because it doesn’t provide any limits on subject matter, technique, or degree of realism. Nor does it even specify the art form. It could apply as much to animation or writing or dancing or music as to painting.

But it has its limitations. The chemistry of emotional infection is very subjective. What moves one person may not move another. Tolstoy hated late Beethoven, Wagner, and opera in general, while most people find them deeply moving.

And the definitions don’t account for work created by hermit-like artists who do authentic work that is never appreciated by an audience. Does an artist have to be conscious of the audience to be effective at transmitting emotion?

This notion of art ruled most of the 18th and 19th centuries until it was swept away by aestheticism and modernism. The image at the top of the post is by Caspar David Friedrich, one of the German romantics.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the definitions of art have been thorougly deconstructed. I believe we need to go back and dust off early ideas that lay behind the great masterpieces we admire from the past, and see if they still work for us today. I’d love to hear what you think.
Further reading:
One of the best articulations of this aesthetic philosophy was written by Leo Tolstoy in his essay, “What is Art,” (1896) link.
Wikipedia on “What is Art” link.
A recent movement in art, founded on many of these ideas, is called Emotionalism.


Dorian said...

Great post and quotes!
The question of how big the audience should be is interesting to me.

There's a dilemma: being famous seems like a big nuisance, taking away all the energy and time from actual drawing and painting.
But then, one wants as many people as possible to enjoy the work, be deeply moved by it. Give it to the world!

As chess phenomenon and then Tai Chi push hands world champion Josh Waitzkin says in his (fantastic!) book "The Art of Learning": "At a young age I came to know that there is something profoundly hollow about the nature of fame. I had spent my life devoted to artistic growth and was used to the sweaty-palmed sense of contentment one gets after many hours of intense reflection. This peaceful feeling had nothing to do with external adulation, and I yearned for a return to that innocent, fertile time."

I think it comes down to what one wants. For one person it could be completely internal, without any need for an audience. For someone else it could be all about the audience, only feeling fulfilled when the work is seen, appreciated, understood or felt by others.

It's the old: "know thyself" and "know what you really want" again :)

Erik Bongers said...

This post really makes me think.(ouch)

The bit that I'm most intrigued about is

Tolstoy is interested in authentic emotions. He excludes sarcasm, irony, cynicism, melodrama, and sentimentality, all of which are counterfeit emotions. He also excludes work that is merely technical or intellectual.

I never thought about limiting yourself as an artist to only a set of emotions!
Limiting your colors, sure... (this blog has a dozen or more posts on that topic alone!)
Limiting details (e.g in the shadows), yep...look at Carravaggio.

And for stories, limiting number of characters, limiting what you tell and let the reader fill in the blanks, sure...

But limiting emotions !
Now that really is a new concept for me.

Actually it makes me think of Dogma 95 from the movie industry where certain directors very conciously limit there technical resources to almost zero when shooting a film. This movement is basically a response - a rejection - of the hollywood style of movie making where any technical means are justified to 'spice up' the film - something that has come to an absolute height (or depth?) with the CG possibilities.

I sympathise with the Dogma 95idea, though I think that they are just replacing one dogma (the hollywood one) with another.

So what about limiting emotions?
Sounds good, but then I took a look at the blacklisted ones.
Irony, cynism and sarcasm...
Now that excludes a lot of options for humour in a story.

Is less better?
A purification or just self-righteous pharaseeism?
I don't know, but I think I will give the Tolstoy dogma a try on one of my stories, and I think I know which one to try it on.

Thank you for the idea!

Tracy Flynn Art said...

Hi Jim,

Happy New Year!!

I think to some degree a piece of work/art is never really completed UNTIL it is seen by another. Its purpose is to be viewed by people and if it is not it does not do what it is supposed to do, but is it still art if it is not seen?

There are those artists around who have the most impeccable technique and their works are amazing in the technical aspects yet leave me feeling flat and uninterested, yet their are those whose works lack the technical ability and still draw you in and keep you looking at the piece for more and more, so I guess for me the emotional aspect of an image far outways the technical.

I don't know that I answered the question..........but I think I raised more in my mind about what it is that we do, but at least I have some new things to ponder.



Erik Bongers said...

On the concept of art (what is art?) I'd not waste too much time (and brain cells).
Yosemite is beautiful, but it's not art - it has no creator. (ignoring religious options here)
And does hermit art only become art if it finaly finds an audience?
Debatable, but I don't really care much for that discussion.

I'm more interested in what to do (as an artist) within the boundaries of art.
And as James said, these boundaries have been deconstructed to such extend that the word 'art' has become so wide that it doesn't define anything anymore.
And doesn't the word 'define' mean something like 'put a clear boundary around it'?

So should we restrict the definition of 'art' again?
In general, I don't think so - the more restrictive you'll go, the more art 'outlaws' you will have and the more 'salons des refusés' (exhibitions of the refused) you will get.
But every artist individually has to find one's own boundaries.

Unknown said...

Good post Jim. The Rationalism of the 16 and 17 centuries was followed by the Romantics who wanted to "Feel" above "Think". Of course they were followed by the Modernists who embraced "Science" as their God. I "think" we are coming around to another pendulum swing where we will have a hybrid of the 2 in this post modern age. I recommend Jacque Barzun's book " The Use and Abuse of Art"

James Gurney said...

These are all very interesting responses. Thanks, everybody.

Erik, I think Tolstoy is not exclude emotions, but rather saying that such things as sentimentality and cynicism are not basic emotions at all, and therefore not fitting motivators for art. Sincerity is basic to Tolstoy's equation.

I agree with you, Erik, that the question about an audience is not too productive. I watched that wonderful movie "Tous Les Matins Du Monde" at your suggestion, about the hermit-like viola da gamba player, and what he was doing was definitely art, even though no one else heard it.

Dorian, good points about the pursuit of fame. If a young artist pursues your art, fame may or may not follow, but if he pursues fame only, he'll end up pandering, which is another kind of inauthentic emotion.

Tracy, I agree with you. Some of my favorite painters are not always technically polished, but they really have something to say.

Frank, thanks for the book recommendation!

Julia Lundman said...

I beg to differ about the success of art defining whether or not the work in question is legitimate art. How do you account for Norman Rockwell, who based his entire career on sentimentality? He was successful because he had plenty of technical skill and the audience loved him. There is also the curious success of Thomas Kinkade, so called "painter of light". He is wildly successful, based on his false sentimentality.

What I wonder is if the audience, or at least a large part of it, is unwilling or not able to view the authentic emotions that Tolstoy refers to, the true emotions of the soul. Perhaps the audience would rather believe in fantasies that allows them to feel safe rather than confront the soul of true expression.

Whatever the case, as an artist, I believe the audience is there for me as long as I am true to myself. The way I choose to see art is as the end result of who I am as a human being living on this planet. My art is ME, it says who i am/was, my experience, my soul. If I am as aware of who I am as I can be, the work will take care of itself. If people are interested in me, they will respond, or not...but the ultimate point is that I am expressing who I am through my work and my life. I believe that is all we can do as artists. The rest will take care of itself.

JP said...

One of my mentors said that I should make art that, "you would die for!" I don't think I would die for any art, but I definitely changed my way of thinking about what I do. He also said that the artist, after learning his skills, needed to have the courage to have something to say even if what he had to say wasn't very interesting to anyone else.

There are so many views on what "art" is and what it is not, and so many of them have valid points. All I know is that I respond best when I am faced with art that makes me emote, be it laugh, cry, get angry, become introspective, or just feel happy to be alive. The technical marvels of art have their place as well, and I love them too but I really love a good story wherever I can find it and in whatever form I can.

Unknown said...

I wouldn't say that Rockwell was only sentimental. It seems to me that when some people say art has to "mean something" that it can't mean something positive. It's as if only the negative aspects of humanity are serious.

Randall Ensley said...

Speaking of transmitting emotion, I recently learned of the passing of Edd Cartier, one of the great illustrators from pulp's golden age of science fiction art. His black and white illustrations are sure to convey emotion. For those unfamiliar with Edd Cartier, there is a recent post at "The Art Department" and on io9.
Also, James, the post on the "arc of hollows" was immediately helpful to me.

Lindsay Gravina said...

Thanks for this post. It turns out my views on art are pretty close to Tolstoy's but like the other commenters I'm confused about what makes some emotions counterfeit emotions and other emotions genuine. I understand that some emotions are more deeply ingrained than others but I don't know if that makes the more shallow emotions invalid to art. Maybe I just misunderstood though because it's difficult to communicate abstract concepts like this.

Julia Lundman, I doubt James Gurney would write a post about Thomas Kinkade, but if he did it would be very interesting. They used to be friends. Kinkade wasn't always a bad artist and I have to wonder what happened to him.

Mary Bullock said...

My goodness, such deep stuff here!
For my 2 cents, I think art that touches something deep in a person is great art, no matter if the audience is one or one thousand.
Maybe I'm just too simple minded.
The Figurative Realm of Mary Bullock

Michael Lukyniuk said...

Happy New Year, James, and may your site continue to inspire everyone for another great year.

And what a topic to begin 2009! My feeling is that the meaning of Art today is so vast as to almost be meaningless.

Whereas most of us believe that Art is created for personal reasons, those personal motivations are greatly varied -- for most it may be for simple pleasure or as a meditation, for others it may be to espouse a national identity, to seek celebrity status (e.g., by producing pieces which are meant to shock the public), etc. The motivations to create are as wide as can be. And all are genuine. And all are part of what Art is about -- expression.

Now, there is probably a divide between the amateurs and the professionals. I think the amateur usually creates for their own pleasure and sets their own objectives and standards -- some of which may be extremely high. Their audience is very small or non-existent, but Art is still being created.

The professional also creates Art for self-pleasure and with high standards but they must please the Public if they want to survive. I think that this Public Art must catch the attention of an audience by expressing something that has genuine meaning to them. If there is a naturalist in you, then maybe the work of Robert Bateman may connect with you. If there is a urbanite in you, then maybe the work of Jackson Pollock may connect with you.

Tolstoy may have revealed a truth for his Age but today the meaning of Art is in the eye of the beholder, whatever that may be.

Tom said...

Happy New Year James

Wow what a topic, it should be on going for about a year. Just off the top of my head, I can appreciate the 20th century's violent reaction against 19th century art ideals. Both sides seem kinda of extreme. I also think it is hard to take present ideas of what art is out of the larger context of the culture it exists in. Many contemporary artist and critics views on art are a clear expressions of the ideals of western culture today and what that culture considers of value, i.e., personal expression, freedom of choice, self fulfillment, diversity, ideas being more important then the making of something, and change through politics.

I personal feel that the subjects of art often cause a lot of confusion. It seems to me that the subject, i.e., a landscape, still life, a story, etc., is only a vehicle that the artist uses to express what he wants to say about the nature of reality. Emotions are fine but it seems like a lot of the 19th century academic paintings want to express many of the same feeling that movie directors in the 20th century wanted to express, love, terror, sentimentality, the exotic, history, and criticism of how we live (our desires and fears). In many ways I feel many 19th century painters were the first movie directors. Now those same feelings are used to sell our consumer products.

We also love to attach a narrative or stories to everything, not just in art but in PR releasees, news articles and athletics as if there is inherent content to a narrative. But to me the stories are only vehicles that all artists have used to express deeper truths. The story itself gives the artist something to attach his world view too, it is of secondary importance. The real meaning lies in how the story is developed (or the painting painted)

In Ruben's painting Daniel in the Lions Den, I am not worried for Daniel, what holds me is how the space is developed, and how he has created a vocabulary for the forms of the world. Spatially his painting feels big like the universe. I feel like Rubens could use any story or form and he would still get across his feeling for the things of the universe which is the true subject of art.

Perhaps this is one of the great advantages of working for the church or a temple, the subject is a given and the artist becomes free to concentrate on expressing and developing his ideas.

In some ways I agree with Tolstoy. What holds me before an artwork is not my feelings of desire and fear.
The feelings are much more of peace or joy. James Joyce expressed it best in Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man when Stephen Delulas says the emotion of art is stasis all else is pornography.

Erik Bongers said...


That's a good comment on the Rubens (Daniel and lions).
Indeed one does not care much for Daniel when viewing the painting.
It's a esthetic pose and a religious message.

Perhaps this is what Tolstoy ment.
Perhaps Tolstoy want violence or pain to look...well violently and painfully. (and similar for positive feelings like love and such)

Erik Bongers said...

James, glad you liked the movie.
I guess that one definite good thing about the internet and blogs in specific: a species enriching cross breeding of experiences that would even make Darwin jealous.

Mark Vander Vinne said...

James, as always, love your blog.
It's funny that I have recently started my own blog and wrote last week something similar to this discussion. I posted it today.

I have always found the relationship between artist and viewer fascinating.

You wrote:
"The artist isn’t the only one who matters. The viewer is part of the equation. Art can’t just be an isolated expressive activity that one person does to amuse himself.

The success of art can be measured by the strength of its effect on the audience."

If that's the case, does it mean that the more people moved by the piece, the better the art? And if that's true, then a hugely successful blockbuster movie like "Transformers" or "Titanic" ought to be better movies than "Girl with a Pearl Earring" or "Ordinary People". But are they?

As an artist I want to convey an emotion. But my success of that is often equally reliable by the viewer, who has their own viewpoints, ideas and feelings different than mine.

You show the painting by Caspar David Friedrich. What is the emotion it is trying to convey? Is it uplifting or solemn? I think it's whichever the viewer brings to it.

James Gurney said...

All of you have gotten me to think in new ways about this topic.

Tom, if I understand your point correctly, there is a kind of pure visual pleasure in the way reality is represented in a painting. There's also a basic visual pleasure in a decorative object like a piece of Art Nouveau furniture. This pleasure may resemble a basic limbic emotion, but it's a separate realm of experience, tied to the visual sense.

In dance the pure pleasure of the art form has to do not only with the visual sense, but also with our basic indentification with the movements of the dancer's bodies. All of these pure kinetic and visual experiences have to be factored in as well as the emotional resonance dimension that Tolstoy describes.

Mark VdV: I would describe the mood of the Friedrich as solemn, reverent, and a bit fearful.