By Ngiam Li Yi
In this essay, taking the experience of an artwork to be an engagement with the artwork beyond just mere glances, I propose that there is no single way of experiencing an artwork, and that every experience of an artwork involves an encounter with the artist’s expression and a variable. This variable can only be determined by the concrete confrontation of unique viewer with unique artwork. It can be, for instance, sensory pleasure or guessing at what the artist is expressing. Firstly, I will present Susanne Langer’s (1895 – 1985) and Susan Sontag’s (1933 – 2004) views of what an artwork is. Inspired by their views, I employ a working characterisation of an artwork as the expression of inner experience(s). I then argue that because of the idiosyncrasy of the artist’s expression, it is questionable as to whether the viewer can perceive the inner experience that is “embodied” (Langer, 1957, p.60) in the artwork. This leads me to question what the experience of an artwork might be like, and in light of this, I will propose a pluralistic account of the experience of an artwork.
I will first provide a brief sketch of Susanne Langer’s and Susan Sontag’s views of art. Langer (1957) argues that the artist “expresses feelings” (p.26) with his/her work. The word ‘feelings’ should not be mistaken for ‘emotions’, like joy or sorrow. She uses ‘feelings’ in the sense of “everything that can be felt” (p.25), or in other words, “directly felt experiences,” (p.22), “life as it feels to the living” (p.7), “inner life” (p.133). The artist “objectifies the subjective realm” (p.26) — one’s feelings — and Langer provides some examples of such feelings to illuminate her point:
“what it is like to be waking and moving, to be drowsy, slowing down, or to be sociable, or to feel self-sufficient but alone; what it feels like to pursue an elusive thought or to have a big idea.” (p.22)
Langer clarifies that the representation of feelings and the artistic expression of feelings are different (p.59). A work without any representation can “be just as expressive as a love-sonnet or a religious picture” (p.59), and has “a wordlessly presented conception of what life feels like.” (p.59)
Sontag’s conception of art aligns with Langer’s. For Sontag (1965/1990), “[a]rt is the objectifying of the will in a thing or performance, and the provoking or arousing of the will.” (p.31) I will only focus on the first part of Sontag’s statement, about art being an objectification of the will. By ‘will,’ Sontag refers to “an attitude toward the world, of a subject toward the world.” (p.30) In another instance of explanation, Sontag describes the work of art as “a kind of showing or recording or witnessing which gives palpable form to consciousness” (p.29). Taking ‘consciousness’ to mean something like ‘inner life,’ this description by Sontag echoes Langer’s conception of art as an objectification of inner life.
Both Langer and Sontag take an artwork to be the artist’s expression of certain inner experiences, be it feelings for Langer, or the will for Sontag. This view of artworks as expressions of inner experiences is a strong view, as it can potentially accommodate many different types of work. Whatever that the artist expresses can be said to stem from his/her inner experiences, as every individual is bound to his/her own perspective. Thoughts, ideas, perceptions, emotions and so on, they all stem from the inner realm. Furthermore, taking the artwork to be an expression of something rather than being about something has the advantage of bringing attention back to the physicality of the artwork, instead of going beyond it to, for instance, the content (Sontag, 1964/1990, p.14). It is to regard the artwork as “a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.” (Sontag, 1964/1990, p.21). Given the merits of Langer’s and Sontag’s views, I would like to characterise artworks in this essay loosely as expressions of inner experiences. This is a working characterisation that does not completely follow Langer’s and Sontag’s views, as there are certain constraints or possible constraints of their views which I do not have space to discuss here. For the purposes of this essay, it is sufficient to simply take artworks as expressions of inner experiences.
On Langer’s and Sontag’s accounts of the experience of the artwork as the artist’s expression of feelings or consciousness, it seems like the viewer (or at least the perceptive one) is assumed to be able to perceive what the artist is expressing. This assumption can be inferred from Sontag’s (1965/1990) demonstrations of inferring the artist’s views from his/her expression. For instance, in writing about one of the stories in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909), Sontag describes how “[t]he circular repetitive style of Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha expresses her interest in the dilution of immediate awareness by memory and anticipation” (p.35), and writes that “Stein’s insistence on the presentness of experience is identical with her decision to keep the present tense […]” (p.35)
For Langer, the “idea of “felt life”” (p.67) is “bound up in the form that makes it conceivable.” (p.67) The objectification of the feelings is thought to make them “amenable to our understanding.” (p.60) Langer holds that the “certain vision of human feeling” (p.60) the artist has, “which is not represented, but composed and articulated by the entire apparition […] is found there directly, or not at all.” (p.60) We can infer that Langer also has the similar assumption that the viewer can perceive the particular inner feeling “embodied” (p.60) by the artwork.
The assumption that the viewer can perceive what the artist is expressing is problematic, for there is no good reason to suppose so since the artistic expression is idiosyncratic. Unlike language, artistic expression is not codified. Langer (1957) herself points out the difference between linguistic expression and artistic expression, explaining that unlike linguistic expression or “discourse” (p.68), the work of art “is not a product of a symbolism, or conventional system of symbols.” (p.68) There is no necessary connection between what the artist is expressing and the artist’s expression. For instance, I may objectify the inner experience of lust as the repeated rubbing of a spot on a canvas, while another artist objectifies this same inner experience as an uncontrolled spillage of paint on the canvas. Yet another artist may objectify the inner experience of lust as stillness in a performance. Although there may be commonly used “devices” (Langer, 1957, p.137) in art such as representation or symbols (p.137), Langer rightly highlights that they are “not indispensable” (p.137). Many artworks do not employ such devices, such as the paintings of Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock. Thus, commonly used devices present no threat against the claim that artistic expression is idiosyncratic. Furthermore, even if artists do draw upon certain devices, how they employ them in the creation of the artwork and what those devices function as in relation to the rest of the artwork is entirely determined by the artists themselves, as there are no fixed rules governing the usage of these devices.
Having established that there is no necessary connection between what the artist is expressing and the artist’s expression, it is questionable then, as to whether the viewer can perceive what the artist is expressing. For instance, standing before Paul Cézanne’s The Bather (1885), while I see the image that is presented by Cézanne, I have no clear idea of what inner experience Cézanne is expressing. What was Cézanne’s unique attitude towards the male bather? What are the inner perceptions embodied in the composition of the work? We might be able to guess at certain inner experiences, but it seems highly unlikely that we can perceive the inner experience being expressed.
To clarify, the argument I am making differs from the arguments that we cannot access the artist’s inner experience or intentions. I am simply pointing out that just by looking at or physically encountering the work of art, it is unlikely that we can perceive what the inner experience(s) “embodied” (Langer, 1957, p.60) by the expression are.
Since there is a difficulty with experiencing the artwork as the artist’s expression of a specific inner experience, perhaps other ways of looking at what the experience of an artwork can be like is needed. I propose a pluralistic account of the experience of an artwork. On this account, the experience of an artwork involves both the encounter with the artist’s expression, and a variable. This variable can only be determined by the concrete encounter of the unique viewer with the unique artwork. Perhaps the viewer can make guesses at what inner experience(s) the artist is expressing. For instance, in viewing Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia Von Harden (1926), one may make guesses about the attitudes that Otto Dix is expressing. Is the attitude embodied in the artwork one of admiration, or perhaps fear? Cézanne’s The Bather might invoke a visceral, ineffable response, as it did to me by provoking a strange attraction that kept me looking at it. And that can be a valid experience of The Bather. Maybe it is enough to simply revel in the visual exquisiteness of Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-2). In encountering Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), which does not offer much in terms of sensory pleasure, one might consider how it differs from other paintings that s/he has seen before, and from there guess at what the artist might be trying to express.
In conclusion, on a working characterisation of an artwork as the expression of inner experience(s), I questioned the ability of the viewer to perceive the inner experience expressed in the artwork, and proposed a pluralistic account of the experience of an artwork, which will hopefully prompt greater considerations and reflections the next time one stands before a work of art. Also, this essay is a result of what I understand from my reading of Langer and Sontag, and I cannot claim to be providing a completely accurate reading of their thoughts. Due to the constraints of the essay, only relevant portions of their rich thoughts are discussed without going into great details. Readers interested in their views should seek their original writings.
Langer, S. K. (1957). Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons New York.
Sontag, S. (1990). Against Interpretation. In Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation: and other essays (1st Anchor Books, ed., pp. 3 – 14). New York, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday. (Original essay published 1964).
Sontag, S. (1990). On Style. In Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation: and other essays (1st Anchor Books ed., pp. 15 – 36). New York, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday. (Original essay published 1965).
Image Credits: Wikiart, HBO, Wikipedia, MOMA