Roger Shiner on aesthetic expression: The Mental Life of a Work of Art

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[Posted by BR]

First, an epigraph, and two works of art:

Edvard Munch, The Scream

Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893)

Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream is, of course, a canonical expression of the great modernist thematics of alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation, a virtually programmatic emblem of what used to be called the age of anxiety. It will here be read as an embodiment not merely of the expression of that kind of affect but, even more, as a virtual deconstruction of the very aesthetic of expression itself, which seems to have dominated much of what we call high modernism but to have vanished away — for both practical and theoretical reasons — in the world of the postmodern. The very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and outside, or the wordless pain within the monad and the moment in which, often cathartically, that “emotion” is then projected out and externalized, as gesture or cry, as desperate communication and the outward dramatization of inward feeling. — Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

Video installation by Tony Oursler, Armory Fair 2007

“the very aesthetic of expression itself, which seems… to have vanished away — for both practical and theoretical reasons — in the world of the postmodern”

And now my post:

I’m writing to recommend a Wittgenstein-inspired essay on the topic of aesthetic expression that I’m quite fond of: Roger Shiner’s “The Mental Life of a Work of Art,” which was published in 1982 by The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (at the end of this post, you can find a preview of the essay’s first page). Shiner’s essay is not new, and indeed is probably already familiar to a number of readers of this blog, especially the philosophers, but my sense is that it’s not very widely known in literary studies circles, so just in case I can attract a few new readers to this wonderful piece, I thought I’d write a post about it.

Shiner’s essay is prompted by what he describes as a “seemingly insoluble dispute about the nature of expressive qualities of artworks,” which has historically oscillated between two different, and apparently opposed, kinds of theories: (1) those that explain aesthetic expression by making reference to something (such as an emotion or a mood) that lies “beyond” or “behind” an artwork’s perceptible features (like Tolstoy, who pictured art as the “externalization” of the primarily “inner” and private emotions of the artist) and (2) those theories of expression that focus strictly on the “surface” features of a work of art, eschewing reference to anything other than what is immediately given to perception (think of Wimsatt and Beardsley and the New Criticism more generally). Shiner loosely associates views that fall under (1) with Romanticism and under (2) with Formalism, and he sees deep conceptual problems with nearly all versions of both. He also notices, however, that views (1) and (2) bear a striking resemblance to certain familiar ways of thinking about the human mind: (1) is of course very like the common picture of the mind that sees the meaning of mental state terms (like pain) as grounded in private mental entities (and which therefore understands pain-behavior, for example, as only “outwardly” or contingently connected to the feeling of pain itself); and (2) resembles the behaviorist who, doubting our ability to directly “perceive” the mental states of others, claims that all we can really see of other human beings are their “overt behaviors.”

One particularly important suggestion made by Shiner’s essay is that views about expression in aesthetics are conceptually related to views about expression in the philosophy of mind (cf. the discussion on p. 357 of Cavell’s The Claim of Reason, during which we find this, I think related, suggestion: “Thus may the philosophy of mind become aesthetics”). According to Shiner, the similarity between the aesthetic formalist’s attitude towards the artwork and the behaviorist’s attitude towards the human body is not accidental: on the contrary, both attitudes can be traced back to the very same (problematic) Cartesian picture of the mind-body or inner-outer relationship. And of course the same is true of the similarities between Romantic theories of aesthetic expression (at least the cruder ones) and pictures of the mind that argue for the essential privacy of mental states. And so, what appeared at first to be fundamentally opposed views in aesthetics — (1) vs. (2) — can now be recognized as simply two sides of the same Cartesian coin (something Wittgenstein already taught us to see about the two parallel views in the philosophy of mind: those that posit the privacy of mental states vs. behaviorist denials of the inner altogether). And so Shiner’s suggestion is that we tend to misunderstand the expressiveness of artworks in pretty much the same way (and indeed, precisely because) we tend to misunderstand the expressiveness of the human body.

Faced with similar, indeed overlapping, confusions about the concept of expression in both aesthetics and the philosophy of mind, Shiner brings Wittgenstein in to help achieve greater clarity in both areas, not only in order to diagnose what he considers mistaken views, but also to propose a very suggestive positive account of his own by the end of his essay… But I’ll stop my summary account here and let you discover what that might be for yourself.

I hope I’ve said enough to at least pique your interest in Shiner’s paper. All I can say is that I have found it deeply worthwhile, and I think others might as well.

If you would like to access Shiner’s essay from JSTOR, please click here. And here is a preview of its first page:

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