Imitation, Formalism, Expressivism and the Sublime

Just doing a bit of catch up with what we have been covering in the lectures which have been really interesting.  Thank you Jenny.

Doing Philisophical Aesthetics I find myself oscillating between total fascination and a desire to grab some of these art crtic theorists by the throat and yell ‘its just a painting and that is that, go and get a life” at them.  The other interesting thing is the effect all this speculating about what determines the perfect ‘work of art’ is the effect it has on my own practice: a complete feeling a of total inadequacy.  However with deadlines in all directions there is no time for stopping working.


Imitation – representation – mimesis

I found this description of mimesis from the Encyclopedia Britanica.  Basically Mimesis is the greek word for imitation, but then it gets a bit more subtle.  Plato considered that real knowledge occurred in the mind, and that what is seen by the eyes is a poor representations of the mental idea, and that an art work is a representation of this poor representation.. and therefore not worth bothering with much. 

Shakepeares Hamlet says to a troop of actors the purpose of playing is “ hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature” .  It is about re-presenting a scene, not just copying..

Burke,  from Stamford Dictionary quoting extracts from Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (published in 1757/1759).  Burke was the first to define the Sublime as distinct from the Beautiful, previously it was thought of as ‘greatness’, and the Stamford explanation is that he did them in terms of human self-preservation and societal love:

“The beautiful is that which excites the desirable societal passion of love, the sublime that which excites the desirable self-preservative passion of astonishment (Burke 1990, 36-37, 39, 53). The objective foundations of beauty and sublimity turn out to be largely opposing: whereas the beautiful tends to the small, the smooth, the various, the delicate, the clear, and the bright, the sublime tends to the great, the uniform, the powerful, the obscure, and the somber.” Stamford Dictionary of Philosophy


 A bit about Kant (Stamford Dictionary of P)

Kant gets involved here.   In his  Critique of Pure Reason he develops his ideas on Judgement which consist of determining (in accordance with established prinicples and understanding) and reflecting (finding the universal in a given particular).  Kant also developed a theory of Aesthetic Judgement which was about judgments of beauty and the sublime.

He defines beauty, as something which causes disintested feeling of pleasure, not only in the individual but in all educated individuals, so that there is a collective response of men (not women of course)  like Kant. 

The Stamford Dof P gives Kants definition of the Sublime this opening paragraph: “Kant distinguishes two notions of the sublime: the mathematically sublime and the dynamically sublime. In the case of both notions, the experience of the sublime consists in a feeling of the superiority of our own power of reason, as a supersensible faculty, over nature”, and as this I find a bit puzzling, as I would describe the sublime as being that which inspires awe, and a feeling of personal smallness.  However then Kant explains it is where the imagination is overwhelmed, although reason can still make sense, and the best examples of such situations are in nature.


Notes on this subject are primarily from Noel Carroll’s chapter on Formalism in the Routledge Guide to Aesthetics.   Two names stand out immediately: Clement Greenberg and Clive Bell.

Clive Bell wrote an important essay on his theory of Significant Form in 1914 and this has been important for the development of 20th Century philosophical aesthetics.  Bell said we “gibber” in our appreciation of a work of art if we do not nail what are the criteria by which we judge its merits.  Well I guess that is fair enough.

In contrast to mimetic theories of art, Bell states that should not primarily be either about representation or expression.  He said the real subject of painting should be about ‘significant form’, this being ‘the striking arrangements of lines, colours, shapes, volumes, vectors and space.’ (Carroll)  Formalism was taken further:

A painting has ‘significant form’ equals the painting is an ‘art work’;

A painting does not have ‘significant form’.. it is NOT an ‘art work’. 

Clement Greenberg’s essays are available on the web, and in Modernist Painting written in 1960 in writes about how a painting is unique in being a flat object, and that a good paointing will embrace this flatness as being central to its being and the first thing the viewer will embrace.

“Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constitute the medium of painting — the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment — were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly. Under Modernism these same limitations came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly.” Greenberg 1960  Greenberg  admired the work of the American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Jackson Pollack.

However later in his essay Carroll states that the difference between significant form and insignificant form has never been defined in terms of prinicples, and without this definition the phrase ‘significant form’ becomes simply a piece of jargon.  As Carroll says ” thus, obscurity lies at the hear of formalism; the theory turns out to be useless because it central term is undefined”.

Expressivism notes taken from Gordon Grahams Essay in the Routledge Guide.

Tolstoy in “What is Art?” wrote ” art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them” (Tolstoy 1930)   Graham defines expressivism as artists are inspired by emotional experiences and using their artistic skills embody their emotions in a work of art with the intention of stimulating the same emotion in an audience.  Graham mentions Manet and Van Gogh as expressionist painters.  There is a problem with this, which is the interest in the personal lives of the painters rather than the work they produce, and also the response of the audience, which must surely be an individual thing.

Bernadetto Croce wrote that art is essentially intuition and “what lends coherence and unity to intuition is intense feeling….. Not idea but intense feeling is what confers upon art the ethereal lightness of the symbol” Croce  In Croce’s definition there is no reference to art’s effect on the audience.  He also claims “that art cannot be identified with any physical embodiment; there is more to a painting than pigments on canvas, and it is in this ‘more’ that the real painting lies.’ Graham  This seems to me the opposite of formalism.

‘Croce also denies that art “has the character of conceptual knowledge” ‘.


Collingwood was another expressionism theorist and in his book Principles of Art 1938 he wrote:

“The artist’s business is to express emotions; and the only emotions he can express are those he feels, namely his own…”.


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