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Some Troublesome Art Terms

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Susanne K. Langer

Here are some troublesome art words and clarifying explanations of them I learned from reading philosopher Susanne K. Langer (Philosophy In A New Key (1941), Feeling and Form (1953), Problems of Art (1957)). Langer argues that all art (from pictorial art, to sculpture, architecture, music, dance, poetry, literature, and theatre) functions in a way that is fundamentally not expressible using words.[1] This is generally the problem lying behind these troublesome art terms. Since verbal expression is difficult, there is a tendency to use words impressionistically or metaphorically but then become confused with any number of literal meanings.



– often used to mean ‘art that aims to superficially distract the viewer, or to avoid unpleasant realities’.

“Escapist” tends to be incorrectly applied merely to artworks which have no obvious verbal content or message.

This misuse has to do with the modern assumption that if a meaning cannot be expressed in words in must be “emotional”, “mystical,” “irrational,” “unscientific,” “sensational,” “fantastical” or “delusional”. Langer points out that the ‘fantasy’ or ‘faery world’ experienced in childhood is not an attempt by the child to escape the ‘real world’ (as in “escapism”) but is a non-verbal way of conceiving reality when other methods have not developed yet – it is a “thinking in shades of feeling.” Similarly, an artist may use non-verbal means to communicate certain expressive or emotional effects which cannot be properly articulated verbally.


“artistic truth”

– has nothing necessarily to do with truth in relation to reality (“the way things really are”, “the existence of things”) or historical fact (“what really happened”) or logical processes (“this conclusion follows from these premises”).

Yinka_Shonibare_MBE.77213521_stdLanger argues that “artistic truth” is the degree to which an artistic work reminds the viewer of the feeling patterns of organic life. Such patterns might be the approximate feeling-impression of organic growth (like a plant growing or a young person maturing), of natural processes (like the heart beating, water flowing or vines curling), or of natural emotional patterns (such as fear or desire or horror or passion). Langer emphasizes that this is only an impression of these feelings and consequently there is no necessity for the artwork itself, or the subject it seems to be portraying, to actually be organic or alive (or, in particular, to reflect factual or social-political reality – art is not a newspaper article or scientific paper). It is merely ‘an impression of organic life’. (This is also often inexpressible in words.) Thus, a work that “has no artistic truth” seems inorganic, flat, ho-hum.



– Langer argues that “self-expression” has no necessary connection to art if you use “self-expression” to refer to:

  1. the feelings that the artist feels when creating the artwork
  2. the raw visceral emotions a viewer might feel when reacting to real-life events (such as vigorous exercise, or hearing that a close friend has died, or winning the lottery)

Langer argues that it is unnecessary to be in an emotional state to create an artwork that has an expressive effect.[2] In fact, being in a highly emotional state does not allow for much concentration. Also, in the case of the performing arts, an emotional state cannot easily be produced on the spur of the moment when it is time for a performance.

Similarly, when, as viewers, we feel ‘the anguish of the holocaust’ or ‘hunted by a monster’ on the cinema screen, we do not actually undergo the same or even similar emotions as we would if we believed these events were actually taking place. (Going to see a horror film would be traumatic and physically painful.)

berensonLanger argues that art does not produce or vent emotions, and the artist is not making us feel emotion.[3] Instead, the artist is arranging artistic materials so that they signify expressive effects to us – though we should take note that Langer is essentially using ‘signify’ here in an unconventional way; to mean indicate and sense, get an impression of, understand non-verbally. There isn’t actually an adequate word to describe something that is felt but isn’t a feeling. The best that Langer can do is to describe it as a feeling that is not a reaction but a form of comprehension – ‘you ‘know’ that feeling’.

The whole difficulty of “self-expression” in art resides in the fact that artworks seem to express something without telling us anything in the usual practical non-artistic way. A painting is not a person so it cannot “speak” to us. A poem does not deliver information in the same way that a newspaper article or instruction manual does. How is it “expressing itself” without bluntly “saying what it means”? The artwork appears to be “alive”, to be “telling” us something, “making us feel” something, but in some non-conventional way. This again is difficult to describe in words – a feeling of subjectivity (the expression) with apparent objectivity (the artwork is apparently just a ‘thing’, and ‘things’ aren’t alive in order to express things to us).

All of this is related to:


“aesthetic distance”

– this term is often used in relation to expressive effects which are muted: “it stands at some aesthetic distance”.

Langer points out that “aesthetic distance” is essential to art (otherwise you wouldn’t recognize it as art) and that the distance can be near as well as far.

The confusion surrounding this term has to do with non-verbal expression again. “Aesthetic distance” refers to the process of making something into (or, from the viewer’s perspective, considering something as) a work of art. The artistic materials must be sort of ‘set back’, or mentally ‘marked off’ from not just their surroundings but the ‘everyday’ ‘normal’ way of thinking that we employ for non-art objects. This may involve ignoring an object’s practical function or usual context. Importantly, this is not necessarily about impersonality or lack of expressive effect – in fact, the very act of considering something aesthetically tends to enhance its expressive effect. Once again, we have a tricky conception which does not lend itself to words – this is rendering something ‘distant’ or ‘formalised’ but not ‘typical’, ‘general’ or ‘unemotional’.escaping_criticism_by_caso

Something that is at too great an “aesthetic distance” (“too far away” as it were) seems to be a non-art thing (a practical object or incidental thing), which does not strike a viewer as being expressive at all – it is usually ignored or merely ‘used’ to some purpose. A sign in a supermarket would not usually be experienced as art for this reason.

Something that is at too little an “aesthetic distance” (“too close to us”) seems to be a non-art thing (a practical object or incidental thing) which is reacted to violently by the viewer or ‘shatters the illusion’ (the aesthetic situation). Suddenly talking to the audience during a naturalistic play can have this effect if not properly prepared. So can graphic sex or violence in a movie (we stop caring about the story and start marveling at how fake or real it looks, and whether that is really the actor’s private parts).

(Alfred Hitchcock mentions a “house of horror” amusement at a carnival in which the patrons sat down before a cinema screen, thinking a horror movie would start, but the real horror is caused by the roof seeming to suddenly collapse upon them. Hitchcock reports that the ride was really unpopular because the fear was too real to be enjoyable. This is another example of being at too close an “aesthetic” distance – the experience was certainly terrifying but it was not “aesthetic”.)

Langer suggests that this is why we should really talk of art as engendering a ‘disengagement with belief’ (belief being far “too close” a conception) rather than “make believe” (we are disengaging belief not engaging or ‘making’ it).[4]


“form versus content”

– People talk about an artistic work being ‘more formalistic’ or ‘more about the content’.

Langer points out that in an artistic work, form and content are always the same thing. This is because the formal qualities of a work are only perceived by the viewer through the positioning of the elements, which is the content. Hence if there were no elements or the artistic elements were different, the form perceived would be absent or different, hence form and content are always necessarily intertwined.

Often “form versus content” is raised when the speaker is actually talking about the use of conventional or clichéd structural devices (“it is too/very formal”) or clear verbal messages (“it is more about the content”). Neither of these elements necessarily harm the expressive effect of an art work.

A work which is mainly about conveying information – for example, a public service announcement – could have an impact on an audience, if, for example, the information itself is distressing or interesting. Since its impact is more a result of an emotional reaction to certain facts or ideas (= the artistic materials themselves rather than their status as artistic elements), we might refer to such a work as “non-” or “less aesthetic” and the other kind of work as more “formalistic”. However, such wording is misleading as the “more aesthetic”, “formalistic” variety is actually not “formalistic” but equal parts “content” and “form” (so much so that the difference between these things is indistinguishable). When discussing literature, Langer points out that even in an essay (in which information conveyed is of paramount importance), the structuring of the argument (along the lines of introduction, first point, counter proof, second point, examples, conclusion, etc.) is aesthetic. This is art being used in the service of ideas. We might more accurately say that ‘information’ art is “more content” while the other variety is “equal parts content and form” but we are still being terribly vague and simplistic.


“beauty” “value” “culture”iberens001p1

– do not have set descriptions; they have no definite units and cannot be combined in clear proportions. Langer points out that describing these as if they form part of a systematic quantitative order is either poetry or nonsense, but certainly not art criticism. We might as well describe medicine using the medieval theory of the four bodily “humors” – it is a form of poetic expression which is masquerading as a graded system.


“imitation of reality”

– art isn’t an imitation of reality (see “artistic truth” above). The concept of imitation doesn’t actually apply to whole areas of art: What is a building or a melody imitating? As we discussed above, the expressive power of an artwork does not come from its literally life-like imitation but from its “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

This is why we use the word “creation” for the making of an artwork but not for the making of a cake. We say “She has constructed an artistic creation”, “He is creative”; we do not say, “He has created a cake”, “My plumber has created a downpipe for my roofing”. What is “created” is the “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

Langer suggests that the reason we want to touch “realistic” sculptures is not because we are amazed that they are so precise an imitation, but because we are astounded that this mere thing can be so expressive (see again “self-expression”).[5]

The idea of imitation leads to the following 2 perverse questions:

–       “What is the artist trying to say?” and

–       “What is the artist trying to make us feel?”

That is, “how has the artwork imitated or indicated things or concepts extraneous to itself?” But, Langer argues, this is studying the associations generated by the artwork rather than studying the work itself. Artworks don’t imitate; they “expressively-indicate” or “present aesthetically” non-verbal organic “lived experience” to our comprehension/”feeling-understanding”.

Both of these questions are also based upon a theory of art founded on verbal language, which can either convey information or stimulate feelings. But, as we have seen, art fundamentally is not verbally expressive. It does not “tell” us things, nor does it “stimulate” feelings in the same way that real-life does.

The valid question, for Langer, is “What has the artist made, and how did the artist achieve this effect?” The poet has not created a mere arrangement of words, for words are only her materials, out of which she makes her poetic elements, which are deployed, balanced, spread out, or built up to create a recognizable “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.


[1] Yes, poetry and literature use words as their artistic materials, but the way these materials function as art is not easily expressible in words.

[2] This is kind of like how it is not necessary to be happy to use the word “happy”, or to actually be in the presence of a cow to say the word “cow” and be understood.

[3] All of these could happen but they are not indicators of art itself, which can occur without these effects.

[4] It is more accurately, “make expressive-indication” or “make aesthetic”.

[5] It’s almost like an optical illusion.

Written by tomtomrant

18 June 2014 at 6:01 pm

Life Is A Dream (Theatre is Unrelenting Torment)

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There’s not a lot to be said about this theatre production which I saw at the Store Room Theatre in North Fitzroy last Sunday.

The play is supposedly about the horrors of repression and the unbridled dictatorship of some Polish king or other at some time but reading the programme notes gives the false impression the show has a plot.

We were subjected to a stuffy half-demolished room in which a team of actors sat around having half-mumbled arguments with each other that eventually escalated into violence and blood-shed in a gradually increasing series of crescendos interspersed with boring lulls. The play had obviously been choreographed at great length so that there was constant movement and overlapping action which was mildly diverting for about 20 minutes but given the show was 1hr and 20 min long, attention soon waned.

I don’t want to go into this show in any more detail – mainly because it was meaningless anyway (it’s one of those post-modern productions in which lots of weird shit happens and ‘anyone’s entitled to their opinion’ as to what the heck any of it means). But I do want to ask why we subject ourselves and our audiences to such demoralizing works?

The works are all the same – one-set plays in which miserable characters sit around tormenting each other in one way or another and then it ends without anything having happened. (I have a theory that it’s all about economics – it’s nice and cheap to make one-set shows where nothing much happens and it poses very few writing or acting challenges either.)

The show was definitely ‘affecting’ – in that one is inclined to think about it later – but so is a car accident. In other words, the trauma was moving but I could have done without it thank you. I have to ask why we subject ourselves to such harrowing experiences and call it ‘art’ or ‘entertainment’. I cannot see any benefits brought about by such an experience.

You could say it is ‘catharsis’ – “purging of emotion” – but catharsis is a misunderstood concept. Catharsis is not simply expressing or engendering in the audience some emotion for its own sake. We don’t need to be “purged of emotion”. (The modern pop-psychology-basis for this theory is Freud’s outdated and naive theories no longer supported by most practicing psychologists but still touted out by artists who like fanciful melodrama.) If we needed to be “purged of emotion” we could all just go in for a good spanking every week and purge ourselves of all that pent-up subjection or whatnot. Every story has conflict – indeed the power of a drama is found in the grave and universal problem at its core – but what about the reprieve? How do our characters escape their torments? The valient fight of our hero expresses pure unbridled humanity. There is none of this here.

In tragedy of course our characters often do not escape their torments but instead they and we achieve a state of catharsis. When all else fails, how do you hang on – how do you keep living? Strangely (for logic/political theorists), when all else fails, something beyond logic opens up – a void into nothing – a force beyond the opposites of time. The hero learns that the secret cause of all his problems has been himself, that, astoundingly, Fate was leading him here the whole time. This Fate engenders wonder and astonished awe. This is what catharsis is – astonished awe and wonder is a profoundly healthy experience.

Now compare shows such as this one. No character stands out as doing or experiencing anything but torment and disinterestedness. We, as audience, are subjected to anguish and emotional torments but not in aid of cleansing awe – no character experiences an epiphany; no character even reflects (no one is sure what is going on!). We are subjected to torment and then we gratefully escape the theatre. We are chagrined and disheartened, firstly, because someone has told us basically, “Life is meaningless, pointless and tormenting”, which is an oversimplified narrow-minded lie; secondly, we barely even reflect on the unlovable characters or heartless events but instead feel a sense of anger and blame at the unlovable and heartless actors and producers that tormented us, the audience, and took our money for the sake of such a worthless exercise.

The experience conditions theatre audiences not to come back.

Written by tomtomrant

5 December 2009 at 10:19 pm

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MTC play: When The Rain Stops Falling

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Story: A tragic and dysfunctional family history ends in the story’s present with a father and son that seem to be prepared to communicate. Then “the rain stops falling”.

Style: fractured logic-puzzle structure with constant intercutting between 3 different time periods (further complicated by a mother and father that have the same name).

The performances are good and inoffensive, but, as you can imagine, the story is completely static and has no action or forward-thrust. Not a single character strives for a goal or does anything (which makes ACTING the roles less challenging I suppose). It is sad to see characters talking about anguish and courage but no one actually demonstrating these. The whole play could be described as people explaining memories to each other – which is very poor drama. Also clichés are everywhere – from dysfunctional families, to child pornography (yet again) to Aussie-UK relations and car accidents. I question the emotional accuracy of the many experiences described. (It also appears strange to me that these characters do not remember people for what they did but for shallow physical quirks like how they dressed or smelled or because they had a moustache.)

The story itself is basic “kitchen-sink” realism, with all the laughter and enjoyment that affords (very little). The play tries to hide this with lighting and scenery effects, ‘quirky’ symbolism and the intercutting multiple-flashback structure. Along with the music, which is of the slow-moving suspended-chord variety reminiscent of an arthouse movie, this rather ordinary story is muddied and made to seem generally “deep” and “moving”.

Reminds me of a short film I made which needed a musical accompaniment. I saw an ad on the internet from a composer who said he could whip me up a score. We chatted about how the music could best be used to bring out the drama, but the score I received was like the music in this play – surreal and semi-magical. I rejected the music for my film as it was clearly a one-size-fits-all job – the ethereal score could be plastered all over the film inoffensively but without bringing out any of the drama, as if the composer hadn’t the guts to decide whether the scene called for sadness or anguish, a comic flair or brooding suspense. It was all just soup – ‘magical’, static, hypnotic soup that makes everything taste the same, like the monotonous pacing of this play.

It’s all a bit suspect and fishy as drama – fish soup in fact.

How about something with guts someone?

Written by tomtomrant

22 November 2009 at 10:16 pm

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George Bernard Shaw: Arms & The Man/Candida/You Never Can Tell

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Having just finished reading Shaw’s “Plays Pleasant”, I must admit I find his plays pleasantly light but mostly meaningless.

‘Arms & The Man’ is concerned with poking fun at the contemporary ‘romance’ of war. Shaw does this by pitting the romantic visions of an on-the-whole rather suicidal soldier (and the dominant beliefs of the domestic womenfolk) up against the witty ‘realist’ soldier (and the pragmatic servants of the household). It’s all very witty and contrived and amusing – the plot concerned with misunderstandings, apparently scandalous liasons and neatly packaged happily-ever-afters.

Now, ‘social-political background’ is often analyzed by critics because a work has nothing overly intellectual for critics to write essays about – thus missing the entire point of the work, but I must admit that Shaw’s intentions are very clear; he certainly seems to be making some attempt at addressing tricky social issues of his day. But to that end, as often occurs when the author is interested in ‘challenging issues’ of a topical nature, the work dates badly and quickly. For if a subject is topical, it is often not timeless. And whereas any subject, generally, can be timeless, often the author-as-social-commentator, lacking subtlety in the name of his desire to ‘affect change’ or ‘expose falsities’, points not to the deficiencies in our nature but in the specific social-political milieu of – oh, a hundred years ago when the play was written. Shakespeare, for instance, avoids this because his dramas are dramas not social-commentary. They can be misread as social commentary but the poetry and dream-like metaphoric nature of his works takes us away from Elizabethan England and into the timeless human soul. There the play may work its emotional power, perhaps ‘change’, perhaps ‘release’ or perhaps ‘disturb’ something, which then may show itself outwardly and play back into the contempory culture – of perhaps any age. This is called having depth.
It is interesting that Shakespeare’s works have dated – particulary in the area of comedy. This is perhaps not surprising as much of his comedy is based on now-archaic wordplay and – whattyaknow – cultural references to Elizabethan England (cf. Love’s Labour Lost and other weaker – rather impenetrable Shakespearean plays). I’d like to suggest that most effective comedy is topical and outside the period in which it was performed (even absent the right form of delivery in performance), the references may more or less be lost, or at least, laughed at for a different reason.

For all that, Mr Shaw comes out rather poorly, I must admit, after a mere century or less. His characters are so 19th century (or so 1930s depending on the play you’re reading) in their mode of speech and way of life that to modern audiences their very accents and speech-patterns appear unintentionally funny at times, their society dim, far-off and irrelevant, and their problems insignificant and out-of-date.

There have been successful modern productions but there must be rather a lot of text-doctoring, new or mis-readings to get laughs, or an overemphasis on researching ‘the socio-political background’ so as to intellectually ‘appreciate’ rather than organically enjoy (read, ‘be truly affected by’) the drama. Despite what our scholars or critics may believe, the audience experiences a drama based on the character’s intentions, and the plot – i.e. what happens next. And what happens next in ‘Arms and the Man’ for example is not, ‘Captain Bluntschli challenges Sergius to revise his views of the romance of warfare’, but ‘Raina must extract that compromising love-letter from her father’s jacket pocket without his noticing’. What was comedy with healthy social satire becomes, a century or even just decades later, merely dated, superficial, drawing-room farce, little better than the latest Summer Movie (though probably less entertaining).

Written by tomtomrant

2 May 2009 at 10:01 pm

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Philadelphia Here I Come! By Brian Friel

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25yo Gar prepares to leave Ireland and his less than exciting father and disconnected friends behind him for a new life with relations in Philadelphia. The play explores should he go? Is he doing the right thing? Etc. The genius of the work is in having 2 actors play Gar – one as his public persona, the other as his personal persona. This allows the personal not just to soliloquize but to argue out problems with public Gar and make sarcastic and highly amusing comic put-downs of the tired old characters he knows all too well. Friel’s language is also quaintly musical and “Irish”, permitting a fluid illustration (“dramatisation”) of character and colour that in lesser plays would be simply clunky or boring exposition. Highly recommended.

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21 April 2009 at 9:53 pm

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Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler

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Plot: in a terrace house in Carlton, a group of friends mainly comprising two Melbourne bar-maids and two labourers from ‘up north’, meet for the summer. Every year they do this – it is a tradition. This year, they have grown too old. The tradition has become tired and people no longer interact as they once did. Both recent changes in relationships and the weight of nostalgia works to make this the last summer the group get together. The play progresses from unrealistic expectation, to disillusionment and disappointment, to outright disintegration of the bonds between the characters.

Often considered the “classic Australian play”, I must admit I find its so-called “realism” uninspiring and its plodding exposition (in the form of nostalgic remembrances) is necessary – the play is essentially ABOUT this – but hardly enjoyable.

The play is, I think unfairly, recommended as the paragon of Australian realism – this is “the first time Australians truly saw themselves on the stage” etc. The play certainly comes from the uninspiring and unimaginative school of realistic theatre but I believe its strengths are in its construction as a tragedy: while striving for the impossible, the characters, who happen to be Australian for once, bring about their own downfall.

The negativity of the play is as grim and real as life’s disappointments which suggests other theatre classics such “Death of a Salesman” and “Waiting for Godot”. Neither of these works are a bundle of laughs either and are not intended to be. They are releasers of repressed anguish and are therefore cleansing.

My gripe with “The Doll” is this: I agree it is a work of high art in its tragic form but I find its actual execution so glaringly lacking in artistry (in any real technique) that it simply does not measure up to these other works. A sign of an artist’s maturity lies perhaps in is his ability to dispense with plodding narration, with statements of blunderingly everyday insignificance, and audience-taxing schematics – to discover what is true and real, and to dispense with all the muddying unimportant superficial appearances. In other words, to present raw psyche – what is essential for the psyche to grasp the drama – and to dispense with the quotidian and mundane. To gracefully and significantly cut to the chase. I feel “The Doll” fails to do this.

Written by tomtomrant

26 February 2009 at 7:49 am

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