Art as expression
The expression theory of art
For centuries, representation was taken to be the central, defining feature of art. Where representation was understood in terms of imitation, the role of the artist could be analogized to holding a mirror up to nature. Speaking very broadly, the emphasis in imitation theories of art was on the outward aspects of things—the look of objects and the actions of humans. In a loose sense of the word, art was characterized in terms of primary concern with the objective features of the “external” world—with nature and observable behavior.
But, in the West, as the eighteenth century dissolved into the nineteenth, ambitious artists—both in theory and practice—began to turn inward; they became less preoccupied with capturing the appearance of nature and the manners of society than with exploring their own subjective experiences. Where artists still described landscapes, the landscapes were charged with a significance beyond their physical properties. The artists in question also attempted to register their reactions—the way they felt—about the landscapes. Whereas under imitation theories of art, artists are said to attend foremost to mirroring the objective world, by the early nineteenth century, artists were becoming more attentive to the subjective or “inner” world of experience.
An important example of this seismic shift in artistic ambition was the Romantic movement. In 1798, in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth maintains that poetry “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. ” That is, the role of the poet is not essentially to mirror the action of other people, but to explore his or her own feelings. Romanticism places premier value on the self and its own individual experiences. Where the poet contemplates some outward scene, the scene is not presented for its own sake, but as a stimulus for the poet to examine his or her own emotional responses to it.