E. H. Gombrich
The Romantic idea that art is the language of the emotions has a long and complex history reaching back to the belief in spells and incantations. Frequently attacked and questioned, particularly by the upholders of formalist aesthetics, it still maintains its hold; indeed, it may be more firmly entrenched today than in earlier periods. The purpose of this paper is to ask how a language of the emotions might be conceived to function and where the main misconceptions may lie that have laid this theory open to justified attack.
I believe that these misconceptions are conveniently exemplified in the following passage from a lecture by Roger Fry: 1
If we take an analogy from the wireless — the artist is the transmitter, the work of art the medium and the spectator the receiver . . . for the message to come through, the receiver must be more or less in tune with the transmitter ... herein lies the difficulty, for the message of a work of art is generally immensely complex, summarising as I believe a whole mass of experience hidden in the artist's subconsciousness. And this complexity renders it probable that each receiver only picks up a part of the total message ... many people possess only very imperfect receiving instruments, instruments that can only respond to extremely violent emissions of a crude and elementary kind.
It is never fair to take an analogy literally and there are passages in the same lecture which show that Roger Fry did not want quite to sustain this comparison. If anybody had a right, moreover, to think of his mind as of a sensitive instrument it was this great critic. But Fry's strength lay in the intensity and subtlety of his response rather than in the clarity of his analysis, and the champion of the idea of 'significant form' certainly held some theory of natural resonance. For this is what the analogy from wireless transmissions would seem to imply. It suggests that the artist broadcasts his message in the hope of reaching a mind that will vibrate in unison with his own, and that his medium (the work of art) is only the means to achieve this end. Any failure on our part to respond must ultimately be due to an incapacity for picking up the vibrations that reach us through the medium.
The idea that art effects some kind of emotional contagion has been at the basis of all expressionist aesthetics ever since Horace wrote his famous line:
si vis me flere, dolendum est primum ipsi tibi (Ad Pisones, 103/4) [if you wish me to weep, you must first grieve yourself].
But whatever the value of such injunctions as a technical device for the poet, it is clear, as Susanne Langer has been at pains to point out, that no theory of art could be built on the assumption that, writing a symphony, a composer would have to wait for____________________