Trailblazing Philosopher Susanne Langer on the Purpose of Art, How It Works Us Over, and How Abstract Thinking Gives Shape to Human Emotion

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart, a children’s book about how Paul Gauguin became an artist

“In the history of language, in the growth of human understanding, the principle of metaphorical expression plays a vastly greater role than most people realize. For it is the natural instrument of our greatest mental achievement — abstract thinking.”

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in what remains a supreme articulation of what it means to be an artist, counseled his aspiring-artist correspondent: “Go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.” Half a century later, young Susan Sontag wrote as she contemplated art in her diary: “All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation.”

Art is an act of translation — inner into outer into inner, artist to art to audience, part Rilke and part Sontag. It translates the innumerable dialects in which we each cry for connection into a universal language of belonging. Great art, therefore, requires a dual contemplation — it asks the artist to contemplate her interior life and give shape to what she finds there in abstract form; it asks the audience to contemplate the abstraction and glean from it transcendent resonance with our own interior life, engaging in what Jeanette Winterson so memorably called “the paradox of active surrender” and enlarging ourselves in the act of contemplation. In the process of that two-way translation, art transforms us.

That process is what trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895–July 17, 1985), whose work shaped the course of philosophy of mind and philosophy of art, explores in her 1957 book Problems of Art (public library) — a collection of ten philosophical meditations on various aspects of creativity. A decade and a half after her elegant case for how our questions shape our answers, Langer examines how art works us over by posing before us abstracted questions.

In the seventh chapter, titled “Imitation and Transformation in Art,” Langer considers how art represents and transforms our experience by giving shape to the elusive and opaque interiority of the human heart. She writes:

What we call “art” in the liberal sense does not differ from craft, or “art” in an older sense, in matter or technique; but it differs radically in its aim. Like any craft, a so-called “fine art” is the manipulation of crude matter — stone, wood, clay, pigment, metal, etc., or (by an extension of the concept of “matter”) sounds, words, gestures, or other stuff, for the purpose of constructing a desired object, an artefact. But, whereas most artefacts are made for an instrumental purpose, what we call a work of art is made for the ultimate purpose of achieving certain qualitative effects, which have expressive value.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s crucial distinction between truth and meaning, Langer considers what art ultimately expresses:

Every work of art expresses, more or less purely, more or less subtly, not feelings and emotions which the artist has, but feelings and emotions which the artist knows; his* insight into the nature of sentience, his pictures of vital experience, physical and emotive and fantastic.

Such knowledge is not expressible in ordinary discourse. The reason for this ineffability is not that the ideas to be expressed are too high, too spiritual, or too anything-else, but that the forms of feeling and the forms of discursive expression are logically incommensurate, so that any exact concepts of feeling and emotion cannot be projected into the logical form of literal language. Verbal statement, which is our normal and most reliable means of communication, is almost useless for conveying knowledge about the precise character of the affective life. Crude designations like “joy,” “sorrow,” “fear,” tell us as little about vital experience as general words like “thing,” “being,” or “place,” tell us about the world of our perceptions.

What does convey these higher magnitudes of meaning and nuance, Langer argues, is symbolic expression:

As soon as human conception finds an adequate symbol, it grows like Jack’s beanstalk, and outgrows the highest reaches of what seemed such an adequate form of expression. The better the symbolism, the faster it has to grow, to keep up with the thought it serves and fosters. That is clearly demonstrated by language. A child with ten words to its credit has certainly more than ten concepts at its command, because every word lends itself at once to generalization, transfer of meaning, suggestion of related ideas, all sorts of subtle shades and variations created in use. The same thing holds for artistic expression. Just as language grows in subtlety, in syntactical forms and idioms as well as in vocabulary, so the power of articulation through sensuous form grows with the needs of the conceiving mind…



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