Amy Lowell was among the inventers and leading practitioners of Imagism, America’s first modernist literary movement. In 1917 she wrote, “Art, true art, is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in.”
If she were writing now her figure of the artist would not, of course, be male–or not solely male. But she might very well define art now the way she did then. This idea of art emerged in the late 18th century and has persisted into the present. It is, after all, a serviceable idea. An individual acutely aware of his or her individuality reacts strongly to life, to the things and events of the world, and transforms these reactions into works of art.
So far, so good, but this definition of art as self-expression is awfully vague around the edges. How does it distinguish art from, say, stand-up comedy of the kind that works off the comedian’s experience? How does it distinguish art from autobiography?
You could say that some autobiographies are works of art. You might even want to claim the status of art for certain comedians’ monologues. But what about a spontaneous outburst in response to a crisis? Let’s say that it is sincere, it is detailed, and thus richly self-expressive. Is it art?
At this point, we usually bring in the matter of formal structure and the idea that self-expression needs to be shaped in some way if it is to count as art. So, for example, Lowell adds to her definition of art the notion that “Great emotion always tends to become rhythmic, and out of that tendency the forms of art have been evolved. Art becomes artificial only when the forms take precedence over the emotion.”
This is a very smooth move, one that poets have been making for a long time. See Wordsworth and Coleridge’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” I call it a smooth move because there is something attractive about the idea that our strongest emotions make us not only expressive but, in addition, so eloquent, so formally elegant, that we become poets. And there is a degree of truth to this idea. Sometimes extreme feelings generate amazing turns of phrase. Mostly, though, this doesn’t happen. There is no reliable progression from feeling to form, and so any definition of art that depends on this progression is dubious.
Am I saying that emotion plays no part in the writing of a poem or the painting of a painting? No, but I am saying that speculations about poets’ and painters’ emotions lack all explanatory force, especially when we focus on any but the broadest, most general matters of form. Felt emotions are subtle, no matter how powerful, but talk of emotions is ham-handed when it turns to form of any complexity.
So where does this leave me, as I approach, tentatively, a definition of art? Not much advanced, of course, and yet I think it is of some value to note–as many have noted before me–that talk of emotions, whether those of the artist or those of the audience, doesn’t get us very far. For talk along these lines never accounts for the differences between emotions that lead to art and emotions that do not–in other words, it doesn’t help us understand the appearance of artistic form. Nor does talk of art and emotion distinguish our emotional responses to art from our emotional responses to non-art.
Still, I should acknowledge again that I believe that the artist’s feelings are in some way generative. And I suspect that much of the artist’s most productive emotion–not all of it but much of it–is felt in the course of playing around with form . . .
A wonderful selection from Amy Lowell’s commentary on poetry can be found at http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/amylowell/tendencies.htm