2005/05/25

Evocation, part 3

3. Cognition and emotion.
Previously we have spoken of communication in art, and of its function in terms of its place in and interaction with the audience's cognition of the world through language. Understanding need not be limited to mere concatenations of references, however. As Goodman suggests, our language may be inadequate to describe what an artwork expresses. Still, what we are up to is taking information, of a sort, and bringing it into thought. It might be objected to this sort of theory of expression that it is emotionally sterile, for so far what has been said seems to apply just to what is found in the work itself and what is thought about that. The account understanding of the properties of a work and their significance is accused of making art no different in kind from a bank balance statement in that they are communicative, though the one uses metaphor and the other literal reference. Where, it is asked, has the feeling got to?
Goodman's attempt to get past the objection is to assert that "emotions function cognitively. The work of art is apprehended through the feelings as well as the senses... Emotion in aesthetic experience is a way of discerning what properties a work has and expresses." This is to say that emotions in the audience are part of the audience's cognition of a work. That reply is perhaps satisfactory in one way, but in another way it fails to address the importance of emotions evoked by artworks. Goodman is supposing that emotions enable us to better understand a work, and in some cases this may occur. The direction of the cognitive process takes the emotions as conducive toward knowing here is, however, unconvincing as an account of the psychology at play.
In imagining what sort of situation it is in which feeling an emotion is a means to better understanding, we find that these are exceptions to the usual situation. Suppose that we have encountered a somewhat enigmatic painting. We feel mystified, but more importantly we feel sadness. What is it about this work, we wonder—perhaps to dispel the mystery, it does not matter—that makes us feel so? Further contemplation and study of the work leads us to the conclusion that some features of the work, say somber colors and the suggestive placement of bright objects that seem to be fading into darkness, have evoked sadness in us due to the painting's being a picture of loss.
The example points out what I take to be the mistake here, which is that the emotions evoked by a work are normally end results of an encounter with a work (or part of one) rather than steps in a process of hashing out what the work expresses or symbolizes. It was the fact of uncertainty about the source of the emotion that led to investigation. Surely this is not the case in many works where the properties to which we react are easily identifiable. No one takes the pleasure of a laugh-inducing joke in a play to be such that it helps us to better knowledge of the qualities of that work, unless the extra component of a question aimed at discerning better knowledge is already in place.
Goodman wants to avoid attributing any specialness, a "magic additive" in emotions due to experience of an artwork, to emotive states that gives them special aesthetic significance due to their occurrence in (or, as we should say here, due to) aesthetic experience. Now John Dewey suggests that emotions in aesthetically charged experiences are different states from the sort of cognitive-linguistic ones obtained in "recognizing" the correctness of a label to an (experience of an) artwork. Perception of an experience (for an encounter with an artwork is a sort of experience) awakens the intense emotions in "vivid consciousness" that such recognition cannot arouse, and he says that "an act of perception proceeds by waves that extend serially throughout the organism... The perceived object or scene is emotionally pervaded throughout." Such experiences need not be of artworks, but Dewey thinks that artworks distill the aesthetic qualities of all experiences, so it seems that in these the emotions of the experience will be strong indeed.
The difficulty lies in how it is that emotions found in an artwork as qualities it possesses, which pervade it, can excite the audience. Goodman is not clear on this point, but he does seem to suppose that cognition of a quality in an artwork arouses emotion in the audience in the same fashion as it arouses "colder" intellectual-linguistic states of cognition. This is not to say that emotion, if it is a form of understanding, needs to be caused by an emotional property of the work, and in this Goodman agrees. But there may be a confusion here, since he also says that "some emotions may emerge as properties" of the work; if this is not dull repetition of a prior point (and he is not prone to that) the phrase indicates that emotion emerges from the work as its property and that this emotion causes (and not through sensation) emotion in the audience. I shall give him the benefit of the doubt, but I think it is illustrative of the need for a further account of how evocation occurs.
An initial proposal might run along the lines of a quasi-Humean theory of sympathy, where instead of people as the objects of the passions it is artworks that loose in us passionate (i.e. emotional) responses. I am not here going to follow this line of argument, though it seems perhaps worth trying, for such would be a psychological, as opposed to cognitive, account of what is occurring in events of evocation by artworks.

[Update. See the rest at parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7.]

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