The Priority of Expression

Author(s): Rudolf Arnheim
Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Dec., 1949), pp. 106-109
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/426592 .
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It may remind you of violence. we may find that primarily we do not observe color values. Some psychologists have begun to wonder whether it is not a prejudice to believe that the primary reaction to the environment consists in the registration of what Heinz Werner has called the "geometrictechnical" qualities of sensory data. In this traditional theory. one has only to analyze the 106 This content downloaded from 147.. According to a traditional view. Even when one insists on demanding a description of the formal qualities. sound. Perhaps you associate red with blood. If one asks people who are not professionally trained. than as being triangularly shaped. you not only see colors and shapes in motion. graceful aggressiveness. harmonic. which have to do with hospitals. more elementary sense observations. shades of the color red. your experience may be described as follows. we find that. which will re-enforce the element of violence.THE PRIORITY OF EXPRESSION RUDOLFARNHEIM Recent developments in the field of the psychology of expression suggest some applications to the teaching of the arts and music. etc. but you are also struck by the expression of something frightening. your cultural environment has accustomed you to thinking of red as a color of passion. or rhythmical features. they will more readily call it soft. say. having slanted eyebrows. Suppose you are sitting in front of a fireplace watching the flames. dreamy. You know from experience that fire hurts and destroys. than describe its melodic. Similarly. One of these possible applications concerns the relationship of sensory perception to expression. But this is not all. shape. Once the recording is done. but the expression of. straight lips. Similarly. based on the ability to learn from experiences of the past. violent. A man may be unable to recall the color his lady-friend wore the night before but be quite sure about the mood it conveyed. An example may illustrate the point. It seems that the theory of expression is about to take a "Copernican turn" (if I may borrow a word of Kant's). recording data of color. there are emotional reactions to some of the percepts. air-raids. to describe a piece of music. but your auditory percepts will be colored by emotional connotations. clever. for instance. you will perceive not only the periodically changing pitch. lively. If we forget for a moment the theoretical assumptions which we may be taking for granted and look again at the fireplace. various degrees of brightness. Primarily. police. Probing further. the face of a person is much more easily and frequently remembered as being alert.91.41 on Tue. It may be a prejudice brought about by the preference of natural science for such data. when you listen to the sounds of a siren. You perceive a number of visual data. etc. expression is considered a secondary response. 13 Jan 2015 09:33:36 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Also. which is still widely held. The theory tells us that these stimulations of the braincenter of vision will have secondary effects. The flames may seem to be moving like snakes. passionate. the organism functions like a photographic camera or a microphone. all others being left to the poets and the artists. listeners will fall back on expression. In consequence of all this. energetic. Higher mental functions. respond to the primary. nostalgic. shapes in rapid movement.1.

then.91. who will proceed differently. 56. students are to concentrate on the geometric-technical qualities of what they see. this method consists in urging the young artist to think of the model." Psychological Revicwv. It will be evident that I am not advocating so-called "self-expression. whose structural logic will be controlled by the primary conception of something to be expressed. a circle is not a line of constant curvature.THE PRIORITY OF EXPRESSION 107 language of primitives or children to find that natural observation of the environment focusses upon expression. planes. interest is focussed on geometric-technical qualities. way of teaching students to draw from the model by asking them to establish the exact length and direction of contour lines. that the person on the floor looks tense. It might be argued that an artist must practise the purely formal technique before he may hope to render expression successfully.Vol. the turn of the psychological theory has consequences for the methods of teaching in the various artistic fields. that the student try to render this quality.' If one becomes convinced that expression is the primary content of perceptual experiences. On the contrary. they will not begin by making the students notice that the whole figure can be inscribed in a triangle. But that is exactly the notion which reverses the natural order of the artistic process. or even annihilates. but first of all a compact. other teachers. full of potential energy. not on geometric-technical data. the function of the theme to be represented.1. This occurred to me first many years ago when I For a systematic treatment of the psychological theory see Rudolf Arnheim. 156-171. There is an old-fashioned. pp. all good practising is highly expressive. Equally. It recommends a passive. 13 Jan 2015 09:33:36 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . There are. In other words. but not extinct. In doing so. For whereas the artificial concentration on formal qualities will leave the student at a loss as to which pattern to select among innumerable and equally acceptable ones. Rather will these formal properties be perceived as being functionally dependent upon the primarily observed expression. the student will watch proportions and directions. This content downloaded from 147. however. an expressive theme will serve as a natural guide to forms that fit the purpose. tied together. XWitha model sitting on the floor in a hunched-up position. Rather will they ask about the expression of the figure and be told. In fact. but not as geometrical properties in themselves. the shape of masses." The method of self-expression plays down. disciplined concentration of all organizing powers upon the expression which is localized in the object of representation. it will be made clear that to the artist. In its modern version. restful thing. "The Gestalt Theory of Expression. whose points are all equally distant from a center. Again. just as to any unspoiled human being. "projective" pouring-out of what is felt inside. the method discussed here requires active.41 on Tue. M1ay 1949. he may try for a design. directions. This method of teaching follows the principles of scientific interpretation rather than those of spontaneous vision. as a configuration of masses. in a lesson of design. for instance. and the correctness and incorrectness of each stroke will be judged on the basis of whether or not it captures the dynamic "mood" of the subject. the relative position of points. They will suggest. Once the student has understood that roundness is not identical with circularity. or of a freely invented design.

are the first months of studying an instrument so desperately dull? Mainly. practising becomes an enjoyable musical task rather than a mechanical repetition of motor acts. I think. has its inherent dynamics. to many people. (Comparable methods are nowadays applied therapeutically in physical rehabilitation work. while at the same time he is trying to acquire the needed skill. is put off until the student has acquired considerable mechanical skill. 13 Jan 2015 09:33:36 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . In order to achieve technically precise movements. The use of an artistic medium is justified only as far as something is thereby expressed.91. the entire catalogue of human pantomime. and fluently. The student should aim constantly at the realization of this expression.) What is true for etudes should suit the study of actual compositions even better. Now. the shift of positions in order to realize that the performance is highly expressive. more naturally. until she ended up wriggling her toes. in order to loosen up the joints of her body. By trying to bring out this expression. Considered as merely formal patterns. often humorously so. even a mere scale. or yielding. Also. sensory percepts carry no aesthetic meaning whatsoever." Expression. have to "come later. or attack. (It seems likely that the same principle plays a role even in factory work. Why. The simplest musical pattern. At the same time. quite naturally. with an understanding of the expression which makes the notes alive. which has to be played fast. the right kind of technical skill is acquired more successfully than by considering the scale a mere sequence of tones.1. Even though one may expect them to do nothing else but arouse pleasure-and no poorer task can be assigned to anything-shapes or colors or sounds can do so only by This content downloaded from 147. a capable dance teacher may not ask students to perform "geometrically" defined positions but to strive for the muscular experience of uplift. the very lifeblood of music.e. evenly. The priority of expression is suggested here not only in order to re-assimilate the artistic process to spontaneous sense perception. This purely technical practice was such a hit with the audience because it was thoroughly expressive.41 on Tue.108 RUDOLF ARNHEIM I watched the German dancer Gret Palucca perform one of her most popular pieces. from lazy happiness to impertinent satire. because many teachers take it for granted that dynamics and phrasing. i. She would start out by doing turns of the head. but not in the playing of mere etudes. say. it is held that dynamics and phrasing have their place in the interpretation of compositions. then move the neck. which she called "Technical Improvisations. Expression must predominate because it is a key to meaning." This number was nothing but the systematic exercise through which the dancer went every day in her studio. They passed through all the moods.) The same principle holds true for music. The learning of a piece ought not to start with practising the notes but. Forcefully precise and rhythmical movements presented. This is done in a course of study as a whole as well as for any piece of music in particular. where one identical operation has to be repeated endlessly. which alone gives meaning to music. then shrug her shoulders. which will be created by correctly executed movements. Again one has only to listen to the scales of a singer or to a violinist practising. and so forth. any playing without expression is tedious because it is meaningless and unnatural.

in a certain picture. cannot be avoided by good guidance only.41 on Tue. 13 Jan 2015 09:33:36 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . harmony. It is true that such empty formalism is often deeply rooted in the artist's attitude toward existence and.1. formalism results. which urge the layman to observe how. but seem to express next to nothing. One often reads or hears interpretations of art. if they omit the main point: "Why are we supposed to notice these forms and formal relations? What is their purpose?" When this question is neglected. This content downloaded from 147. instead of using it as an instrument for the expression of the forces that underlie life and nature. But it is also true that a teacher who constantly stresses the priority of expression will convey to his students the need for something to be expressed and thus protect many of them from the helpless playing with form. This occurs when the artist has organized his material according to mere formal fittingness. for instance.91.THE PRIORITY OF EXPRESSION 109 conveying some inherent meaning. the curve at the lower left corresponds to a similar one at the upper right. as to balance and harmony. in the artist as well as in the public. (The same kind of thing is found in musical program-notes. they will deviate the spectator from the work of art rather than introduce him to it. in such cases. Everybody knows works of the visual arts or music which are perfectly built. or how the whole composition is organized in three vertical planes. which can only lead to cynicism or despair. notably modern art.) Correct though such analyses may be.