Expressionism is a style of painting, music, or drama in which the artist or writer expresses an inner emotional response rather than merely depicting an external reality. A deliberately exaggerated or altered rendition of reality allows the portrayal of subjective inner feelings. As an art movement, it was popular in Germany early in the 20th century. Edvard Munch’s familiar painting, ‘The Scream,’ was a precursor to the movement and the renowned canvas gives some idea of the technique.
Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, gives some idea of the emotional expressionist technique. (Image: public domain)
The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder provided expressionism with a powerful new philosophical underpinning. This was the idea that self-expression is a primal need of human beings. Moreover, unless they cripple themselves with inhibition or self-constraint, whatever a person does expresses their whole nature. A new attitude toward works of art themselves arises from the view that an artist reveals himself in what he does. Philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin has pointed out that, prior to the advent of expressionism, works of art were valued primarily as objects. Their value had nothing to do with the artist who made them or why they had come into being. In fact, for most people today, this view of art objects still prevails. Herder believed that, since a work of art is an expression of the whole being of the artist, including his cultural identity, it must be valued within that larger frame.
It is important to know that Herder advocated intuition over reason and carefully described reason’s limitations, his purpose being to reduce rational limits on intuition. Herder’s philosophy is still active. As one example, compare the idea of inhibition or self-constraint (above) with American SF writer Gene Wolfe’s notion that rejecting a memory of an experience because it violates the Western scientific paradigm constitutes “self-distortion.” Like Herder, Wolfe wants to sideline reason and unleash intuition or subjective knowing.
Ideas often evolve in a causal sequence. They develop and branch over time, one idea giving rise to another similar idea. Herder’s expressionism sounds a lot like an early version of existentialism. Expressionism stays within the confines of art and maintains that the work reveals the artist. The existentialists take a far broader view and say simply, “We are what we do.” Often linked with this creed is a Herder-like attempt to deny rational limits. Consider French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s militant refusal to believe in anything (including the unconscious mind) which might infringe upon his personal “freedom.” The withholding of belief is his denial of any logical restraints – however legitimate they may be in the eyes of others – on his ideas and behaviour. Sartre and Herder both wanted to believe only what they found convenient or expedient. Thus, expressionism and existentialism come to resemble egotism.
Expressionism as a philosophy established art as a manifestation of the artist as a person. It instituted art as a form of communication between creators and those who appreciate their work. By extension, any object made by human hands is in some way the expression of the worldview, conscious or unconscious, of its maker. If this matters, then creators have been elevated to a new level of importance in the scheme of things. Their worldviews are superior, worthy of admiration and adoption. Creators do not just make art objects or other kinds of artifacts; they enlighten others with their personal insights.
I have argued as much throughout this blog.