Reason and Emotion Clash in the Arts

Whether you write or work in the visual arts, or merely consume writing and objects of art, it is interesting to have some sense of the artistic tradition you follow or prefer. Often, writers and other artists simply get on with their work. While they consciously follow the inspiration of some particular artist or genre, they have no firm sense of where they fit into the artistic tradition. Consumers may also have no idea of where the works they favour fit into the grand scheme of things.

Salvador Dali's Profile of Time

Salvador Dali’s melting clocks and watches are the best known examples of surrealism, one of art’s less rational movements. (Image: Wikipedia)

When we look over the highlights of that artistic tradition, we see that it constitutes a kind of progression as one major art movement superseded another, often reacting against the one that went before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given our rather eclectic times, all of them persist in one form or another. For example, in writing, the Gothic, fantasy, and science fiction genres draw heavily from the ideas and conventions of one of the oldest and most colourful movements – romanticism.

You may recognize your own particular slot in what follows.

Romanticism was originally a reaction against the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment, a sort of “The Irrational Empire Strikes Back.” In place of soberly reasoning things out, the movement offers out-of-the-blue inspiration and individual subjectivity. To avoid any objective taint, it stresses strong emotion as the source of aesthetic experience. Romanticism idealizes nature, but not in the classical sense of order and symmetry. Instead, it prefers a dash of the wild, bizarre, or even grotesque. Ruins, with their suggestion of defeat, tragedy, and sorrow, have irresistible appeal.

Realism in the visual arts and in literature deals with ordinary life, with objective reality, as we know it. When portraying people, it deals with their observable character, their behaviour, and with how they interact with one another. By extension, it also addresses how living in a structured organized society affects people. Conceived as a reaction against the emotional excesses of romanticism, realism works from the principle that artists discover truth through the senses. It rejects the inclusion of abstract concepts, subjective feelings, mythology, religion, morality, or ideological beliefs. One might call this the plain and simple, “say it like it is” philosophy of art.

Realism subsumes the “sensuous particular” aspect of art in that it deals with objects, with truth and beauty as they relate to sensory experience. Creativity research has shown that the ability to discern the sensuous particular (the essence or most vital part of something) is a key quality of artists, whatever the field in which they work. Again, realism adds nothing to the essence, forsaking any attempt to embellish with emotions or other subjective impressions.

Naturalism is also realistic, but goes farther by bringing in the observable effects of genetic inheritance and cultural conditioning. In its “slice of life” approach, it opts for a deterministic interpretation of Darwinian principles and social influences that leave little room for free will and self-determination. Morality has no place here since people are hapless victims of their genes and society. (If you think about it, you can see that Western courts often take this view when sentencing criminals.)

Surrealism introduces the psychology of dreams and the unconscious and emphasizes the inner experience as the most central aspect of life. The “stream of consciousness” literary technique is a related development. While pre-dating both surrealism and stream of consciousness, Mark Twain formulated their most fundamental idea with great perception: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes – most of which never happened. Life does not consist mainly – or even largely – of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.”

Subjectivity and emotion are in ascendancy now. These days, very little writing does not have some degree of interiority and we all accept that art is entirely a subjective experience. Literature is all about emotions. While they may draw more heavily on one movement that another, contemporary artists often blend elements from various past movements to suit their own, and their audiences’, tastes.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

7 thoughts on “Reason and Emotion Clash in the Arts”

  1. Interesting to think about, but I don’t believe that art is capable of being confined so closely in a very few categories. My work tries to be realistic, but it doesn’t fit the description you have. Nor does naturalism, entirely. When you start making these kinds of distinctions, you wind up having to say that a work is partly this and partly that. I realize that the distinctions aren’t something you created, but they reveal why I dislike so much literary criticism — it has little relationship to the artist’s reality.

  2. I agree that categorizing art is often a complex process, Catana, one fraught with (potentially misleading) compromises and approximations. However, it is a widespread human trait to want classifications of some kind so we can have some sense of what we are doing and have a *general* understanding of how the land lies. (I know how you hate generalizations!) It is hard to steer a course without some kind of compass and map. If we lack these, then buying a book, for example, becomes a random act of taking “potluck.” Reviews are, after all, a concise form of literary criticism. Most important, humans like to talk about art and having to discuss books or works of art on a work-by-work basis, without some kind of overarching organizational scheme, would be difficult to say the least.

    In some cases, categorization is simple. Over the centuries, many artists have eagerly participated in a particular art movement in order to advance its central ideas and promote what they saw as the progress of art. Perhaps they thought their own careers might benefit as well. Van Gogh and Gauguin were deliberate expressionists. Picasso was a cubist. To switch to writing and a lighter vein, we are just getting past the “steampunk” movement – or perhaps seeing it evolve into something more sophisticated.

    In other cases, things can get tricky. During every identifiable period, there are those who stick with older forms or meld various influences to arrive at a unique body of work. Yet, it remains true that every artist, no matter how original, draws on the past. No artist works in a creative vacuum. The skill with which melding artists fuse their influences makes a difference. Some works are quite visibly a bit of this and a bit of that, an eclectic and original mix. Others are remarkably well-integrated and therefore harder to pin down. It is the job of critics to spot these distinctions and present them to their readers.

    Our times are characterized by having far more of these integrative artists than has previously been the case. There are also more movements in progress at the same time. Furthermore, many artists routinely cross boundaries to work in various movements or categories. Look at the SF writers who dabble in steampunk or cyberpunk while continuing their mainstream writing. As its market has expanded, the art world has fragmented. Navigating through it all is becoming more difficult. The need for good quality criticism, whatever its shortcomings may be (and I admit they are considerable), has never been more apparent.

    I think the psychology of the artist plays a role in how they like to view their own work, and in how they prefer others to see it. Catana, you describe yourself as a “maverick writer” which suggests that distinguishing yourself strongly from other authors matters a great deal to you; hence your well-aimed and valid protestations about generalizations, pigeonholing, and inaccuracies. I describe myself as a “philosophical writer,” an expression of my powerful need to describe and explain. You dislike literary criticism and find its lack of precision of little value; I enjoy it, and find it both useful and satisfying as a general guide.

  3. You’re getting to know me too well. I’ll have to watch that. But seriously, I enjoy your very different point of view, and I often learn something from it. The twain sometimes do meet.

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