engage with expression theory
September 16, 2011 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend an interesting activity that I can get philosophy students to engage in, to accompany a seminar on the expression theory of art?

It's for a university philosophy class. And by expression theory, I mean the theory that the value of art is concerned with the artist trying to generate or express an emotion or imaginative experience. The main thing I am emphasizing is the value of artistic creativity.

I'd rather not use something to do with music here because I already have another lecture on that. The activity should also be something that is fairly easily incorporated into the class (i.e. not too long, requiring expensive materials, or embarrasing). Films that I can show, short illuminating tests, or activities the students do at home and then report on could be ideal.
posted by leibniz to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps have them write a haiku (or any poem) but require that it not contain anything like merely descriptive text?

The idea being to prevent them from telling a story or constructing anything like a standard narrative, thereby forcing them to be creative in how they evoke the desired reaction.
posted by oddman at 8:29 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I imagine even philosophy students have camera phones nowadays. Ask for images that evoke something without illustrating it. You might, for example, have them take pictures that convey specific human emotions (love, hate, boredom, surprise) without depicting people. If they upload to a shared site you could make a game out of guessing the inspiration/intention behind each image.
If that works, up the ante from emotions to relationships (marriage, horse ownership, oligarchy, etc) and finally, to close the circle, some philosophical terms. Can you post the categorical imperative on Facebook?
posted by jcrcarter at 11:52 AM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Bear with me: this is long. Very long. I'm sorry.

I (artist and ardent philosophy lover) took a friend (quantum physist and fellow philosophy lover) to the Met a while back, where we wandered through a show of modern self portraits, mostly charcoal drawings, 99% of which were not remotely literal representations. Some of the self-portraits on view were a simple series of lines on otherwise blank white pages, often resembling mathematical forms or prisms, one was a cropped x-ray of the artist's hand(maybe?) with some guache overlay, and some were very loose, cartoonish, quick gesture sketches of the variety that often causes people to shout in outrage that "a CHILD could do that!". My friend was open-minded but appeared sincerely boggled. He said things like, "I don't understand how these are supposed to be self-portraits" or, "I don't even know what this IS" (i.e., he couldn't identify any sort of clear, literal object or reference to anything within the piece that inturn referenced the artist's 'self'), and finally, he walked away with, "I don't get it.".

So as we wandered, and he told me again of his preference for art to look like 'whatever it's supposed to be', I asked him how he would do his own self-portrait. If he wants it to 'look like what it's supposed to be', would he want it be just a photo of his face or body? That's what he looks like. Does that mean anything? To him? To others who might see it? There are certainly photographic self-portraits, so what makes a photo a self-portrait? Is it just 'artistic intent'? Would he personally prefer his self-portrait to be an exact likeness of himself in an oil painting instead? Is that better or more important? Would he want his self-portrait to look just like the established style of a famous artist like Rembrandt or Chuck Close? Why them? Does a good self-portrait need to look like the artist, or even an part odf the artist? What if it looked just like himself except all in green, or if he was in an identifiable, familiar place, or he was barely visible, or painted almost completely over in thick white paint, or turned away so it's just his back, or cropped to only a specific part, like an eye? Would his portrait be huge or small? Would he need it to be 'beautiful' or technically exacting? Does the meaning of his self-portrait come from him or the people who see it? Would he want people to understand his self-portrait in a specific way and how would he make that happen? What if their interpretation was way, way off his intended meaning? How do you even go about taking your intention to make a self-portrait, and whatever ideas and feelings you have about yourself and your abilities and the meaning of this image, and actually create it? Can you do it? What if it really, really sucks? Or what if you love it, but everyone else thinks it sucks? What if no one ever sees it? What if someone just throws it away?

You get the picture - and that's... yes, a very bad pun, but... the idea of a 'self-portrait' is an enormously tricky endeavor that can seem like a no-brainer, but ends up a sucking black hole of endless possibilities and pure individual expression and intent.

At it's most basic, you'd get them thinking momentarily about their own little personal art project. And it's all about them and their self-image, so it's an easy lasso with which to loop even the most bored college student into thinking about themselves and art, how they'd want to portray themselves, and how they want others to perceive them and the value of artistic works. This leads pretty immediately to questioning our ideas about beauty and worth via what art we immediately equate with tricky value judgements like 'good', 'beautiful', or 'serious' art. Deeper questions are of course what we think we are and how we define our own identity and how/why we would try to capture some meaningful aspect of that identity on a blank page or canvas or wherever. And why so many people create art, particularly when they aren't ever going to wind up in a museum. And where our identity and creativity intersects with others and their views, and how/if/why that matters.

Some though-provoking slides are all that's required. I'd show a whole bunch of stills of self-portraits that run the gamut of self-portraiture from photorealism (or photos, of course) to the most abstract of impressions - simple drawings, classical paintings, sculptures - whatever, but you engage your audience with the question of how they would choose to represent the whole of themselves in their own self-portraits, what they'd try to express, how they'd value any and all aspects of the endeavor, and how they'd want others to value it.
posted by involution at 2:55 AM on September 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ugh. Let's try "thought-provoking slides" instead. I dream that someday we'll be able to edit our typos here.
posted by involution at 3:03 AM on September 18, 2011

Response by poster: Wow involution, that's a great suggestion! Even to get them thinking about or planning a 'self-portrait' would be worthwhile.

To your list of alternatives I would add: by what method should you create your self-portrait- spontaneous free expression? carefully planned? random number generator? etc.

And I wouldn't limit self-portrait to visual arts of course.
posted by leibniz at 5:55 AM on September 19, 2011

...and just like that, my mind is marching off on the idea of a self-portrait purely in sound. Very interesting idea.

So yes, not confining it to the visual arts is a marvelous thought. A quick googling of 'self-portrait' predictably pulled up a billion images of people's faces carefully (or not) rendered in ink or charcoal or paint, which, in my opinion, is the very least interesting possibility; the more you loosen up that concept in your presentation, the better, I think. A couple of self-portrait slide suggestions that immediately pop to mind outside the frame of the usual uber-popular dead white guys (though all still visual artists, I'm afraid) are Tom Friedman (made entirely of layered construction paper on the ground), Jenny Saville and Basquiat.
posted by involution at 12:53 PM on September 19, 2011

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