Collingwood, The Principles of Art

I have quite a few books on art and aesthetics, but I did not have Collingwood. A number of years ago, I was introduced to Collingwood’s Idea of History. He is an Oxford fellow from the early 1900s who has a pleasing rhetorical style. The Principles of Art is not disappointing. His erudite style can be a little difficult to understand at times. He frequently quotes from different languages without translation (Greek, Latin, French, German, &c.). His rhetoric is also a bit old-fashioned I suppose for our uneducated, American ears. The second part of the book is a detailed philosophical thought experiment, which quite easily bogs down the reader. Given those caveats, Collingwood is rewarding to those who labor to understand him.

The first section of the book describes what art is not and what it is. The final section gives a conclusion and definition of art. Collingwood’s main argument is that art is a conscious expression of emotion. While art includes craft or skill, skill alone does not make art. Art is also not a copied or fabricated emotion. Collingwood admits we often call these works art, but wrongly.

Collingwood explains art like this. A person–the artist in this case–considers something, a person, an event, an idea, what have you. His reflection on said thing causes an emotional response inside him, unconsciously. It is not an idea or image that he can articulate or describe. As an artist he feels the need to express this emotion–to “let it out” we might say. So he does: he paints, sculpts, composes, &c.

Then we, the audience, come along, and we see or hear this work of art. As we reflect on it, we begin to feel the same type of emotion that the artist felt and expressed. We, in turn, become artists, seeking a medium of expression. The ability to enter into this participation with art is called refinement.

Perhaps a more concrete example will illustrate the point. The aria “Bist Du bei Mir” is a song about the love two people share that is steady and strong even in the face of death. More accurately, it is love that grows all the stronger at death. Here are the words in English:

If you are with me,
Then I will gladly go
Unto death and to my rest.
Ah how pleasing were my end
If your dear hands
Then shut my faithful eyes.

The poet, considering love and death, responds emotionally, has an emotion idea, as it were. He expresses that emotional idea in the poem. Then the soprano sings the aria. While singing it, the emotion wells up within her also. In her singing she communicates the same to the audience who in turn participates, the emotion being evoked (drawn out) from them. To Collingwood, the poet, soprano, and listener are all artists in this process.

I mentioned early on that Collingwood is one we should be slow to disagree with. Yet, I think in one place he has a wrong assumption, and consequently his conclusion comes a little short or is not quite complete. The wrong assumption is that the artist always expresses a noble affection, a right emotion. He never expresses a bad or evil emotion. In other words, whatever we feel is always right. Because of this, it is the artist who will save civilization, according to Collingwood.

This assumption leads consequently to a short coming in Collingwood’s conclusion. While I agree with him as far as he goes, I think the artist does more than express and evoke emotion. The emotion he expresses is always toward something. He asks us not only to feel something, but to direct that feeling toward something else. In the example of the aria, “Bist Du bei Mir,” the poet expresses an emotion toward love in death. He wants us to feel the same sentiment towards love in death, not just the sentiment.

A good artist draws out from us the right emotion toward something. A bad artist evokes from us the wrong emotion toward that thing. Another example is to contrast requia. Requia are liturgical songs written about death. Mozart’s requiem evokes a terrible fear of death. Should Christians fear death? Is Mozart making us feel the wrong emotion towards death? I think so. (Brahms on the hand helps us feel the right emotion towards death.)

In spite of any disagreement on these two points, I was pleasantly surprised by The Principles of Art. I am glad it has been added to my collection, and I look forward to reading it again.

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