July 2009

Thought and Feeling in Art--An Integrated View

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

This article is based on a talk entitled "Art, Cognition, and Emotion: An Integrated View," given at the annual meeting of the National Art Education Association in Chicago, Illinois, March 24, 2006.

In recent years discourse about art has generally been framed in terms of two diametrically opposite viewpoints: modernism and postmodernism. In the visual arts, modernism has primarily entailed the embrace of abstract painting and sculpture, with an emphasis on their formal properties and little consideration of meaning or content. On the other hand, postmodernism has meant the rejection of all that modernism stands for (in particular, Abstract Expressionism) and the advocacy of its polar opposite.

Advocates on each side view the other as anathema. One leading postmodernist, Rosalind Krauss, proclaims for example that "a truly postmodernist art" acts "to void the basic propositions of modernism." On the other side, the ardent modernist Hilton Kramer defends what he regards as "the high purposes and moral grandeur of modernism," in contrast with the "fraudulence" and "frivolousness" of postmodernism.[1]

Postmodernists declare that the only thing that matters in art are ideas. They charge that modernism has placed too much emphasis on formal attributes, personal expression, and emotion, and that it has paid too little attention to the role of meaning, content, and cognition. As one critic recently wrote about the late Sol LeWitt, a prominent postmodernist:

As one of many younger artists in the 1960s who reacted against what they perceived as the emotional excesses of Abstract Expressionism, LeWitt brought about a fundamental shift in taste with sculptures and drawings that put thought rather than feeling, ideas rather than aesthetics at the forefront, making the artist's initial conception more important than the finished product.

Ironically, for all his postmodernist emphasis on ideas, LeWitt's work is, like the modernist work it was a reaction against, entirely abstract (albeit more mechanical and impersonal in style than Abstract Expressionism), and its purported "ideas" are indiscernible to the viewer. But his emphasis on perfunctory execution places him squarely in the postmodernist camp.

On their side, defenders of modernism lament that postmodernists generally downplay the importance of the formal and sensory attributes of art, and that they are even willing to dispense with works of art altogether. In the field of art education, the latter tendency is clearly evidenced by a growing preference for studying such non-art objects of "visual culture" as advertisements and toy action figures.

To judge by attendance at two of the Super Sessions at the 2006 National Art Education Association conference, postmodernism seems to be winning the hearts and minds of teachers. For a panel discussion entitled "The Many Faces of Visual Culture," a sizable ballroom was filled to capacity, with people standing in the aisles. The drift of the session was clearly indicated by the opening talk, which did not deal with works of art at all, instead offering a sociopolitical analysis of New York City's "If you see something, say something" anti-terrorism poster campaign. On the next day, the same room was more than half empty for what turned out to be a mostly excellent presentation by a panel of museum educators. Entitled "Teaching from Art," it was devoted almost entirely to ways of teaching about authentic works of visual art. All the examples discussed were works of painting and sculpture, properly speaking, with one exception (a crudely fashioned installation piece, which typified postmodernism in its utter disregard for form).

As I've argued elsewhere, the postmodernist trend is most unfortunate.[2] Yet I would by no means want to re-establish the modernist viewpoint, for its formalist emphasis and disregard of intelligible meaning or content is equally flawed. What I advocate instead is a view of art that is neither modernist nor postmodernist. If anything, it might be characterized as pre-modernist, for it reverts to an earlier view regarding the nature of art and its role in human life. Yet it surpasses both modernism and postmodernism, for it offers in their place an account of the distinctive function and value of art that is based on an understanding of the crucial relationship between perception, cognition, and emotion. Moreover, as I have emphasized in a previous talk and article, it seriously calls into question the value of many modernist and postmodernist innovations, from abstract painting to "conceptual art."[3]

Discussions of art theory often suffer by straying into generalizations too far removed from actual works of art. Mindful of that pitfall, I will anchor my argument here in five examples, from diverse cultural traditions (one, two, three, four, five). At the talk on which this article is based, I asked audience members to view these images and consider their responses to each in terms of two questions: First, What feelings or thoughts does the work evoke? Second, What features contribute to such feelings or thoughts? I urge readers to do the same, before reading further. To ensure that responses are prompted solely by qualities inherent in the works, I deliberately refrain here, as I did in my talk, from mentioning the title, the artist, or any other information until later.

At my talk, the first work elicited ideas such as poverty, obscurity, a sense of what it's like to struggle through a storm, admiration for the depicted traveler's dogged perseverance, and human vulnerability. Such ideas were prompted by the impression that the snow in the picture is almost knee-deep against the figure's bare legs and seems to be falling thick and fast; the figure is leaning on his staff, holding onto his hat and bending into the wind; and his simple garment is blowing in the wind. (The image is a black & white detail of a woodblock print, Snow in the Countryside [1909], by the Japanese artist Kamisaka Sekka [1866-1942].)

The second work evoked "maternal feelings" in one viewer, and in others thoughts of such things as illness, resignation, innocence, and vulnerability. One woman commented: "It reminds me of how my five-year-old granddaughter looks watching a video." Another found the image "very moving." To me the little girl depicted seems to be patiently waiting, as if for the return of health. What features of the painting prompt such impressions? The way the child is propped up against her pillow, chin resting on her chest; the pensive expression of her eyes; the way her thin hands are folded; the delicacy of her features and ivory complexion contrasted with her luxuriant auburn hair; the fragile blossoms strewn upon her counterpane. (This painting, entitled The Convalescent [1867], is by the British artist Frank Holl [1845-1888].)

The third work, viewers observed, suggested ideas of antiquity, thought, studiousness, comfort, and tranquillity. It also inspired a feeling of "fascination," as well as curiosity about the presence of the lion. Yet one viewer found it "depressing." Its evocative features are numerous. The venerable-looking figure it depicts is engrossed at his writing table in a simply but comfortably furnished room that is bestrewn with books, cushions, and slippers and guarded by a drowsing dog and a benevolent, almost smiling lion in the foreground. Sunlight streams in through the leaded windows. A sense of order is conveyed by the structuring of the composition through the skillful use of perspective. And the image contains several objects fraught with symbolic value, from the skull on the windowsill to the hourglass hung on the wall and the tiny crucifix on the saint's writing table. (The work, an engraving, is St. Jerome in His Study (1514), by the great German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer [1471-1528].)

Unlike the preceding three, the fourth work I showed was a sculpture. Viewers commented that the young man it represented seems confident (even cocky), defiant, full of youthful arrogance. Such impressions were attributable to the self-assured pose of his lithe body and to his alert, outward-focused expression. (This bonded-bronze figure was created in 1972 by a little-known American sculptor, Peter Cozzolino. He called it The Young David, and the attributes noted above are certainly appropriate to the future slayer of Goliath.)

The fifth and final work, a landscape, prompted adjectives ranging from "tranquil" to "majestic." One viewer commented: "If you like to visit places like that, it draws you in." Another found it "boring," however. Among the image's evocative features are the depth and expansiveness of the scene, with mountains looming in the background and daylight streaming dramatically down through dark clouds. Also striking is its almost primeval aspect, with no trace of man or beast. (This painting, Lake George [1869], is by the American landscape artist John Frederick Kensett [1816-1872], a prominent member of the Hudson River School.)

A theory of art ought to be able to shed light on the diverse responses prompted by these works. Needless to say, neither modernist nor postmodernist theory can do so. But before I outline an alternative theory that can, let me note that what I will offer is a very cursory distillation of ideas that are explored in greater depth in the book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, which I co-authored. In the late 1960s, when postmodernism was taking hold in the artworld and was beginning to prompt the now-prevailing view that virtually anything can be art, Ayn Rand (who was best known as the author of the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) offered a compelling analysis of art's distinctive nature. I didn't learn of her theory until twenty years later--through Louis Torres, who had recently founded Aristos, informed by Rand's theory. By that time, my own ideas about art were already largely formed, but I lacked a theoretical framework for them and had turned away from the contemporary art scene because it made so little sense to me.

During graduate studies in art history in the 1960s, I had focused on the Renaissance, and on classical and medieval art, and I simply could not see how either the abstract work of the modernists or the more bizarre inventions of the postmodernists also qualified as art.[4] Rand's theory offered a rational basis for my intuitive sense of things. In the twenty years since I first began to consider her ideas, I've explored pre-modernist Western thought on the arts, as well as non-Western ideas on the subject. The more I've read, the more convinced I've become that the Western "avant-garde" movements--beginning with nonobjective, or "abstract," art--have constituted a profound cultural aberration. And the more inclined I've become to characterize the basic principles of Rand's esthetics as a universal theory of art, properly speaking. For brevity and simplicity, I distill her theory and its implications to the following seven basic points (expressed in my own terms for the most part, not hers):

1. Art is mimetic. It is made to resemble, in recognizable ways, how things look in reality. Works may range from highly stylized (as in the Japanese woodcut shown above) to highly naturalistic (as in Kensett's Lake George). Contrary to modernist theory, however, works of art are never wholly abstract. Nor are they merely symbolic. Nor do they literally mirror--or mechanically replicate--reality, as much postmodernist work does. To borrow Ayn Rand's useful formulation, they selectively re-create reality.
However photographic Kensett's painting of Lake George, for instance, may appear at first glance it is a selective re-creation of the actual landscape, based on numerous studies he made at different times. Though local topographic features can be identified, Kensett clearly took considerable liberties with them--reducing the distance between the features represented, omitting some of the islands in the lake, and so on. He also selectively altered countless smaller details, highlighting some, minimizing others.
2. Art conveys meaning indirectly and implicitly, rather than explicitly. The meaning one derives from a work emerges from two factors:
a. Recognizable subject matter. In the works just considered, for example, viewers readily identified a human figure in a snowstorm, a young girl on her sick bed, a venerable scholar at work, and so on.
b. How the subject matter is treated. As we saw, the full import and effect of a work depends not on subject matter alone but on the artist's treatment of it, through his handling of attributes ranging from pose, gesture, and facial expression to composition, color, light, and shadow. (Recall the way in which the pose and expression of Cozzolino's Young David, for instance, seemed apt for a representation of the shepherd boy who would one day slay a giant.)
In my view, the principal task of art education should be to enhance students' perception of, and sensitivity to, such subtleties of expression--to help them understand how such features contribute to the meaning and effect of a work, whether in the making of their own art or in the appreciation of that of others.
3. The viewer's grasp of a work's meaning is largely intuitive. As indicated by the examples above, the understanding of art is based primarily on general life experience, not on specialized knowledge. In general, works of art do not require "expert" interpretation or "decoding." Even with respect to a work rich in culturally specific iconographic content, such as Durer's St. Jerome, a deep core of meaning is broadly accessible (more on this below).
4. What the artist represents and, more especially, how he represents it, both depends upon and reflects his values, his sense of life--what he regards as important, as worth attending to and remembering. These, in turn, are influenced in complex ways, and to varying degrees, by such factors as the artist's temperament and his life experience, in which his social and cultural context are obviously important factors. Gender and politics are among those cultural influences, though in my view their relevance to works of visual art has been greatly exaggerated in postmodernist theory. They have no bearing at all on the five works considered above, for example.
5. How each individual responds to a work is likewise based on his own experience, values, and sense of life. These factors are subject to the same range of influences that affect the artist, to unique effect in each individual. An intense emotional response to a work (whether positive or negative) indicates that it has touched deeply held values and beliefs.
While a viewer (especially one living in a different culture from that of the artist) may not grasp the full meaning intended, he can nevertheless respond to the core of meaning accessible through the work's mimetic and expressive features, as I suggested above. The first time I saw Dürer's St. Jerome, for example, I was not aware that it was specifically intended to embody the German Renaissance ideal of Christian humanism, which Dürer embraced. As a non-Christian scholar living 500 years after Dürer's time, however, I was drawn to this work because it evokes the pleasures and rewards of intellectual pursuits, in general. Its meaning transcends the particular to take on a wider significance. And so a copy of it has long hung in my home, where it continues to delight and inspire me. But there is no reason to expect that someone else would necessarily feel the same way about it--as evidenced by the woman at my talk who found it depressing. And if I were to ask which of the works discussed (if any) you might choose to hang a reproduction of in your home, each of you might choose differently. That is as it should be. It's a natural consequence of our human individuality.
6. Works of art are created by autonomous individuals, not by culturally and socially determined automatons. Contrary to postmodernists' frequent implication, the characteristics of a work are not determined by the artist's cultural context, although it of course exerts a powerful influence. Artists can, and often do, choose to ignore or defy the dominant trends of their time, in both style and content. Cozzolino's Young David, for instance, while created in 1972, is a world apart from the styles dominant around that time. Compare it to David Smith's modernist Sentinel, for example, a very abstract work created only a decade earlier, or to typical works by contemporary postmodernists, such as George Segal's Girl on a Chair (1970) or Duane Hanson's Bodybuilder--both of which were made by direct casting from live models (and neither of which truly qualifies as art for that reason--see the first point above, on the nature of artistic mimesis).

Those six points briefly indicate the broad characteristics of works of visual art, as well as the essential nature of both the creative process and the response to art in their infinite variety. Yet the all-important question for a theory of art remains, What is the value of such works--what human need, if any, do they fill?

On an immediate personal level, of course, works of art can provide intense psychological pleasure. But a fundamental question yet remains, What is the source of the pleasure experienced in response to art? The answer to that lies in the crucial nexus between perception, cognition, and emotion. And here is where Ayn Rand's theory of art offers its greatest illumination. To set it in context, let me digress for a moment to give a very simplified account of cognitive psychology.

It is well known that we humans grasp reality first and foremost through the senses (even the metaphorical term "grasp" reflects that fact). We rely on the evidence of our senses to function in the world. Our perceptual faculties of sight, sound, and touch give us our most direct experience of what is out there. And for humans, as for all primates, vision is, under normal circumstances, the most important faculty of perception. Seeing is, in a very real sense, believing.

Yet beyond the early stages of development, human cognition is mainly conceptual, not perceptual, in nature. The process of concept formation begins automatically in the brain, in infancy. From the neural connections spontaneously formed in the brain through sensory contact with the world, children begin at a very early age to grasp simple concepts such as those of dog and cat, chair and table, picture and music, and so on--to which they soon learn to attach the appropriate words. (Moreover, and this is especially relevant to the later perception of works of art, every perceptual experience is accompanied by a corresponding emotional coloration--an implicit evaluation of good or bad, painful or pleasurable, according to the circumstances.) As the brain matures and the range of experience expands, more complex higher-level concepts, such as animal, furniture, art, and so on are added to the individual's cognitive lexicon.

Through the words we attach to concepts, from the simplest to the most complex, we are able to think about and communicate a vast range of knowledge. That knowledge might include ideas such as the following, suggested by the works of art discussed above: "Winter is often difficult." "Children are vulnerable yet can be remarkably strong and resilient." "Scholarly pursuits offer tranquil pleasures." "The grandeur and beauty of nature is awe-inspiring."

Such abstract statements have little emotional impact, however. What we are moved by are not abstract ideas in themselves but the values we attach to them--not what we know about the world intellectually but how we feel about what we know. And what we feel about what we know is linked most strongly and directly to concrete experiences, not to abstractions. Compare the effect of the aphorisms I just listed, for example, with that of the works of art considered earlier. Can there be any doubt as to which form of expression is more memorable? It is this recognition that brings us to the most valuable insight of Ayn Rand's theory, illuminating the basic function of art:

7. Works of art represent in concrete sensory form ideas and feelings about the world (both the real world of our experience and the other worlds we imagine) so that they can be grasped with the perceptual and emotional immediacy of direct experience. Art thereby satisfies a deep psychological need: it literally "realizes" our mental conceptions of the things that are important to us, reconnecting them to the feelings that literally move us. The distinctive pleasure works of art engender derives from the satisfaction of this need.

For good reason, art has always been akin to religion and philosophy. All three deal largely with things of lasting significance, not with passing trivialities. Through visual embodiments of such things, an artist objectifies his thoughts and feelings about them, giving them external reality both for himself and for others. Like the tenets of religion and philosophy, art reflects a sense of the world and our place in it. Like them, it deals with values. Unlike religion and philosophy, however, visual art conveys ideas through the representation of particulars, not through verbal abstractions. That, as I've said, is what lends it its characteristic emotional power. It also explains why religion has so often enlisted works of art in the service of its ideas. It is not the mere symbol of a cross that has moved Christians through the ages, for example, but rather the countless embodiments of Jesus undergoing the Crucifixion.

In recent years, neuroscience has begun to illuminate the crucial connection between human thought and emotion. The arts pre-eminently engage this crucial connection. In so doing, they help to give us a clearer, deeper awareness of what we believe, what we value, what we regard as important in the long term.


1. For critical assessment of Hilton Kramer's views, see "Kandinsky and His Progeny" (Aristos, May 1995) and "Hilton Kramer's Misreading of Abstract Art" (Aristos, May 2003).

2. See, for example, "Where's the Art in Today's Art Education?," What Art Is Online, November 2002, reprinted in Arts Education Policy Review, March/April 2003; and "Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture Studies'," Aristos, January 2004, reprinted in Arts Education Policy Review, September/October 2004.

3. For a critique of the basic assumptions of modernism and postmodernism and the typical features of modernist and postmodernist work, see "Modernism, Postmodernism, or Neither?" (Aristos, August 2005; reprinted in Arts Education Policy Review, May/June 2006)--which advocates the alternative theory of art proposed here.

4. My Master's thesis--"The Uffizi Diptych by Piero della Francesca: Its Form, Iconography, and Purpose" (1970)--dealt with a masterpiece of the early Italian Renaissance, Piero's double portrait of Federigo (or Federico) da Montefeltro and his wife, Battista Sforza. A far cry from the work of Jackson Pollock, Sol Lewitt, et al.!