Freedom and Fellowship, Chapter 1: A Case for Theology (part 5)

The Creation of Forms Symbolic of Human Feelings

Philosopher Susanne Langer defines art as “The creation of forms symbolic of human feelings.” (Langer, Susanne K., Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, (London, Scribners) 1953, pg. 40) As the definition suggests, art is not merely something abstract and private. Rather, art uses form and structure to symbolically reference “human feelings.” Art comes into being when the abstract and private moves beyond potentiality and becomes something concrete and public. Art comes into being when someone has an intention to create something. Art requires intention.

Also, art is not restricted to one form. A variety of forms and structures will contribute to the whole of art. Art will be musical, linguistic, or performative. Art will be representational, realistic, impressionist, expressive, abstract, or surreal. We can never say that this is art and that is not, because, in strictly a formal and structural sense, many words, melodies, objects, and movements will be, can be, and are considered art.

Art, according to Langer, is also symbolic. It is not denotative, but connotative. While art is concerned with that which is good, beautiful, and true, its purpose is not to define, lock down, or restrict any understanding of these. Rather, art wants to suggest, set free, and expand on these ideas. While precision may have a role to play, ultimately, art wants something more not less. Art wants abundance, not scarcity.

Langer’s definition also suggests that the feelings art is symbolic of are the ones common to humanity. There is no article present, modifying “human.” The feelings are the feelings common to us all. It does not matter, for the purpose of art, that you or I each have our own feelings. To be art, the feelings symbolized must be common to humanity. According to Langer, art is not symbolic of a singular human’s feelings, but human feelings.

This is, of course, a bit of a shell game (and highlights the symbolic nature of the form and structure of language) – human feelings are not unique to just one of us. We are not that different. However, in designating a corporate nature to the object, Langer’s definition helps us to further distinguish between art and its systems of symbolic logic.

While a piece of art you might create may arise as a result of your response to a specific person, place, or event, it becomes art when the feelings you are suggesting connect with another human. While the experience of a broken relationship with another person may provide the impetus for the creation of a work of art, the specific elements of that relationship that are reflected in the piece are not themselves the art, but provide the system of symbolic logic from which the art is created.

Given Langer’s definition, when asked, the painter should not say that the painting is about his break-up with a long-time girlfriend. I have never broken up with his longtime girlfriend, and so this subject remains an event that is singular to a person. What would constitute art in this instance is the creation of a painting which symbolically references or suggests the feeling(s) which can arise from a broken relationship, using the system of symbolic logic provided by the artist’s break-up with a longtime girlfriend. Broken relationships are common to humanity and so are the various feelings which spring from them. The painting is art because it symbolizes those feelings; the break-up merely provides the pieces and parts for the artist to do the work.

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