A WORK OF ART Page: 20



In view of the fact that no work of art as an aesthetic object functions as a descriptive portrayal, such representation as it does achieve will be of a nondescriptive sort. It must be an expressive sort of representation. This chart indicates the right general distinctions:

In its nonaesthetic modes, portrayal is descriptive and formal. Descriptive portrayal has subvarieties that we ought not to consider here at any length. The difference between descriptive and formal portrayal is the difference between the statements "cattle occasionally get hoofand-mouth disease" (or a photograph used in such a description), and "the sum of the angles of a plane triangle equals two right angles" (or a triangular drawing used to illustrate this).

In its aesthetic modes, portrayal is expressive and formal. The expressive mode, in general, exhibits what the portrayal means in the medium of the expression; it breaks down into the representational and the nonrepresentational modes. Even representation here, notice, is a mode of expression. A work of art is representational when it exhibits an image content that expresses the subject matter, and there is a readily discernible likeness between properties of the materials arranged in its design and the properties of the subject matter as such. This likeness is the occasion for seeing the original (subject matter) depicted in the medium of the work as its content, although this resemblance itself is not seen or noticed in the aesthetic experience; it is not part of the object of prehension. On the other hand, a work of art is nonrepresentational when the image content--visual or auditory--expressing the subject matter in the medium does not depend so clearly on the sort of likeness mentioned above (titles help in such cases) and the image evinces emotion.

Examples of the difference between representational and nonrepresentational expression, both of which are expressive portrayals, can be arranged along a gamut between extremes, with intermediate examples that satisfy the conditions of both kinds of expression. Of the intermediate examples we would say that they are representational with respect to image content and nonrepresentational with respect to the emotion it evinces. Thus, in general, musical and verbal works of art are on the nonrepresentational side because properties of their materials are so unlike properties of the subject matter, except for occasional onomatopoeic likenesses. And, again in general, the plastic arts (excluding architecture) have a greater capacity for representation, for expressing the subject matter in the medium by virtue of image content, thanks to certain likenesses of materials and subject matter.

A work of art is formal in so far as it lacks a content of any sort; lacking this, it will also have no subject matter, since the content is the subject matter expressed in the medium of the work. But it will have a medium, formulated in an abstract way that makes the work's style of composition the main exhibit. This manner of composing, exhibited in formal works of art, takes the place of content. The elements of the medium, thus arrayed, determine and show the aesthetic space of the work, which is its whole point. This is a work of art in its simplest terms. "A picture in its simplest terms is something that fills a space," says Maurice Grosser --aesthetic space, of course. The same may be said of any work of art in which the elements of form preempt the field of the composition. Such a work of art does not depend for its aesthetic merit on either representation or expression, even when it does happen to express or represent something. The content, if any, will be eclipsed by the form.


Bibliography: Philosophy of Art. Virgil C. Aldrich - author, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Publication Year: 1963
Grosser, op. cit. (Mentor edition, 1956), p. 172.


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