Expression: What Can Paintings Express?

Leo Segedin   |   August 8, 2018 |   Print this essay


It has become a cliché to say that artists express themselves in their paintings and that a painting is an expression of an artist's thoughts and feelings. We have believed that an artist's paintings are worth more than photographs and tables. Both a painting and a table may be creative and original, but paintings are expressive and tables and photographs, because they are mechanical products, are not. Since calling an object a work of art raises its value, some craftsmen claimed that their work was as expressive as paintings and, therefore, they should be valued the same. But photographs were not handmade and if a table maker was expressing himself, what did he express? What did the table express? Why had there no books interpreting tables or table makers?

So goes the cliché. Over the last several years, however, this cliché has become dated. When I began exhibiting my paintings in art fairs in the 1950's, photographs were not exhibited because they were not expressive "art". Now they dominate art fairs. What has happened? First, the art world changed. As artists challenged the traditional definitions of art during the last half of the 20th century, Art became philosophical and, because it was limited to paint and canvas, painting lost its primacy. In this revised definition, Art became anything made by an artist. Any object — any activity — presented in an art gallery or museum became "art". Duchamp had already exhibited urinals. In the 1960s, artists went beyond that. Damien Hirst exhibited cigarette butts, Robert Irwin, empty rooms, Chris Burden shot himself and the Art Institute exhibited large photographs of a man mutilating his genitals.

It wasn't until the 19th century that term "expression" became associated with the making of paintings. In the 20th century, it expanded to include the making of anything. The products of all work are now expressions. Anything a child makes is expressive. Ceramic classes at community centers are opportunities for "self—expression". In fact, everything we do is now "expressive". Decorating our living room and the clothes we wear express our personality.

The term "expression" even has legal implications. In a recent letter to the editors of the New York Review of Books, responding to an essay by David Cole on the Supreme Court's Masterpiece Cake Case, a writer argues that the relevant cake was a "highly expressive undertaking", "similar to other media, such as writing, painting and sculpture" and, therefore, it should be up to the baker to decide whether it should be made and exhibited. Cole responded that "If bakers are 'expressive; so, too, are chefs, hair stylists, architects, schools and colleges, nail salons, and corporate photography studios."


How do we know what an artist is feeling when he is making a painting? We may recognize the feelings of the characters he represents, but what do the artist's feelings look like?

How do we recognize, say, feelings of depression and stress, or of particular emotions like grief, lust and anger or of aesthetic feelings that he might be experiencing while he is making the painting? Can we tell for ourselves what the artist is feeling by looking at the painting or must we be told?

Why should we care about what an artist is feeling? Are an artist's feelings more special, more profound than the feelings of non—artists or are they like the feelings of everyone else? Can the artist tell us what he is feeling? Can we believe him? Are feelings expressed in the painting necessarily the feelings of the artist who made the painting? Are the feelings involved peculiar to the painting and not the artist? Why do artists, art historians, critics, dealers and museum curators often disagree about what a painting means? Is it possible to experience the same feelings that the Medieval or Renaissance viewer felt when looking at paintings? Is a painting like a Rorschach into which a viewer can project his own feelings? It is said that a painting speaks for itself, but, if it does, the language it speaks has no dictionary.


The term, "expression" has had many different meanings over its history. It originally meant "to press out", like grape juice out of grapes. The term was not used during the medieval period when painters were craftsmen whose feelings were irrelevant to their work. During the Baroque period, the term referred to what the characters represented in the paintings expressed. It was only in the early 20th century that it referred to what the artist felt. According to the Oxford dictionary, it now has three meanings. It can mean "the action of making known one"s thoughts or "feelings", "the conveying of feeling in a work of art or in the performance of a piece of music", and "the look on someone"s face that conveys a particular emotion."

The "Expressionist" painter expresses himself by distorting his subject matter and manipulating the paint; the 'Abstract expressionist', by brushwork with no subject matter. Dancers express themselves with body postures and movements, composers and musicians with patterns of sound. We express ourselves when we speak or write, but also when we scream or shake our fists. Lines, brushstrokes, shapes and colors are expressive, as well as media, such as oil, acrylic, watercolor and pastel. We can also send a package "express", take an "express" train with the "express" purpose of getting somewhere in a

It is certainly possible to respond to a painting without knowing anything about it, but it is also true that the more you know, the more you can see and the more you see, the more you can feel. This is true for the most realistic representations. Even a photograph "might benefit from kind of verbal frame or directive to orient viewers". Although images may be expressions, they are not cathartic releases of feelings. Feelings may be subjective, but, since they have no visually describable form, they cannot be objectively represented. Therefore, the viewer must project feelings into the image. He might base such feelings on what he knows about the intensions of the artist. He might have read a book, listened to a professor lecture in a university, a docent in an art museum, or a voice on an audio guide. Even if he knows what the artist might have intended, others can and do project or find other meanings in the painting. The artist may be representing his own thoughts and feelings, but also, if he is on contract, represent the thoughts and feelings of his patron. His patron might be a person, but also an institution or political party. Thus, the emotional content of images is ultimately ambiguous.

A face may be the most obvious expression of feeling, but a facial expression does not necessarily represent what the person is act actually feeling. We do not have to be happy when we smile for a selfie or serious when we pose for a portrait. Comedians don't have to feel funny when they tell funny jokes. Actors represent the feelings of their characters, not their own. We know the feelings of their characters because we recognize the significance of their facial expressions, as well as their body postures and behavior, through the skill of the actor. The same is true for the perception of paintings. We recognize such feelings because they are social products, the forms of which are determined, not only by our own experience, but also by social convention.

Everybody has feelings. Some feelings are personal and private; we don't normally express in public our feelings of anxiety, anger, hatred, or guilt. Other feelings, however, can be expressed publicly. We often express our feelings of happiness, of disappointment, of welcome, of satisfaction and gratification, of triumph and failure. We feel that some expressions are inappropriate for certain occasions. 'Appropriateness' is codified by rules established by society. Thus, public images represent only those emotions which are considered appropriate for their social context and purpose.


This is true for expression in representations of faces in historical images. Although facial expressions are the most recognizable indications of feelings, their representations in paintings are not necessarily the result of neutral efforts to describe them. Unrealistic representations in public images were not the result of inadequate skills. They were determined by the function of the image in the society for which it was made. According to Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century AD, Polygnotus of Thasos, in the 5th century BC, 'was the first to confer expression on the face 'In place of the ancient rigidity of the features.' This development was not progress from a primitive lack of skill to sophisticated realism as was assumed by Renaissance writers. Rather it was determined by the changing function of the image in that society. Previous artists who made rigid images, were just as skillful, but used their skill to create images with different functions. The face of a god, an emperor or a pharaoh on a temple mural would express power and authority. They were not intended to be accurate portraits.


The societies that determined facial expressions really consisted of the rich and powerful people for whom they were made, for those who paid the artists who made the paintings. For 2000 years in Europe, the values of the bishops and monks of the Christian church and the dukes and kings of the many European kingdoms of the time determined the content of images. Later, merchants and bankers became dominant. Today, art school teachers, museum curators and gallery dealers determine what is appropriate. In the popular arts, the taste of the newspaper and magazine reader determines what publishers will print.

For a thousand years, during the Medieval period, Christian dogma, determined by bishops and monks, dominated image making. Characters from the Old and New Testaments, Christ, the Madonna, the saints, apostles and martyrs were common subjects. Also, occasionally, donors, farmers, craftsmen, soldiers, kings, biblical and mythological characters would appear. The people represented in these paintings were basically actors in religious and secular narratives. They were conventions which represented only who they were and what they did. Although religious characters could show pathos, horror, sorrow and grief, they had no identifiable personalities, expressed no personal feelings. Their function was iconic rather than descriptive. Faces and body postures in images of donors represented their faith and devotion. If particular people were represented, they were identified, not by resemblance, but by label or symbol. None of this had anything to do with the feelings of the artists who made them.

In 15th century Italian Renaissance, nuevo riche bankers and merchants replaced or supplemented the Church as the dominant economic force. They showed their political power, their superiority, their sophisticated knowledge of Greek, Latin, the arts of the ancient, Roman world and the latest science by hiring the artists who best represent this awareness. Artists demonstrated their skill by representing their knowledge of perspective, anatomy and foreshortening. As a result, Renaissance images, while representing Catholic ideology and the accomplishments of the artist's patron, also demonstrated a rationality, objectivity and knowledge not evident in Medieval art.

Renaissance subject matter consisted not only of stories from the Old and New Testament, but also from Classical mythology and civic history. Faces on characters in such images, although realistically represented, were idealized and, therefore, would show only serene, noble emotions. Although soldiers might show anger, donors and supplicants showed only piety and devotion. Donors in Renaissance portraits never smile. Saints, martyrs, Christ and the Madonna show serenity as they accept their fate. Leonardo and Michelangelo explored representation of intense emotion in their drawings, but seldom in their public works.

In spite of the wars between city states like Florence and Pisa, between the city states and the Vatican, the struggles between and within families and within city states, social values remained constant and consistent. The nature of reality was taken for granted; Catholic, Christian dogma was not questioned.

During this period, a person's life might be threatened by war, murder and disease, but his faith and sense of reality was not challenged. Wars were fought by mercenaries, who worked for whatever political faction would pay them. The general population was not involved. However, in 1517, Martin Luther challenged traditional Catholic dogma and authority. In 1527, Rome was sacked by French, Protestant soldiers. During the resulting carnage, thousands of people were murdered and buildings destroyed. Epidemics occurred. As a result, the social, political and military power of the Church was destroyed. A dramatic split in the Catholic church occurred, resulting in the formation of Protestantism. Centuries long religious wars began in which whole populations were massacred. Not only were various political powers threatened, but, more fundamentally, the general sense of reality was challenged.

Northern Protestants rejected and destroyed religious imagery as idolatrous. They developed a secular, genre painting which taught moral lessons rather than Catholic, religious dogma. No longer limited to religious subjects determined by religious authorities, artists, now supported by middle class merchants, responded to market values. Paintings became commodities appealing to potential buyers. They could now represent emotions on the faces of ordinary people. Expressions of pleasure were acceptable. Characters could now laugh.

The Catholic Church responded with the Counterreformation in which images were intended to confirm the faith of onlookers s with appropriate religious feelings. Paintings emphasized Catholic religious values. Characters could show suffering, pathos, awe and fear as well as devotion.

In the 17th century, the Catholic Church responded to Protestant art with a highly ornate and often extravagant style called Baroque, which is an insult meaning 'distorted pearl'.

In the 18th century, Neo—classicism, in in reaction to the distortions and emotionalism of the Baroque, drew inspiration from the "classical" art and the culture of classical antiquity. It reflected the dogmas of civic authority, first of the French monarchy, then of the revolutionary government. Only noble emotions, serious expressions of civic responsibility were represented.

The competing Romantics, in contrast to the rationalism of classicism, and now reflecting the views of often unemployed artists, emphasized intense personal emotion. They placed new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe. Painting became subjective, irrational, imaginative, spontaneous and even visionary and transcendental.

The Expressionist artist, at the beginning of the 20th century, pushed such ideas to extreme. Painting's typical trait was to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality. Their paintings generally express stress, angst and depression.


Until recently, our culture has distinguished between Fine and Popular Arts. Fine art images were assumed to be original, unique and rare. They were made of enduring materials, stood the test of time and were extremely valuable. On the other hand, popular images were mass produced on perishable materials and were economically worthless. A Fine art painter was called an Artist as a sign of high esteem, a Popular — or what was called commercial — artist, was an illustrator or cartoonist, a mere craftsman. When I was an art student at the University of Illinois in the 1940s, for an artist to be called an illustrator was an insult.

The concept of Fine Art valued originality. A painting assumed to be by Rembrandt was valued for over 8 million dollars; when determined not to be, its value dropped to $377,000. A copy was less valuable than an original; a forgery was worth even less, even though you might not be able to tell the difference.

But what was categorized as Fine art was not always considered 'Fine'. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, there was no such distinction. In fact, famous Renaissance artists not only made a living creating their own work, but, also by making copies of desirable works of others. Leonardo copied his own work (Madonna of the Rocks) for clients.

This distinction between Fine and Popular art goes back only to the 19th century. The invention of the printing press in the 16th century and the increasing popularity of newspapers in the 19th, had challenged the uniqueness of the Fine art image. Those artists called 'Fine' today also made prints to be sold to the general population. Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein and Peter Bruegel also made popular, mass produced woodcuts, etchings, engravings and drawings which were copied by printers. Fine artists, such as William Hogarth and Honore Daumier, made engravings and lithographs which were duplicated in newspapers.

Thus, the distinction between Fine and Popular art is historical, cultural, economic, technical, and material, but not conceptual or matters of skill or sophistication. It ignores what they have in common. Although they were intended for a different audience, they both express thoughts and feelings. They both require the same representational skills and use some of the same conventions. And, of course, they both used mages to communicate their ideas. The images, whether on canvas or panel in museums and galleries or on paper in newspapers, magazines and comic books, use line and color, facial expressions, body postures, spacial conventions on two dimensional surfaces. And, of course, so did cave paintings, Mayan, Roman, Indian and Egyptian murals and medieval manuscript illustrations.

Throughout 1,000 years of image making in Western art only serious, socially relevant emotions were considered appropriate to be represented. Everyday emotions may have been acceptable in novels, poems and plays, but not in painting. Such emotions were considered, superficial, trivial and trite by the art cognoscenti. Even today, Fine Art maintains its status as serious representation. Expressions of anger, fear, happiness, laughter, worry or, surprise seldom, if ever, appear on the faces of people in such paintings. And yet, such emotions are more common, more typical of human experience than the sophisticated emotions found in the Fine arts. As a result, the only place where such emotions could be represented were in the Popular arts — in magazines, newspapers, comic books and strips. The quality of such images as 'art' is never considered by professional art critics.

"If ever there was a medium characterized by its unexamined self—expression, it's comics. For decades after the medium's birth, it was free of organized critical analysis, its creators generally disinclined to self—analysis or formal documentation. The average reader didn't know who created the comics, how or why . . . and except for a uniquely destructive period during America's witch—hunting of the 1950s, didn't seem to care. As the medium has matured, however, and the creativity of comics began to touch the mainstream of popular culture in many ways, curiosity followed, leading to journalism and eventually, scholarship, and so here we are."

Popular images use a far greater range of representational conventions, emotions and body postures than the Fine arts. Images in comics can represent sound, the passage of time, movement, simultaneous events, narrative and dramatic relations between people, distant events simultaneously, and politic attitudes more effectively than traditional painting. Popular artists in newspapers express everyday human emotions in facial expressions and body postures more accurately and subtly than 'serious' painters in art galleries and museums. The position of an arm, the line of an eyelid the Lockhorns comic shows more subtle emotion than Degas'. Body postures are more expressive in 'For Better Or Worse' than in Renoir. Drawings of the bodies of monsters by Hilary Barta show as much knowledge of anatomy and foreshortening as Michelangelo's. The small caricatures in the New Yorker are as insightful, personality representations as any found in art museums. If we remove such images from Fine and Popular Art contexts and perceive them simply as meaningful images, they are equally expressive. Most important in this essay is that they can represent a far greater range of human feelings. Although a cartoon in a magazine will never be hung on a museum wall or sell for millions of dollars, as expressions, they are as insightful as any major work of art.