In his 1938 book The Principles of Art, R.G. Collingwood elaborated his theory of aesthetics. One of the consequences of his theory appears to be that artworks are fundamentally private, subjective experiences. There is no such thing as the Guernica, the Black Square, or the Fountain — there are only subjective experiences of these respective works of art. A possible problem with this view is its resemblance to the so called ideal theory of art. This charge was famously put upon Collingwood by Richard Wollheim, in turn criticised by Aaron Ridley.
This text will explore Collingwood’s theory of aesthetics, and the implications of the charges put up against him. It will defend Collingwood’s view that works of art are primarily mental phenomena, and provide numerous examples of works of art to support this.
In his 1938 book The Principles of Art, R.G. Collingwood put forward his theory of aesthetics, addressing (among other things) the question of what makes something a work of art. According to Collingwood, art is fundamentally expression — that is, expression of emotions and feelings. Art is not necessarily a concrete object, but the aesthetic experience of the work of art as such; an emotional response.
On Collingwood’s view, art can be divided into two types: proper art, and vulgar art. Vulgar art includes four types of art that is often commonly understood as art, but which, in his view, should be clearly separated from what he considers to be art in the proper sense of the word. These four types are: craft, magic, representation, and amusement.
Proper art, on the other hand, is the expression of emotion. According to Collingwood, the artist “is aware of an excitement going on within him”, the source of which he may not fully understand. If this excitement is remained unexpressed, it will manifest itself as a sense of oppression. On the other hand, if the feeling is expressed — a sense of liberation and ease of mind is brought about. This act of making one’s emotion intelligible by expressing it is what Collingwood defines as art itself.
This brings us to an interesting place. If we accept Collingwood’s theory of art as the expression of emotion, art instantly becomes an affair of the subjective mind. In other words, art becomes an experience rather than a physical manifestation (be it a painting, sculpture, poem, performance, or the like); a mental phenomena rather than a concrete object. In the next section, we will explore what this means by way of examples.
“When experiencing a work of art, a curious exchange takes place; the work projects its aura, and we project our own emotions and precepts on the work. The melancholy in Michelangelo’s architecture is fundamentally the viewer’s sense of his/her own melancholy enticed by the authority of the work.” (Juhani Pallasmaa)
Collingwood demonstrates his theory perhaps most clearly in terms of a person’s experience of music. When one listens to a piece of music, one does not merely hear “the noises made by the performers”. Rather, the work of art, being in this case a piece of music, is the “imaginative experience” of the artist — reconstructed in the minds of the audience. The noises themselves are not the work of art, they are merely “means by which the audience can reconstruct the music”. The work of art, in other words, is the emotional experience of the music — not the music itself.
In Hermann Hesse’s 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game, music is considered not just in terms of those “purely intellectual oscillations and figurations which we have abstracted from it”, but as a “means for penetrating the spirit”. When one listens to, for example, Richard Strauss’ 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, one does not merely hear the collection of noises but the — in the words of Hesse — “colorations, frictions, and stimuli which arise from the blending of voices in the concord of instruments”. These make up the imaginative experience of the music, which is the work of art itself.
What this seem to imply is that the actual concrete work of art, the object itself (be it a piece of music, a painting, or the like) — is not actually of fundamental importance for the meaning of the work of art. In other words, while the physical object may be a necessary communicative vehicle to convey what the artwork is trying to say, it does not determine the actual value of the work. What determines this is the audience, and their ability to reconstruct the work in their own minds. Does this mean that physical artworks themselves are practically irrelevant, and what really matters for something to be called a work of art is the experience of the audience?
In 2010, Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović engaged in a three month long performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, called The Artist is present. For eight hours a day, she simply sat in a chair in the middle of the gallery, inviting audience members to sit down opposite her and do nothing but look into her eyes. The performance broke MoMA visitor records and many who engaged with Abramović were even moved to the point that they broke down in tears.
At the conclusion of the three months, there was no physical artwork left to speak of — no physical object to be hung in a museum nor sold at an auction. In Abramović’s case, what is the work of art is actually the audience itself: their collaboration with the artist and their emotional response to the events unfolding in front of them — all in keeping with Collingwood’s idea of art as an imaginative experience.
In his classic 1996 book on architectural theory, The Eyes of the Skin, architect Juhani Pallasmaa discussed the importance of architecture being fundamentally an experience of space — rather than a mere visually pleasing container for living. On his view, architecture is not primarily the physical building itself (the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and the like), but the act of engaging with the space.
Through this active engagement, we are able to strengthen our “sense of self” and more fully partake “in the mental dimension of dream, imagination and desire”. “Profound architecture”, Pallasmaa writes, “makes us experience ourselves as complete embodied and spiritual beings.” He argues that this experience is the “great function of all meaningful art”: silencing “all external noise” and focusing “our attention on our very existence”. In other words, while the physical dimension of architecture is a necessary vehicle for communicating this experience (as echoed by Collingwood) — the experience of being in the space is what constitutes architectural value — not its physical manifestation.
The aforementioned examples support Collingwood’s view that art is not primarily defined by its mere physical presence, but rather something beyond this: a mental experience expressed as an emotion. This brings us to an interesting impasse. For it seems, that if artworks are fundamentally mental experiences — is art in general is something that exists solely in people’s heads? This seems to lead us to the so–called ideal theory of art, which is the controversial view expressing just that. This charge was famously put upon Collingwood by Richard Wollheim, in turn criticised by Aaron Ridley.
In his 1968 book Art and Its Objects, philosopher Richard Wollheim put forward a treatise on aesthetics in which he, among other things, criticised Collingwood’s theory of expression. Among his charges, Wollheim argues that to “conceive of a work of art as something that might exist solely in the artist’s head” is to “overlook or to mistake the crucial role played in the production of art by artistic media.” When we speak of mental events associated with artworks, we always do so in relation to a particular, physical work of art. It is only by the artist actually getting her hands dirty — by “carving the stone, by working the paint” — that “the artwork becomes the work of art that it is.”
If we accept this, it seems that we must also accept that the physical embodiment of a work of art is much more relevant to its essence than the ideal theory admits it to be. What does this mean for Collingwood’s theory?
In his 1997 paper Not Ideal: Collingwood’s Expression Theory, Aaron Ridley put forward an attempt at saving Collingwood’s theory from the charges placed upon it by Wollheim. Ridley argues that while Collingwood is indeed commonly associated with the ideal theory if art, he actually “ought never to have been seen as espousing [it]…in the first place”. By a closer examination of Collingwood’s theory, Ridley attempts to show that the temptation to interpret him as a defender of the ideal theory disappears completely.
While Ridley agrees with Wollheim’s argument that we should not “illicitly [confine] artworks to the insides of people’s heads”, he stresses the importance of “acknowledging the active, imaginative contribution of the audience to the experiences that artworks can yield”. To show this, he once again invokes Collingwood’s stance on music. When listening to music, one is not merely “passively hearing the sounds of which the music consists”, but rather, one is engaged in an “experience requiring an active contribution from the listener.” The impression we take from a musical performance is “something other than the noises made by the performers”. Granted, these noises are not unimportant. But they are, however, chiefly “means by which the audience can reconstruct the music” — not the core of the experience itself.
The key word here is reconstruction. Ridley recalls Collingwood’s comparison of hearing the noises of music with hearing the noises of a science lecture. What the lecturer is doing “is not simply to make noises, but to develop a scientific thesis”. The lecture is not a mere combination of these various noises — rather, it is a “collection of scientific thoughts related to those noises”. The only way to appreciate the meaning of the lecture is to not just hear, but think as well. In other words, reconstruct the noises into something beyond their mere physical characteristics.
The difference, Ridley argues, lies in the audience’s capacity to engage with the content presented to them. Experiencing art entails more than just an ability to recognise its physical components. It also entails an ability to reconstruct these components in one’s mind, and, out of this, allow for something more to emerge. It relates, in other words, to the “distinction between understanding something and not understanding it” — between imitation and comprehension.
All of this, Ridley says, shows that Collingwood is not actually at all associated with the ideal theory. As a final point, Ridley invokes Collingwood’s insistence on the importance of art being not just a felt emotion, but the outward expression of that emotion: “If art is the expression of emotion, and if emotions can be known only through being expressed, then there is nothing whatever left of the idea that real works of art are things in artists’ heads.” Artworks are by their very nature “essentially public, essentially mediated, and essentially embodied” and thus not just something that “exist solely in the artist’s head”
In this way, the work of art is said to be collaboratively realised, both through its physical element as well as its mental component. The audience observes the physical artwork, engages with it, reconstructs it in her mind, comes to an understanding of it, and has a mental experience, expressed emotionally.
If we accept Ridley’s claims, Collingwood seem to have escaped the charge of any direct association with the ideal theory. He does, however, not necessarily seem to have escaped it all completely. On Collingwood’s view, while the work of art does not exist solely in the artist’s head — its fundamental essence still seem to primarily reside in the private regions of one’s mind. This perspective may still raise some concern, one of which is the problem of how we are to evaluate works of art if they are primarily mental phenomena.
One answer to this is that we evaluate works of art based on the collective emotional response of its audience. While in the past a work of art may have been judged primarily on its ability to beautifully and realistically depict the external world, today — as techniques and perspectives for artistic expression have evolved — this is no longer the case. With the rise of abstraction, expressionism, conceptualism, and the like, the art of today is much more considered a vehicle for communicating an emotional response than it was previously — well in line with Collingwood’s views.
As such, if a work of art evokes an emotional reaction in its audience — it has succeeded in its purpose. This emotional reaction need not be positive. As long as any emotion is evoked — be it anger, awe, melancholy, frustration, wonder, or the like — it may be considered a successful work of art, and is it upon this basis we are able to discuss, understand, and attribute value to it. A strong emotional reaction to a work of art means that something previously unarticulated has been stirred inside a person. The unveiling or bringing to the surface of this previously unknowable thing — that is art.
This text has explored Collingwood’s theory of aesthetics, the implications of the charges put up against him by Richard Wollheim, and the defence provided by Aaron Ridley. It has defended Collingwood’s view that works of art are primarily mental phenomena, providing examples of music, performance, and architecture. It has concluded that while works of art does not exist solely in the subjective mind, its value nevertheless primarily resides in one’s mental experience. The way we evaluate works of art, in light of this, is through the collective emotional response of the audience.
Abramović, Marina. Walk Through Walls: A Memoir. Penguin, 2016.
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Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1943.
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MoMA. “Piet Mondrian. Broadway Boogie Woogie. 1942–43.” The Museum of Modern Art, www.moma.org/collection/works/78682.
MoMA. “The Artist Is Present.” MoMA Learning, www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/marina-abramovic-marina-abramovic-the-artist-is-present-2010/.
Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. John Wiley & Sons, 1996.
Ridley, Aaron. “Not Ideal: Collingwood’s Expression Theory,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55, 1997.
Wollheim, Richard. Art and Its Objects. Cambridge University Press, 1968.