Why Feeling is More Important than Thought for Artists
Updated: Jan 26
I was thinking today about the arts - visual art, music, the verbal arts, film, dance. And I was thinking about how we think about these different art forms, and the genres within them (poetry and the short story in the verbal arts, for example, or sculpture and painting and in the visual arts) and across them (a novel in verse), as well as hybrid art forms, (sound art, cartoons, music that incorporates dialogue). I started to think about Elaine Scarry's categories for thinking about the arts, which I love and have used often as a heuristic for making any sense of the geography of the humanities. In Dreaming by the book, where those categories can be found, Scarry writes,
To be clear, it might be useful to distinguish three phenomena. First, immediate sensory content: the light-filled surface of Matisse's Interior at Nice, the sweet fleeting notes of "Honeysuckle Rose" on Fats Waller's piano recording, or indeed the particular room one, at this moment, inhabits while reading. Second, delayed sensory content, or what can be called "instructions for the production of actual sensory content." A musical score has no immediate acoustical content, only the immediate visual content of lines and dots and the immediate tactile content of the smooth, thin pages, but it does directly specify a sequence of actions that, if followed, produces actually audible content. The third case, in contra-distinction to the first two, has no actual sensory content, whether immediate or delayed; there is instead only mimetic content, the figural rooms and faces and weather that we mimetically see, touch, and hear, though in no case do we actually do so. (5-6)
I was thinking about these categories, and I realized that plays seemed to be the only art form that involved in quite deep ways all three forms of content. We read plays mimetically as literature; they provide instructions for performance; and we attend plays which involve enormously varied, rich, provocative and stirring sensuous content, from the seats we sit in, to the stage sets, to the costumes, to the actors and actresses, to their human voices, to the people we sit next to and on and on. If poetry involved a radical form of askesis, theater did not. And if "poetry existed on the verge of song," as Scarry writes, then novels and short stories seemed to exist on the verge of plays, since they involved mimetic action, thought not perceptual action.
I started thinking about Allen Grossman's work, and his emphasis on the human image in poetry. Grossman says in The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers,
I am convinced that the greater function of poetry (if there can be a greater function than to bring people into discourse with one another) is the keeping of the image of persons as precious in the world.
A few pages later, he adds,
In the most primitive terms, the presence of a poem involves a complete triadic state of affairs, in which there is a self, and the beloved of that self which always has a transcendental character ascribed to it, and a third - the third being the audience, the ratifier, the witness, and the inheritor of the drama of loving relationship to which the poem gives access. Poetry is therefore a principle of the interaction of persons, which has inside it the very conditions for the continuity of the social order; not merely a speaker and a hearer, but a speaker who is in love, and a hearer who has a capacity for being in love which is enhanced by the spectacle of speaking.
It occurred to me that Scarry and Grossman go some ways towards helping us think about not just poetry but the arts more generally, for Grossman provides us access to the self and beloved dimension, while Scarry focuses her efforts more on the audience. Yet Grossman and Scarry focus on literature, the verbal arts, though Scarry does mention film and cartoons and other art forms.
After I thought about plays as involving all three contents, I started to think about the ramifications of this. Along with Scarry, and the work of Michael Clune in Writing Against Time, (the two books are in interesting dialogue with each other), there are two artists who have said things that really started me thinking about the difference between art and life. Godard said that film was closer to life than art and literature, and Stephen Shore has said that a shift occurred in his photography when he began wondering if what he was photographing was what he actually saw. I asked myself, if theater involved all three forms of content, did that mean it was closer to life? (Is being closer to life something we should strive for in art?)
I answered this question by saying that theater seemed like a good metaphor for life, but that "closer to life" was not a helpful way of thinking about these things. Also, theater did not seem like a good metaphor for art. In other words, if we valued representational power in art, then theater seemed to have the most facets for representing representation, but then I realized that other art forms, like music, are not as interested in representation, or if they are, are interested in forms we don't exactly have words for, at least for capturing the taste of it. How do you describe melody? "That thin, wild mercury sound," a la Dylan. Exactly.
Why wasn't theater a good metaphor for art? Because metaphors themselves were lenses for thinking about literature and, more distantly, art, since visual thinking was metaphorical in that it involved comparing unlike things, seeing things from different angles. But to say metaphors were close to visual thinking was a stretch, and to apply metaphors to music seemed hopeless to me, since we'd just end up with powerfully gnomic and convincing statements like Dylan's, but which lead only to silence, or music, since what can you say after that? How does one have a conversation about that?
Also, metaphors were categories of thought. That's when I paused. Was thought useful for thinking about the arts? Richard Rorty had always argued that audible metaphors were more important than ocular metaphors. Were "lenses" a good way to characterize thought?
It seemed to me that my favorite artists created their work, not because of their thought but because of their feeling. Or, they only learned how to think well because they felt strongly. I thought about Ashbery. He could not have created his poems because of thought, since his poems use thought to short-circuit thought, and if we tried to evaluate them based on thought alone we'd be lost. Tone mattered more than content, and feeling mattered more than thought. An Ashbery, or an Anne Carson, or a Dylan, or a Bergman, created what they do and did because their feeling led them to do things that hadn't been done. What they felt determined the work, based on hunches, based on trauma, based on anger, based on wildness, based on the heart and its feeling worlds. They were sensitive to tone; they are sensitive, period. Because they are enormously gifted with feeling, they do what they do so originally. But it was feeling that burst the bounds of what was done before, or feeling that led to the thought, since I don't think we can even recognize thought or experience it if we don't first feel, and feel deeply.
For these reasons, if one was ever to try and come up with a theory for thinking about all the arts, it would have to be Debussy-like, involving feeling and tone more than discursiveness. This kind of theory would have an ethical and religious component, but it would have to primarily be aesthetic. Of course, using the term "theory of feeling" sounds kind of nuts. There seems to be affect theory, but that, at least from what I've read in the past, seems very very discursive. The notion or feeling makes sense to me in a way that feels natural and sensible. If I look at a painting by Matisse, or Soutine, or Picasso, I cannot say I would then turn to an affect theorist. Maybe that's just me. But can I discuss the feeling of it? That seems more important, and the consequent desire to create that feeling in later works of art. The worst readers, to my mind, are tone-deaf. I think focusing on feeling could be a good tonic for that, as well as emphasizing tone, which seems to be a neglected category for thinking about the arts. Impressionism has a bad name, but why? The arts are dreamy - they are not philosophy. They are not about anything necessarily. There is a reason why Quixote is one of the patron sages of the arts, even if he is a pragmatist in the end - he recognizes that imagination is a matter of feeling, and imagination is the heart of the humanities.