Useless Musings: Expression and Reflection

Salem Eames, Culture Editor

Expressing yourself is important. Obvious, right? I have a hunch that most people won’t disagree with me on this. At a glance, that statement even sounds like a truism. “Express yourself” could be a tired advertising slogan for a second-rate line of clothing. I don’t want to dive into the ethical questions of expression. There are plenty of others who have trod that ground, and like Dr. Dre says, “I’m expressing with my full capabilities, and now I’m living in correctional facilities, ‘cause some don’t agree with how I do this.” Of course, Dre betrays his own genius in saying “this,” because enough people agreed with him insomuch as N.W.A.’s music has achieved a position of relatively undisputed esteem in the annals of hip hop history. But I digress. I do not want to consider the ethical problems of expression; I merely want to examine its function and its end.
Let us lay a little foundation. Expressionism may (at least usually) refer to either a specific movement in painting or a broader philosophical theory of art. In Tolstoy’s “What Is Art?” published in 1896, he outlines his argument against several other aesthetic theories, and posits in their place his own theory, which we now call expressionism. There are plenty of other folks whom have written about expressionism, but I don’t want to bore you with the details, and frankly there isn’t enough space.
Tolstoy wants us to believe that art is an artist who communicates emotion to an audience. The process begins with an authentic emotional experience. Expressionism would have us believe that the artist’s duty, and ultimately their inescapable purpose, is to create a work that embodies those feelings of grief. The artist is important in this equation, but the effect on the audience is of equal importance; Tolstoy’s theory requires the audience to be infected. In other words, the perceiver (audience) should have the same emotional reaction as the conceiver (artist).
The big question is, how exactly does an artist embody on canvas something as ephemeral and abstract as an emotion? And even if it were possible to accurately depict an emotion, would the audience feel the exact same emotion that the artist felt, or would there be a disconnect? Is the communication of an emotion from artist to audience, in truth uninhibited and correlative, or as is more likely, does the meaning change somewhere along the line?
Beyond these questions, I want to argue that more important than the dialogue between artist and audience is the inner dialogue between the artist and his or herself. This is what will ultimately be expressed within a medium. I’m using expressionism as a springboard here –I think this concept applies not just to artists, but also to any member of society. Whether this is applied to visual art, writing poetry, writing fiction or writing an essay for a class is irrelevant. What is important is through a process of critical reflection and inner discourse; we may articulate ourselves through a medium. Also, the fact that we are articulating an inner dialogue precludes that we have taken the time to critically evaluate the context of our own thoughts as well as the influences of the culture we live in. By this I mean that we must also reflect. Expression is important, but it is refined with reflection.
Thus we have two sides to one coin. Expression is existence because a thought means nothing if it stays in your head. Tell somebody. Write it down. Research what other people have thought and written about your ideas. Take pride in your thoughts, but do not neglect reflection, because with reflection comes refinement. We are too afraid to let our inner dialogues wander, I think. Even contemporary thoughts too often smell of mothballs. So please, the next time you hear Madonna’s “Express Yourself” play on somebody’s iTunes party shuffle (if people still listen to Madonna), take a minute and think about what it really means to express yourself, and more importantly, what it means to reflect upon yourself.

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