Emotion in Modern Art: Cause Or Effect?

One might justifiably wonder about emotion and its relationship to modern art. It’s a natural thing to consider, given that experiencing art often provokes an emotional response in the viewer. In fact, many people have felt, and feel, that the real purpose of art is not to express emotion but to give rise to emotion in others. On the other hand, there are those who argue that the real purpose of art is to act as a medium of expression for the artist, one that allows him or her to graphically portray their own emotions through a painting, sculpture, or other created piece. So, what is the role of emotion in modern art? Is it an effect or is it a cause?

In asking whether an emotion is a cause or effect of modern art, we might first consider our own experiences with emotion in general. First of all, it is something we can all relate to because we all have experience with it. There is clearly reason to believe that emotions are caused by things and events that are external to the self. For example, think of the last time you remember seeing something in nature that made you feel an emotion.

For me, it was the other night as I was driving into the small town where I live. As I crossed the two-mile bridge crossing the lake going into town I was moved by the scene. The huge varied gray clouds were hovering menacingly over the turbulent water world below. The mountains looked resolute, almost somber in their dark majesty. The lake reflected the mood of the clouds. And the people driving past me on the road seemed insignificant and unnecessarily harried. I felt something. For me, it was melancholy and peace. I have always liked days like that. The point is that I had an emotional response to something outside myself. I looked at something, and I felt something inside.

When I look at modern art, do I have an emotional experience? Yes, I do. So I could certainly say that emotion is an effect of art. But another aspect of our common experience with emotion is how it wells up from within and gives rise to creative acts, like modern art and other manifestations. It wasn’t that long ago when I experienced this phenomenon for myself when I found myself creating something in my woodshop, not because I needed that something, but because it was a way for me to express the emotions I felt. As I experienced the transformation of the wood I was aware of my own emotional need. I learned that indeed, emotion is a cause.

Perhaps you might object to the way I phrased the original question. Maybe you think that emotion is both a cause of modern art, as well as an effect of looking at it and that it would be a mistake to make such a categorical distinction. I wouldn’t argue with you. There are ample reasons to see things this way. In fact, given our human nature, it would be pretty difficult to separate the two. Modern art is such a wonderful thing because it both rises from emotion, as well as gives rise to emotions in the viewer. It is both cause and effect.