Can inanimate objects carry expressive meaning?

“Expression resides in perceptual qualities of the stimulus pattern”—Rudolf Arnheim

In achieving great quantifying skills we have seriously damaged our ability to focus upon the qualities of our surroundings and the effects of those qualities upon our worldview. With a little thought we can readily recognize that “we do not do justice to what we see by describing it only with measurements of size, shape, wavelength, or speed. The dynamic qualities of shapes and events have proved to be an inseparable aspect of all visual experience.”

When we consciously open our eyes to the dynamic qualities conveyed by any object we will inevitably see these objects as carrying expressive meaning. “All perceptual qualities have generality. We see redness, smallness, remoteness, swiftness, embodied in individual examples, but conveying a kind of experience, rather than a uniquely particular one…The dynamic differences between Romanesque and Gothic architecture translate themselves automatically into states of mind characterizing the corresponding cultural periods.”

Arnheim defines “expression as modes of organic or inorganic behavior displayed in the dynamic appearance of perceptual objects or events.

In a narrow sense expression is said to exist only in confluence with mind wherein facial muscles give rise to structures that relate to what is going on in mind. In this narrow view non animate materials have expression only in a figurative sense.

Theodore Lipps’ “theory of empathy” was developed to explain how we find expression emanating from our vision of inanimate objects. When I see the columns of a temple I feel the physical forces sustained by that column because of my past experience. I project my stress feeling onto the columns. I have the capacity to project such things as “my pride, my courage, my stubbornness, my lightness, my playful assuredness, my tranquil compliance. Only thus my empathy with regard to nature becomes truly aesthetic empathy…expression resides in perceptual qualities of the stimulus pattern

“One aspect of the wisdom that belongs to a genuine culture is the constant awareness of the symbolic meaning expressed in a concrete happening, the sensing of the universal in the particular…There are people who cannot swallow because there is something in their lives they “cannot swallow” or whom an unconscious sense of guilt compels to spend hours every day on washing and cleaning.”

All perceptual, as well as expression, qualities have generality. This is why it is correct to say such things as Picasso’s picture can symbolizes gentleness or that Michelangelo’s Creation of Man, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is generally understood to be a symbol of Genesis.

Quotes from Art and Visual Perception: Psychology of the Creative Eye by Rudolf Arnheim