Various theories have been proposed in answer to these questions, the most popular being that the forms of art are similar to language and are to be understood as language is understood, in terms of conventions and semantic rules. A few examples of contemporary theories that have described art in this way include Ernst Cassirer's philosophy of symbolic forms, Susanne K. Langer's theory of presentational symbols, and the works on semiology and semiotics, largely inspired by the writings of Roland Barthes, that have been fashionable in continental Europe. It seems important to review some of the arguments that have been employed both for and against the overall conception of art that such theories share.
In favour of the view, it is undeniable that many works of art are about the world in somewhat the way that language may be about the world. This is evident in the case of literature (which is itself an instance of natural language). It is no less evident in the case of painting. A portrait stands to its sitter in a relation that is not unlike that which obtains between a description and the thing described. Even if the majority of pictures are of, or about, entirely imaginary people, scenes, and episodes, this is no different from the case of literature, in which language is used to describe purely imaginary subjects. This relation between a work of art and its subject, captured in the word "about," is sometimes calledrepresentation--a term that owes its currency in aesthetics to Croce and Collingwood, who used it to draw the familiar contrast between representation and expression.
The concept of expression is variously analyzed. Its principal function in modern aesthetics, however, is to describe those aspects and dimensions of artistic meaning that seem not to fall within the bounds of representation, either because they involve no clear reference to an independent subject matter or because the connection between the... [continues]
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