art between expression and image

review of some theses from

Benedetto Croce:
L'Estetica come scienza dell'espressione e linguistica generale (1902)
Breviario di estetica - estetica en nuce (1912)


Croce's philosophy comprises two parts: one on the theoretic and one on the practical. The part on the theoretic consists of aesthetics (intuition and expression, the phenomenal, the domain of beauty), and logic (concepts and relations, the noumenal, the domain of truth). The part on the practical consists of economics (the domain of utility), and ethics (the domain of the good).

The theoretical part is about knowledge. Knowledge is either intuitive (obtained through imagination and individual), or logic (obtained through reason and universal). Intuition creates images, logic concepts. The image cannot exist apart from its expression: a thought is not thought unless it be formulated in words, and a musical image exists only when it becomes concrete in sounds. Next to expression, there is also 'externalisation' (XV) that enables the reproduction of the expression in the mind.

Intuïtive or expressive knowledge is art - the object of aesthetics. Philosophy equals aesthetics, and aesthetics equals linguistics (XVIII).


Not every expression is an image. There are real expressions and images of expressions. A real expression is the phrasing of a thought in words - think of Archimedes' 'Eureka!' (II, Unity and indivisibility). An image of an expression would be the performance of Archimedes' 'Eureka!' by an actor on a stage. A real expression is also our 'intuition' of a landscape (XIII, Natural beauty). The image of such an expression would be a painted landscape. The confusion is facilitated in that many expressions - think of silent thoughts - appear as an image in the mind before being 'externalised' in spoken words.

Croce is unable to see the difference between the creation of an image ('art') and the transformation of the real world according to our 'intuition' ('design'). That is all too apparent from the fact that he understands architecture and the design of swords as 'art' (XIII, Critique of the beautiful that is not free).

And because he is blind to the difference between image and reality, he is altogether unable to see that the artist not only makes an image, but also the original that appears in that image (completed mimesis). That is apparent from (I, Intuition and perception), where he distinguishes 'real images' (those of perception) from 'unreal images', and adds: 'Intuition is the indifferentiated unity of the perception of the real and of the simple image of the possible'. Croce does not realise that he here uses the 'image' in a sense that cannot be that of 'intuïtion', in which case his sentence would sound as follows: 'Intuition is the perception of the intuition of the possible'.


Croce is eqaully blind to the difference between a perceived and and imagined image (betweenunmediated and mediated mimesis). Imagined images are the images that are conjured up by the words of a narrator. Perceived images are photos or sound recordings of the visual or aural appearance of objects. These visual or aural appearances are real. That we nevertheless call them 'images' is due to the fact that we only get the visual or aural, and not the other appearances of the objects in question, which thus turn out to be 'unreal' - mere images ("intersensory suggestion).

That has its bearings on the analysis of creation. In all cases there is the creation of an object - from Archimedes' 'Eureka!' to the building of a cathedral - the genuine equivalent of Croce's intuition/expression. Next, in the case of art, there is the making of an image of that original. That consists in creating a perceptible version of one of the appearances of the original (a painting or a monologue). The narrator has to take a further step: he has to produce words that conjure up reprentations in the mind (image conjuring signs).

Because Croce does not distsinguish perceptible from imagened images, he cannot but understand the perceptible image in terms of the mental representation: to him, the lines of a drawing or the colours on a canvas are mere means of conjuring up images in our mind, not otherwise than the words of the narrator.

He nevertheless seems to be aware of a difference, but he cannot but explain it away by 'a far longer and far more indirect route' to the reproduction of the intuition (XIII, Writings). His examples speak volumes: he compares the 'Divina Commedia' with a score of the 'Don Giovanni' - and bluntly overlooks that the readers of a book merely conjure up images in their minds, whereas the musicians do not conjure up images of sounds in the minds of the audience, but rather produce a sounding image of Don Giavanni. There is a difference between the words of a story - which are image conjuring signs - and the notes on a score - which are execution provoking signs.

That Croce overlooks the fact that, in a painting or in a sculpture, the appearance of the original is perceptible and not imagined, is facilitated in that perceptible images comprise elements that do no belong to the image as such: not only the two-dimensional mimetic medium, that has to be read as a three-dimensional appearance, but above all the panel or the marble on which the mimetic medium is applied. It is tempting, then, to assimilate these elements to the words of the narrator, or the notes on a score, although we are dealing with three different phenomena.


Croce could so easily fall in this trap because he fails to distinguish between image and sign. He is heir to the semiotic interpretation of the image, that posits that the image is a special kind of sign - a 'natural sign', that differs only gradually from the 'conventional' signs of language (XVI, Critique of the division of signs into natural and conventional) - whereby he invokes the classical hoax of the indegenous people who would not be able to read two-dimensional pictures - the story of the one-legged horseman). The totally unjustifiable assimilation of image and sign is sealed in the already mentioned assimilation of ''aesthetics' and 'linguistics'. Anticipating Danto, Croce goes even so far as to contend that ''Every scientific work is also a work of art' (II, Art en Science).

Against this background, we cannot stress enough how much the image is considered to be a form of knowledge: 'expression' as (verbal or non-verbal) 'proposition'.


To highlight the 'spiritual' character of expression, Croce has to vindicate the image from every 'material' blemish. That cannot but put him in a difficult position. Where he first stated that the image cannot be separated from the expression - which in his example of Archimedes' 'Eureka!' is undoubtedly a spoken word - he later contends the following: 'When we have conquered the word within us, conceived definitely and vividly a figure or a statue or found a musical motive, expression is born and is complete, there is no need of anything else' (VI, Exclusion of the practical from the aesthetic). The concrete reciting, singing, playing on the piano, or painting 'is all an addition', 'a practical fact'. What initially is called 'expression', turns out to be mere 'externalisation': 'poetry, prose, poems, novels, romance, tragedies or comedies, are 'physical stimulants of reproductiton'. (XIII, The physical beautiful). That is contradicted not only by Archimedes' 'Eureka!', but above all by the already mentioned fact that paintings (and unmediated mimesis in general) are perceptible appearances, even when they are first conceived as mental images.


Needless to remind that the understanding of art in terms of expression is meant to escape from the old theory of mimesis. The obligatory sneers at this theory are not failing (II, Critique of the imitation of nature). Art is imitation of nature as 'representation or intuition of nature' - but only in the sense of 'idealising imitation of nature', not as a 'mechanical reproduction': wax sculptures do not provide aesthetic intuitions. It is not difficult to see that Croce only replaces 'imitation' with other terms (representation, reproduction, intuition), to be able to state, in a second move, that these are 'idealisation', and to finally refer 'mechanical imitation' to the dustbin.


Croces theory cannot explain the phenomenon of the image: it can only pose as a theory of (the) art (of making images) in that it can at best pass as a theory of (the) art (of expression).

A desastrous effect of the unjustified assimilation of art and expression is the perpetuation of the prejudice that the image is a sign - that art would be a language in which the artist expresses himself like in verbal language - as it is bluntly phrased in the sentence 'The science of art is that of language' (XVIII, Identtity of Linguistic and Aesthetic). An image is not a (proposition in a) language in which the artist expresses himself: it is at best an image of the (verbal or non-verbal) language of what appears in it.

© Stefan Beyst, januari 2016.

Benedetto Croce in English translation as PDF:
The aesthetic as the science of expression and of the linguistic in general (1902)
The essence of aesthetic (1912)

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