Clive Bell's theory of Significant Form was the focus of this week's session of Modern Aesthetics. Bell, whose polemic Art was published in 1914, was a passionate advocate of Post-Impression. He did what Tolstoy described (on p.234 of the set book) namely worked backwards from art that a certain class approved of to a theory of what all art must be, though whether Tolstoy was right to be so dismissive of taking intuitions seriously is another matter (in politics John Rawls advocated what he called 'reflective equilibrium' moving to and fro between intuitions and theory).
For Bell it is obvious that art must have a common essence - something that makes all works of art art. If not, then when we talk about art, we simply gibber, he declares. The defining quality of art is Significant Form i.e. patterns of lines, shapes and colour (and he allows some depth) that give rise to a distinctive emotion felt only in the presence of art, namely the Aesthetic Emotion.
The beauty of a butterfly's wing is different from the beauty in art, he tells us (Sebastian, a character in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited disagreed absolutely with this - how do we say who is right?). To appreciate art we need bring nothing of life - art is a separate realm that has the power to move the sensitive viewer. Most controversially, he maintains that what is represented in representational art has no bearing on it as art. Art is timeless - the same qualities in ancient art move us today. Past artists move us for the same reason that present day ones do. We don't need to know art history to appreciate art as art. The main instruments needed are good eyes and sensitivity. Objects all around us stand charged with this power to affect us.
His is a theory that approaches art very much from the stance of the spectator (in contrast with R.G. Collingwood's creator-centred approach which we will be studying next week - Collingwood turns the viewer into a kind of creator).
Bell's theory is unashamedly subjective in that it begins with personal experience of the Aesthetic Emotion. That is the way we can tell that a work is a work of art. There is no criterion apart from this for discerning between mere form (everything has this in some sense) and Significant Form. In the section of his book called the Metaphysical Hypothesis Bell suggests that the reason Significant Form has such power to move us is that it gives us a glimpse of how the world really is, the world behind the veil of appearances (a view that mirrors Schopenahauer's account of music) - a stark contrast with Tolstoy's claim that art is a special kind of human communication.
As a theory of what art is, Bell's is open to numerous objections (I outline some of these in the first chapter of my book The Art Question ). For instance, defining art in terms of Significant Form and Significant Form in terms of the Aesthetic Emotion is highly uninformative - it is a viciously circular defnition because we have no independent criteria for identifying either of these things.
More directly, for most of us, the fact that Rembrandt's self-portraits are depictions of the artist is a relevant factor when assessing these as art (on Bell's account, what is represented is not relevant) - true, formal properties are relevant too, but it is going too far to discount representation altogether.
Similarly we might not even understand what an artist was trying to do if we know nothing of the history of the period and, in many cases, of the artist's other work, and expressed intentions. This does not mean that the artist's expressed views fully determine what a work of art means.
D.H. Lawrence (himself a painter as well as a writer) was scathing about the formalists' quasi-religious attitude towards Significant Form: He lampooned it in an essay about painting: 'I am Significant Form and my unutterable name is Reality. Lo, I am Form and I am Pure, behold I am Pure Form. I am the revelation of Spiritual Life, moving behind the veil. I come forth and make myself known, and I am Pure Form, behold I am Significant Form....Lift up your eyes to Significant Form, and be saved.'
In the gallery we looked at works by Rodchenko and Popova in the current Tate Modern exhibition. Whilst approaching these paintings and sculptures as potentially Significant Form was easy, because they are mostly non-representational, ignoring the circumstances of their production seemed a little perverse, particularly when, as the captions in the exhibition indicate, these artists working in the period immediately after the Bolshevik revolution, felt liberated to create new forms of art, and at the same time were no doubt limited in materials and scale by their straightened circumstances.