Clive Bell's theory of Significant Form was the focus of this week's session of 6 Ways of Thinking About Art. Bell, whose polemic Art was published in 1914, was a passionate advocate of Post-Impression. His book is a polemic designed to demonstrate that Post Impressionist artists such as Cézanne and Matisse were artists in exactly the same way that Leonardo and Titian were, and that a cathedral and a carpet could be works of art in that sense too - for him there was no meaningful distinction between art and craft (and, indeed, he thought many objects traditionally described as works of craft merited the term art).
For Bell it is obvious that art must have a common essence - something that makes all works of art art (this is a contentious assumption - many people have claimed that 'art' is what Ludwig Wittgenstein called a family resemblance term with no defining essence, but rather a pattern of overlapping similarities between the things we call art). Bell believed that if there were no common essence shared by everything that merits the name art, then when we talk about art, we simply gibber (i.e. talk nonsense) 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. To call something a work of art is to commend it: for Bell it is obvious that many paintings, particularly descriptive paintings such as Frith's 'Paddington Station', were not really works of art: they lacked Significant Form.
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.It is also 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) .
As a theory of what art is, Bell's is open to a number of 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 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 knew 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 (who was not just a novelist and poet, but a painter too) 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.'
Despite these criticisms, Bell's approach has the virtue of giving us a clear guide as to what we should do in the gallery: look closely at what is front of us, try to discount our awareness of what is represented, and focus on form and the possibility that it will move us deeply.
In the gallery we looked at a range of images in the Matisse Cut Outs show (there's a summary of reviews and a short video about the show here). If Bell's approach doesnt work for this highly abstract art which so foregrounds the formal it is hard to see it working for any art...