The British philosopher and art critic Clive Bell (1881-1964) was a prominent proponent of the formalist approach to aesthetic thought. In this specific sense, he advanced and significantly developed an aesthetic theory stemming back to the work of Kant. According to Kant, what we value in a work of art is its formal qualities. In his 1914 book, Art, Bell outlined his own polemical take on this approach to aesthetics – an approach that served to philosophically underpin the emergent modernist movement as exemplified in the work of the French painter, Paul Cézanne.
Clive Bell was born in East Shefford, Bedfordshire. He was the son of William Heward Bell, a wealthy industrialist. Whilst studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, Bell met and befriended a number of the later leading lights in the Bloomsbury group. In 1907, he married the artist Vanessa Stephen, the sister of the eminent modernist writer Virginia Woolf. Both husband and wife became prominent figures in the Bloomsbury circle and there is little doubt that Bell’s association with this group of leading English intellectuals significantly shaped his radical aesthetic vision. In 1910, Bell also met the influential critic and painter Roger Fry. The friendship that ensued further contributed to the development of Bell’s own particular brand of formalism.
Bell set himself the task of challenging the traditional assumption that the value of visual art is in some way located in its representative function. Indeed, according to Bell’s argument, the representative element in a work of art is irrelevant in terms of our appreciation of it as a significant cultural artefact. As he put it, to appreciate a work of art “we need bring nothing with us but a sense of form and colour.”
This hard-nosed formalism harbours one concession. As Bell grants, pictures that would be “insignificant” if we saw them as two-dimensional patterns are sometimes profoundly moving because we in fact perceive them as three-dimensional related planes. This admission is Bell’s only concession to the entrenched notion of art as imitation, a notion stemming back to the teachings of Plato.
Issuing out of this censure was Bell’s most significant contribution to the philosophy of art – namely, his innovative theory of “significant form”. According to Bell, artists are in the business of combining lines and colours in such a way as to aesthetically move the sensitive observer. “Significant form” is the artistic arrangement of such lines and colours – an arrangement that serves to provoke what Bell terms an “aesthetic emotion”. Yet in Bell’s estimation, not all form is significant. Indeed, he was scathing about popular representative paintings which he deemed to be nothing more than “interesting and amusing documents”. Although such paintings contained formal elements, they lacked what Bell held to be the “one quality common to all works of visual art” – in short, significant form.
Unlike the Oxford philosopher R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) and the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), Bell distanced himself from the idea that “art proper” is valuable in terms relating to the expression of the emotions. Bell maintains that it is “useless to go into a picture gallery in search of expression; you must go in search of significant form.”
This is not to say that the emotions play no part in the creative process itself. On the contrary, Bell argues that “true artists” are able to experience objects as “pure form” and it is this experience of objects devoid of all function and associations that generates what he terms an inspired emotion. It is this profound emotion that functions as a creative catalyst for the creation of true and significant art. Yet Bell is resolute that the value of such art lies in its formal qualities alone rather than in its expressive modality.
In a later section of Art entitled “The Metaphysical Hypothesis”, Bell also appears to echo Schopenhauer when he puts forward the idea that significant form constitutes a vehicle by which the sensitive spectator can glimpse the structures of what he terms “essential reality”. Otherwise put, Bell suggests that significant form acts as an aperture through which to apprehend “that which lies behind the appearance of all things – that which gives all things their individual significance, the thing in itself.”
However, the question now arises as to how we are aware of so-called significant form? Like many other members of the Bloomsbury group, Bell was profoundly influenced by the work of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore. According to Moore, ethical terms such as “good” are indefinable – one is aware of that which is good via an act of intuition. Analogously, Bell put forward the idea that the sensitive observer of a work of art is aware of significant form via a comparable act of intuitive awareness. This intuitionism led Bell to the somewhat elitist conclusion that those who remain unmoved whilst in the presence of such form are like “deaf men at a concert”. It would appear that Bell’s logic dictates that good art is the preserve of a sensitive and cultured minority.
Aside from this charge of elitism, Bell’s theory is also guilty of propagating a dubious essentialism. According to Bell, all works of visual art must have something in common – as he puts it, there must be “some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist”. Yet Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances suggests that “good art” can be meaningfully defined within a complex network of overlapping features. To employ another of Wittgenstein’s metaphors, there is perhaps no single significant thread holding together our concept of what good art is.
Moreover, Bell’s focus on universal formal qualities “independent of time and place” de-contextualises art. Surely the value of paintings such as Picasso’s “Guernica” resides within the context of the image, not merely within its formal structure. Arguably, such an image would lose its power and significance if isolated from its subject, the destruction of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Given the fact that Bell’s son, Julian, died in the same conflict, it is doubtful whether he could have himself contemplated such a work within the strict confines of formal exaltation.
Yet despite these criticisms, Bell’s work constitutes a significant intervention in the field of modern aesthetics. His denigration of representation in the name of formal significance gave philosophical credence to the embryonic modernist movement. His central work Art was originally entitled The New Renaissance – a title which perhaps better encapsulates the central importance of his philosophy of art.
Lawrence Harvey is a philosophy lecturer at Peter Symonds College, Winchester