The British philosopher and art critic Clive Bell (1881-1964) was a prominent proponent of the formalist approach to aesthetics. In this specific sense, he advocated and significantly developed an aesthetic ethos stemming back to the work of Kant. According to Kant, what we value in a work of art is its formal qualities. In Art (1914), Bell outlined his own radical take on this approach to aesthetics—an approach that served to rationalise emergent modernist practices as exemplified in the work of Post-Impressionists such as Paul Cézanne.
Clive Bell was born in East Shefford, Berkshire. He was the son of Hannah Taylor Cory and William Heward Bell, the latter being 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 prominent art critic and painter Roger Fry. The ensuing friendship further contributed to the development of Bell’s own particular brand of formalism. Moreover, the influential American modernist writer and art collector, Gertrude Stein took Bell to Picasso’s studio in Montparnasse in 1911—by all accounts, the painter and the critic struck up an enduring friendship. (1)
Whilst championing the avant-garde movement, Bell set himself the task of challenging the traditional assumption that the value of visual art is in some way located in its representative or mimetic function. Indeed, according to Bell’s argument, the representative element in a work of art is largely 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.’ (2) This seemingly 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. (3) This admission is Bell’s only concession to the mimetic mode—a mode famously lambasted by Plato as sitting at ‘third remove from the throne of truth’ (10.597e). (4)
Issuing out of this censure was Bell’s central 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 with regards to popular representative paintings such as William Powell Frith’s The Railway Station (1862) which he deemed to be nothing more than an ‘interesting and amusing document.’ (5) Although such paintings contain formal elements, they lack what Bell held to be the ‘one quality common to all works of visual art’ (6)—in short, significant form. Besides, he argued, ‘with the perfection of photographic processes and […] cinematography, pictures of this sort are becoming otiose.’ (7)
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. According to Collingwood, the value of art for both the artist and the viewer resided in its capacity to elucidate and individuate the emotions:
The characteristic mark of expression proper is lucidity or intelligibility; a person who expresses something thereby becomes conscious of what it is that he [sic] is expressing, and enables others to be conscious of it in himself and in them. (8)
Bell countered such aesthetic idealism by suggesting that it is ‘useless to go into a picture gallery in search of expression; you must go in search of significant form.’ (9) However, 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 attendant associations that generates what he terms an inspired emotion. It is this profound emotion that functions as a catalyst for the creation of true and significant art. Yet Bell is adamant that the value of such art resides wholly in its formal qualities rather than in any notion of expressive modality.
In a section of Art entitled ‘The Metaphysical Hypothesis’, Bell also appears to echo Schopenhauer when he rather tentatively proffers the idea that significant form constitutes a vehicle by which the sensitive spectator can glimpse the structures of what he terms ‘essential reality’, be it construed as the ‘God in everything’, the ‘universal in the particular’, or an ‘all-pervading rhythm.’ (10) In other words, 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.’ (11) Acknowledging the speculative nature of his metaphysical theory, he asks, are ‘we to swallow it whole, accept a part of it, or reject it altogether?’ (12) Whilst maintaining the ‘rightness’ of his broader aesthetic hypothesis, he concedes that, ‘each must decide for himself [sic].’ (13) Roger Fry decided not to plunge into the depths of such mysticism: ‘On the edge of that gulf I must stop.’ (14) On the other hand, D. H. Lawrence’s evaluation was more forthright; he came to the conclusion that far from being an aperture unto the metaphysical ‘beyond’, significant form ‘is a bogy which doesn’t exist’—or more colourfully, it is nothing but ‘a form of masturbation, an attempt to make the body react to some cerebral formula.’ (15)
Setting aside such heated debate for a moment, the question now arises as to how one is supposed to be aware of 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 by way of a comparable act of intuitive cognisance. Wielding this brand of aesthetic intuitionism, Bell came to the somewhat elitist conclusion that those who remain unmoved whilst in the presence of such form are like ‘deaf men at a concert.’ (16) It would appear that Bell’s logic dictates that that good art is the preserve of a sensitive and cultured minority. As Nigel Warburton aptly puts it, Bell’s aesthetic seems to constitute ‘little more than the elevation of an individual’s taste into an objective ideal.’ (17) In an earlier riposte, D. H. Lawrence likewise chided the Bloomsbury intellectuals for proffering an aesthetic experience, ‘granted only to the chosen few, the elect’, with critics such as Bell being the self-appointed ‘arch-elect.’ (18)
Aside from the charge of elitism, Bell’s theory is also perhaps guilty of propagating a dubious essentialism. According to Bell, all works of visual art must have something in common; as he asserts, there must be ‘some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist’—otherwise, ‘when we speak of “works of art” we gibber.’ (19) However, 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 conception of what good art is. If this is the case, contrary to Bell’s argument, it is not significant form which is a common denominator in art as diverse as Giotto’s frescoes at Padua and a Persian bowl. (20) Rather, our notion of significant art can be construed as a conceptual thread, the strength of which, to quote Wittgenstein, ‘does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.’ (21) Within these terms, the ‘many’ negates the singularity of any appeal to significant form.
Moreover, Bell’s focus on universal formal qualities, ‘independent of time and place’, decontextualises art. (22) As he argues, so-called great art ‘remains stable and unobscured’—this being the case because ‘its kingdom is not of this world’. (23) And yet surely much of the value of a painting such as Picasso’s Guernica (1937) resides within the context of the image, not merely within its formal qualities, as striking and significant as these might be. Arguably, such a painting would lose its power and significance if isolated from its subject, the destruction of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. It is to be noted that in 1937, Bell’s son Julian enlisted as an ambulance driver in the Spanish conflict—shortly afterwards, he died as a result of injuries sustained at the Battle of Brunete. Two months beforehand (May 1937), Picasso had shown Venessa Bell the almost completed Guernica, deliberating with her the merits and demerits of introducing more colour to the now famous monochromatic canvas. Bell himself maintained a friendship with Picasso that lasted some 50 years, but given the death of their son in Spain, it is to be doubted whether either could have contemplated works such as Guernica within the strict confines of formal exaltation.
Setting aside this argumentum ad hominem, perhaps one of the criticisms most often levelled against Bell’s argument for significant form is that it is circular. The English painter and critic Roger Fry was one of the first to highlight the purported fallacy of circularity. (24) Thomas M. McLaughlin summarises thus:
Bell’s critics usually formulate his circular thinking in this way: he begins his analysis by asserting the existence of a purely aesthetic emotion, and then argues that all art must possess some quality to which this emotion responds, that is, significant form, which he then defines as form capable of stirring aesthetic emotion. (25)
As McLaughlin concedes, this outline is rather reductive, and does not, as such, represent the subtlety of Bell’s thinking. Indeed, even if construed as circular, there is arguably a sense in which Bell’s argument is not viciously circular and thereby remains ‘informative’. As Warburton puts it, defenders of Bell would argue that his theory ‘is not viciously circular as it sheds light on why some people are better critics than others, namely because they have a better ability to detect significant form.’ (26) But have we not at this juncture turned full circle and returned to our earlier charge; namely that Bell is proffering a dubious form of intuitionism issuing from the elitist and somewhat insular mindset of the Bloomsbury clique?
Yet despite these criticisms, Bell’s work undoubtedly constitutes a significant intervention in the field of modern aesthetics. That is to say, Bell’s denigration of representation in the name of formal significance gave philosophical credence to the bourgeoning modernist movement. Furthermore, as S. P. Rosenbaum summarises, Bell’s Art was ‘the first of the Bloomsbury manifestos’ ranking alongside ‘Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace as a Bloomsbury polemic.’ (27) Thus, for all its faults, the central importance of Bell’s radical aesthetic cannot be so easily dismissed with assertions that it is tautological, over-simplistic, or aesthetically chimerical. (28) Indeed, more recently, researchers such Semir Zeki have made plausible, if tentative, connections between Bell’s significant form and objectively quantifiable activity in the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC), thereby correlating neurobiological activity with Bell’s rather abstract notion of ‘unknown and mysterious’ laws. (29) Could it thus be that significant form can be mapped on to the biological constitution of all human beings? (30) Would such neural-biological receptivity render Bell’s decontextualization of art justified—and, by the same token, underscore his appeal to formal aesthetic οὐσία or essence? Whatever the answer to these questions might be, it is clear that Bell’s radical aesthetic is still proving to be fertile ground for ongoing aesthetic deliberation.