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Significant Form Theory of Art: C Bell

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A Newer Olympia
by Eamon Everall

According to this theory, all objects that evoke aesthetic emotion in us share one quality - significant form - which can be defined as significant relationships between lines, shapes, colors, and other sensory properties.
Like Kant, proponents of this theory see the aesthetic judgement based on a universal standard and the origin of the aesthetic emotion within the object itself.

The theory of "Significant form" as propounded by Clive Bell in 1914 was that:
"There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist; possessing which, in the least degree, no work is altogether worthless. What is this quality? What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl , Chinese carpets, Giotto 's frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cezanne? Only one answer seems possible - significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call "Significant Form"; and "Significant form" is the one quality common to all works of visual art."
Bell's test for great art was the test of time:
"It is the mark of great art that its appeal is universal and eternal.............. Great art remains stable and unobscure because the feelings that it awakens are independent of time and place, because its kingdom is not of this world. To those who have and hold a sense of the significance of form what does it matter whether the forms that move them were created in Paris the day before yesterday or in Babylon fifty centuries ago? The forms of art are inexhaustible; but all lead by the same road of aesthetic emotion to the same world of aesthetic ecstasy."
Nigel Warburton writes in "Philosophy: The Basics" (P122) about two criticisms of the significant form theory. The first objection is that the theory involves a circular argument:
"The argument for the significant form theory appears to be circular. It seems only to be saying that the aesthetic emotion is produced by an aesthetic-emotion-producing property about which nothing more can be said. This is like explaining how a sleeping tablet works by referring to its sleep-inducing property. It is a circular argument because that which is supposed to be explained is used in the explanation. However, some circular arguments can be informative; those which cannot are known as viciously circular. Defenders of the theory would argue that it 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. It also justifies treating works of art from different cultures and ages as similar in many ways to present-day works of art."
The second objection to the theory is that it cannot be refuted. If according to the theory those who experience the aesthetic emotion are deemed to be appreciative and sensitive critics and those who do not experience the aesthetic emotion are deemed to be inexperienced or insensitive critics then the theory cannot be refuted because both supportive and unsupportive observations are used as evidence for the existence of the aesthetic emotion.
"this is to assume what the theory is supposed to be proving: that there is indeed one aesthetic emotion and that it is produced by genuine works of art. The theory, then, appears irrefutable. And many philosophers believe that if a theory is logically impossible to refute because every possible observation would confirm it, then it is a meaningless theory."
And is immediately clear that this theory does have at least one enormous strength. It is an embracing, inclusive theory which, whether you fully support it or not, enables you to view, compare and appreciate the entire stock of world art objects over the ages from a known and positive point of view.This is no mean achievement and sets this theory apart from many others which offer their insights on a narrower front. Of course, the Significant form theory is open to the charge that it pays little attention to the ideas behind the work of art. It also pays little attention to subject matter and content. It does however retain that foundational quality of dealing with the identification of what is the unique common quality to all works of art and therefore succeeds in achieving a great deal.

Form however has been identified by many others as a key component of the artistic process. For example, in "The Necessity of Art, A Marxist Approach" Ernst Fischer wrote in 1959:
"In order to be an artist it is necessary to seize, hold and transform experience into memory, memory into expression, material into form"
and further:
"Art is the giving of form, and form alone makes a product into a work of art. Form is not something accidental, arbitrary or inessential (no more than the form of a crystal is any of those things). The Laws and conventions of form are the embodiment of man's mastery over matter; in them, transmitted experience is preserved and all achievement is kept safe; they are the order necessary to art and life."
One does not need to be a Marxist to respond to these ideas which set out as clearly as Clive Bell the case for the importance of form. For form is indeed no trivial item but rather a determining part of the artistic process which requires work on the part of the artist.We are not talking about an artist coming upon a pile of bricks and arranging them into a neat rectangle on the floor of a gallery as being an example of form. That is not an example of form. That is merely a tidying activity akin to safe working practice by a worker in a building supplies warehouse. No, by form, I mean........ the form that Cezanne imparts to a humble apple by the use of colour alone.

Now turning to Conceptual art we can make the following points:

1 Conceptual art proclaims the primacy of the artist's idea. Therefore the art object and the form contained within it are secondary.

2 Where a material object is involved, the position of form is further demoted by the emphasis of Conceptualists on implementation being merely the perfunctory realisation of their previously conceived idea. Examples of this would be where Conceptual artists leave "instructions" for the actual production of the work, by anyone, even indeed in the absence of the artist.

3 In the case of ready made art or the found object, the Conceptual artist does not create or transform the form of the existing objects, which remain dull inhabitants of a material world. A brick remains a brick with the form of, you guessed it, a brick. Unsurprisingly, a dead shark remains a dead shark with the form of a dead shark. As the Stuckist Manifesto says:
"True art is not the exhibition of existing objects but the transcendence of them through interpretation in another medium. This is the difference between life and art. Some people say that life and art are the same, in which case art is redundant as we already have life. This position is patently absurd. No one would sensibly suggest that Van Gogh's bed is of equal value to, or greater value than, his painting of it. This clearly illustrates the lie to the found object as art."
Do we follow the Conceptualist flow and virtually omit considerations of form? Or do we go along in broad agreement with Clive Bell, Ernst Fischer and many others who saw form as crucial even if we don't accept their formulations in entirety?
We have no choice but to uphold the idea of form against Conceptualism.

Interpreting Poetry by George Wolff

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