Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Jane Ellen Harrison's answer to Clive Bell on Art 1915

I have just discovered a quite extraordinary reply to Clive Bell's Art written by Jane Ellen Harrison in 1915. (Harrison, Jane Ellen. “Art and Mr. Clive Bell.” 1915. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 7 Mar 2007. 18 Mar 2014 .  The essay appears in her book Alpha and Omega, London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1915.)  Harrison was known to me previously as the author of a number of books on mythology written in the early part of the 20th century.  This short essay takes a very different approach to Bell than that of the standard analytic aestheticians I have been reading. Although she agrees with much of what Bell says (surprisingly much -  she even agrees with most of his taste, approving of the Romanesque architecture and disapproving of Futurist art, for example) she argues against his attack on representation and the primacy he gives to form, and she does so using what Bell calls the special aesthetic feeling (the feeling we have in response to "significant form").  Her main thesis is that representation and form are equally essential to art:  the cause of the feeling of significant form is bound up with both.

“representation, when it becomes art, is caught and fettered by form. It is not the fetters, the form, the pattern, that holds me spell-bound, that catches my breath, that sends a cold shudder down my spine; it is the spectacle of reality fettered, it is formal representation. But to take away the representation element is to empty the wine from the chalice.... 

This trance-like, spell-bound feeling [which she associates with Bell's aesthetic emotion] comes over me when I look at many of the Primitives. There is in the Acropolis Museum at Athens an archaic woman’s figure, to look at which is to me all but unbearable. The reality behind her face—I am inclined to accept Mr. Bell’s metaphysic[al hypothesis]—seems just about to break loose, utter itself, and the tension is overmuch. But I feel it even more exquisitely, perhaps because more consciously, when I look at figures treated with almost brutal realism, figures that push representation to the utmost, such as some of Degas' dancers. They are caught and held by a spell, and thereby they hold me. They are things enchanted. Now, it is form, I am sure, that casts the spell—that is, the fetters."  She further writes:

"Art, then, to me is not the creation of significant form, hollow of content, but the fettering of reality by form—a widely different thing. It may be possible to make my meaning clearer by the analogy—or is it more than reality?—of rhythm. To say that art is the creation of significant form, and that representation is irrelevant, is like saying that metre—abstract metre—is a poem. A poem is the shackling of live speech by the fetters of rhythm, and the sense of beauty arises when the fixed forms of the metre are broken, and we feel the words breaking up against the rhythm."

Harrison's spirit is very much more like Nietzsche's than like Bell's.  Bell tends to see the underlying Reality, the thing-in-itself, as something benign, somewhat like the Christian God in this respect.  Nietzsche, however, sees the relationship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian as a matter of tension and conflict, and the underlying reality as the realm of suffering (much like Schopenhauer, who saw it as Will):  it is not something benign. To be sure, Bell with all his talk of ecstasy, would not be happy with "cold shudder down my spine" as a description of the aesthetic emotion:  it is not optimistic enough...a bit too scary.  

Harrison concludes:   "It is not 'information' that is reprehensible in art, but information uninformed. Form, as Mr. Bell himself says, is 'the talisman.' But what use the talisman without the thing enchanted? Form without content is dead. It is the beat of the live bird’s wing within the cage that makes form 'significant.'"  

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

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