It is typical in introduction to aesthetics classes to read a selection from Clive Bell's Art. Selections of this sort are inevitably frustrating for the teacher since much that is important (at least to him or her) is left out. For example, the Goldblatt and Brown text Aesthetics leaves out Bell's famous discussion of Frith's Paddington Station as merely descriptive art, as well as his discussion of Feldes' The Doctor which he treats as sentimental and self-indulgent. (Bells critique of The Doctor basically labels it as "kitsch," before this term ever came into use.) Other things, although present, are sometimes neglected because of placement. (This, by the way, is inevitable...editors of textbooks must select.)
A fundamental feature of Bell's aesthetics is his subjectivism. He deliberately attacks the very idea of objective taste. He only allows the critic to point out certain features which give him the special aesthetic emotion. At this stage he seems a bit like Hume. However, he goes after the Humean conception of taste dramatically in the chapter called "Society and Art." (And this leads us to re-evaluate what he says in the first chapter of the book.) There, he goes so far as to argue against "cultivation" (what Hume would probably think is the result of practice and comparison). After encouraging parents not to cultivate their children, he insists that doing so will hinder children from experiencing genuine emotion. He then writes: "Standards of taste are the essence of culture. That is why the cultured have ever been defenders of the antique. There grows up in the art of the past a traditional classification under standard masterpieces by means of which even those who have no native sensibility can discriminate between works of art. That is just what culture wants; so it insists on the veneration of standards and frowns on anything that cannot be justified with reference to them." (Art, Capricorn Books, 1958, 177) We, one hundred years after the publication of Bell's book, are so caught up in the current dislike for formalism (and acceptance of contextualism) that we cannot see the challenging and interesting aspects of his thinking here. It is a weakness of the Humean perspective on taste that it cannot handle that which is radically novel, i.e. something that does not fit any of previously accepted principles of taste. Bell was trying to introduce the Postimpressionist painters to England and had to explain their novelty. It is the strength of his subjectivism that he can handle radical novelty, and this would suggest that any solution to the problem of taste should supplement Hume with Bell, or at least try to provide a synthesis in response to this antithesis. Ironically, Bell insists that the new works he is advocating are not novel at all, but provide "significant form" in the same way as did the great Byzantine artists and as did Giotto, both of whom he admires as greatly as he admires Cezanne.
Another thing neglected in studies of Bell becomes apparent in the third chapter of Art, "The Metaphysical Hypothesis." There, he asserts that art "expresses the emotion of the creator," that the lines and colors are intended to convey something the artist felt. This is why, for Bell, material beauty (the beauty of a butterfly for example) does not move us as art does. Something is "significant" form because it expresses emotion. However, contemplation of natural beauty might be the cause of the artist's emotion, material beauty becoming significant for the artist. The artist might experience the objects in a room, for example, as "pure forms in certain relations to each other" -- as "ends in themselves." We, too, can sometimes have this experience: to see such objects as "pure forms" is to see them "with the eye of an artist." (45) For Bell, seeing this requires stripping the object of all associations. What provokes emotion in this respect is the thing-in-itself or "ultimate reality." So, the significance of the work of art is, on this view, that it is inspired by a vision of "Reality." We are moved by certain combinations of lines and colors because the artist has used these to express an emotion felt for ultimate reality.
Bell suggests that pure form is not required for the artist to be inspired to produce significant form, that the emotion could come from apprehension of ultimate reality in some other way "mysteriously unaided by externals" (47) What the artist felt (and not what he actually saw) conditions the artist's design. The object of the emotion is, in a sense, irrelevant, and thus the form "bears no memorial of any external form that may have provoked it." It does not matter whether the road to reality is through appearance, recollection or imagination. The advantage Bell sees in the metaphysical hypothesis is that the critic will then be able to say what gives form its significance.
His example in support of this is both strange and interesting. He averts that it is impossible to exactly copy a work of art because "the actual lines and colors and spaces in a work of art are caused by something in the mind of the artist" which are not in the imitator's mind. (49) This is why the difference between copy and original are felt immediately, even if they are minute. The copier does not possess the "mysterious emotion" which inspired the original. Good copies exist (if they possess the mysterious emotion) but are not exact imitations. This is not however to define art as expression of emotion (emotion in response to Reality): "the characteristic of a work of art is its power of provoking aesthetic emotion" whereas "the expression of emotion is possibly what gives it that power." But one should not go to galleries looking for expression of emotion, even though rightness of form results from rightness of emotion. Wrong forms may, however, result from things other that the wrong state of mind. In the end I think Bell's formalism is best seen as part of the process of creative appreciation rather than the end product or the whole thing. The dialectic of formalism and contextualism has yet to be resolved into a new synthesis, but this has been partly because we have become so besotted by contextualism we have forgotten the power of formalism.
Bell insists that "few artists, if any, can sit down...just to create nothing more definite than significant form, or express nothing more definite than a sense of reality." He further writes that "Artists must canalize their emotion, they must concentrate their energies on some definite problem" which is why artistic conventions are necessary and why it is easier to write good rhymed poetry than good free verse. Limits concentrate energies. Similarly, an artist should not just try to create something beautiful. The main problem, instead, is making the work "right" in the sense of expressing the emotion or "provoking aesthetic emotion in others." (52) Another way he puts it is that, for the artist, a work is "right" if it is "the complete realization of a conception, the perfect solution of a problem." (52) The problems of art are infinite in type but, to be artistic problems, they must focus on the emotion felt for reality.
Surprisingly, Bell insists that the nature of the problem is immaterial, and all problems are equally good, except that two types of problem will "tend to turn out badly," one being "accurate representation," and the other being the attempt to create significant form or beauty directly. Bell gives examples of problems including the artist desire to "express himself within a square....to balance certain harmonies, to reconcile certain dissonances, to achieve certain rhythms, or to conquer certain difficulties of medium." He admits that "to catch a likeness" is one such problem, but it does not work well partly because it is too easy to catch a likeness. Doing so "will never bring into play the highest emotional and intellectual powers of the artist." (53) Otherwise, however, the artist can chose the problem and use it focus the artistic emotions he wants to express. Bell then says, somewhat contradictorily, that the problem in a picture "is generally the subject."
So, for the art viewer, the problem is of no importance, but for the artist it is a test for "rightness." For some artists the emotion they express comes from the "formal significance of material things" which comes in turn from taking that thing as an "end in itself." That something has greater significance means that it moves us more profoundly. We then become aware of the object's essential reality, "of the God in everything, of the universal in the particular, of the all-pervading rhythm." (Bell does not care which of these things we call it.) It is simply "that which lies behind the appearance of all things" (54) and gives things their significance. He also calls it the "thing in itself" and "ultimate reality." He also allows that some artists may have this strange emotion and are inspired by it without it having a source in material objects.
Bell admits that this metaphysical hypothesis is open to question, although he insists on his prior aesthetic hypothesis. He also insists that aesthetic ecstasy comes from freeing oneself "from the arrogance of humanity." Treating things as ends in themselves is the only way one can get from that thing (the subject of art) "the best that it can give." We need, in the end, to escape the "chatter and tumult of material existence" or hear it as part of a "more ultimate harmony."
As much as Bell wants to escape the human (very much as a kind of Platonist - note the equivalence he finds between art and mathematics) he does bring up this pesky notion of the "the problem" the artist is trying to solve, i.e. the problem as variable subject-matter. If multiple problems can inspire the artist then shouldn't we say that the ultimate source of the significant form is human? This is why the artist cannot just sit down with the intention to create significant form. The thing-in-itself (in Bell's metaphysics) is not some amorphous God-like ultimate reality but rather the object itself (for example, that tree) treated humbly, without the overlay of human arrogance. Oddly, in the end Bell reminds me of Yuriko Saito's discussion of the Japanese aesthetic (in her book Everyday Aesthetics) and the search for quintessence of the object. Saito would be surprised since Bell is so associated with formalism, but the parallel is strong. Of course, Bell is still an enemy of everyday aesthetics, seeing art as escape from ordinary life, but "the problem" ameliorates this to some extent.
Bell says that when a real artist looks at objects, for example the contents of a room, "he perceives them as pure forms in certain relations to each other, and feels emotion for them as such." They then inspire him to express. He does not feel the emotion for the object as a means but as an end in itself. To get more specific he does not see it as "a means to physical well-being, nor as an object associated with the intimate life of a family, nor as the place where someone sat saying things unforgettable..." (44) The artist drops the associations to see the chair as "pure form."
I think that this is good as a distancing strategy, but that it is also worthwhile (and even required) to toggle back to the rich experience we have of the chair which is sedimented phenomenologically in all of these ways (what he calls, negatively, "mere association."). A rich artistic experience does not neglect the second half of the experience, but also does not neglect the formalist half. I think that it is more humbling to do both, since there is a kind of arrogance in the belief that one can totally escape the human or that one can achieve a god-like stance above humanity. The aesthetic experience, as I argued in my book, is "not to be understood as necessarily focusing on formal properties. One may also focus on the symbolic or content-oriented aspects of the object perceived insofar as they give an experience of aura." (The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, 132).
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.