Sunday, October 18, 2015

Some hard to answer student comments and questions about Clive Bell

One of my students, Oscar, asks: if a form moves us by its preciseness can this not equally well give us an aesthetic emotion? Another student, Edgar, similarly asks whether the very existence of detail in a work like Paddington Station could not have a similar effect to that of significant relations of lines and colors.  (Isn't detail of some sort a special kind of relation of lines and colors?)  I am just not sure that Bell has a good reply to either of these points. Precision and detailed quality are not in themselves merely associations or suggestions of everyday emotions.  So they cannot be excluded for that reason.  Bell obviously wants to oppose an imitation theory of art, especially one that counts highly detailed realist art the best sort of art.  He favors the Post-impressionists over such realists.  But why? 

It is an interesting peculiarity of Bell's theory that it is both subjective in one respect and objective in another.  It is subjective in that different people can experience significant form in different things.  It is objective in that it gives us an objective definition of art.  But this objective definition would not allow us to sort things that have significant form from things that do not because of the subjective dimension.  Isn't this a paradox?  After all, we expect something more of what is objective.  I owe this thought to something Stephanny said. Makayla similarly says that she feels Bell contradicts himself "with the idea that descriptive paintings are not art" while also claiming that you cannot argue about taste.  I think that we associate the issue of "what is art?" with the issue of taste so closely that it is hard to follow Bell in saying that something is not art and that this has nothing to do with taste.

Laki wonders "how does someone say that art is subjective, but condemn a particular work of art?"  and "you do not recognize the aesthetic opinions of people who enjoy a storyline in their art." Laki goes on to say that "When someone puts a story to the art or sees in in context, there is a certain satisfaction that is achieved like that of finding the right piece of the puzzle that was missing before."  This may be similar to the first point I raised.  How is enjoying relations of lines and colors in a rapturous way, which we get from significant form, all that different from the rapture of finding the right piece in a puzzle?

Tracey raises a problem with Cezanne as an exemplar of significant form.  The problem is that students do not initially enjoy these relations of lines and colors.  Cezanne is just not easy to enjoy at first.  Bell stresses so much that different people experience different things as having significant form and yet he sets up Cezanne as an exemplar.  Let's say that all people do not have the ability to develop of love of Cezanne.  Is this problematic for Bell's theory?  Of course one important reason Bell prefers Cezanne is that he deliberately does not make his painting realistic looking and so he inhibits ordinary everyday emotional responses.  

One student, Jenny, asked what response Bell would have to minimalism.  This is an interesting question.  Take an all-red painting.  It would seem not to have relations of lines and colors since it only has one color and no lines.  And yet it does have lines: the four edges of the painting are lines.  We do not normally notice these, but in minimalist art we do.  Also, many minimalist pieces actually have very subtle differences in shadings of single color:  so in fact there are relations of colors and lines here.  In the end I think Bell would be very keen on minimalist art.

Carlos asks "could a political cartoon achieve its purpose of getting the message to the audience and the artist still provide and implement significant form..."  Bell thinks that a descriptive painting can have significant form, but Carlos raises the question of whether some things are not impossible to see as anything other than illustrations.  At the same time, there are some political cartoons, for example the work of Daumier, which do move us not only as clever or politically apt but also as examples of powerful form.  In this case perhaps the form simply enhances the political message.  

Shawn asks whether it takes a Humean good judge to decide whether a piece of art is emotional in the sense of presenting us the aesthetic emotion.  This is an interesting issue:  Bell explains significant form by offering us a group of art works that have it, and they include Giotto, Cezanne, Poussin, as well as some non-western art.  It would seem that one would need a lot of training, what Hume called practice and comparison, to be able to see significant form in such a wide range of things.  Also, Bell does think that a good critic can lead us to see significant form in something.  So it does seem that he presupposes a Humean good judge, and yet he says, perhaps in a contradictory way, that there is no disputing about taste.  Related to this, Terry says "isn't there some prior knowledge for the interaction of lines and colors" to give us this special aesthetic emotion, or is it innate?  If prior knowledge is needed we have the return of the good judge.   


No comments: