by Elyse Graham
Clive Bell’s theories of art shaped themselves under two major influences. One was the ethical philosopher G.E. Moore’s defense of his field: for a set of things to shelter under one class, they must have a common property—in the case of ethics, goodness—which must really exist. 1 Bell, who like all art critics had to confront the suspicion that there is no such place as art, transposed the argument onto his own subject. Art is a knowable domain, and all works of art have something in common—a property that Bell called “significant form.” Bell wrote Art, a book important in promoting formalist aesthetics, to explain what that is.
The other, an influence strained by friendship and competition, was the criticism of Roger Fry, the art critic and lecturer. 2 Bell met Fry on a train platform in spring 1910. (Bell’s wife introduced them.) 3 Bell was a young book reviewer and journalist, independently wealthy, who six years earlier in Paris had been among the earliest British writers to fall for the French Post-Impressionists. Fry had come more recently to Post-Impressionism, and he wrote out of necessity rather than love, but he was a distinguished critic at a radiant cluster of magazines, and his companion knew his name. Bell had taken special interest in a recent article of Fry’s, “An Essay in Aesthetics,” which the two men, while their car rattled from Cambridge to London, discussed. 4
Bell published his own book on aesthetic theory, Art, in 1914. “For some years Mr. Fry and I have been arguing, more or less amicably, about the principles of aesthetics,” he wrote in the preface. “I like to think that I have not moved an inch from my original position, but I must confess that the cautious doubts and reservations that have insinuated themselves into this Preface are all indirect consequences of my friend’s criticism” (ix).
The intellectual friction between them had been apparent from early on. For all they agreed on, Fry’s localizing and particularizing tendencies—his criticism focuses on details, points of technique, and he likes to remind readers how inconsistent the historical and artistic forces of an era can be—were at odds with Bell’s universalizing and standardizing style. Both men rejected the idea that painting should mirror nature; both found, in cave paintings and Byzantine art, in Chinese and Japanese graphic traditions, inspiration in alternative visual orders; both lamented (as Fry put it) “the tyranny of perspective”; and both derided Victorian taste, which ran to styles that Fry called “sentimental and anecdotic,” Bell “handsome furniture for the dining-room and petty knick-knacks for the boudoir.” 5 But Bell could not accept disunity. He had to gather his material into universal laws. “The universal in the particular,” he wrote in 1911, “that is what the greatest art expresses. It is a widespread consciousness of the universal in the particular that produces all great movements; and the history of their decline and fall is nothing more than a history of its gradual decay and disappearance.” 6
The question that opens Art is therefore, “What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions?” The answer, a concept the book dedicates itself to explaining, is “significant form” (8).
Bell leaves the term deliberately vague. Taking inspiration from Moore’s conception of goodness, Bell thought of aesthetic emotion as something like a color, conspicuous but indefinable. He loosely describes significant form as “lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, [that] stir our aesthetic emotions” (8). This is a subjective basis for gathering our texts, he acknowledges, but he asks us to focus on the property instead of the matter:
For, though A, B, C, D are the works that move me, and A, D, E, F the works that move you, it may well be that x is the only quality believed by either of us to be common to all the works in his list. We may all agree about aesthetics, and yet differ about particular works of art. We may differ as to the presence or absence of the quality x. (10)
What is the phantom x? Bell is quick to distinguish aesthetic effect from beauty: water-lilies, however graceful, don’t excite the same feeling as a Monet (13). The reason, he thinks, is that beauty is just a word for desire—a beautiful girl inspires attraction, a beautiful flower covetousness—whereas art connects us with the real.
Bell had tested this thesis in an earlier series of articles and reviews, starting in 1911, on modern British art. He believed that British culture had just left the low point of a cycle that all cultures periodically roll through—the craft-making, “decadent,” stage in which obsession with verisimilitude and technique crowds out concern for the ideas represented. The heirs of the Industrial Revolution drove up the market for verisimilitude because their grasping practicality blinded them to everything but use value. Only if the apples looked good enough to eat would the still life make an impression. “The practical man,” wrote Bell contemptuously in 1911, “sees enough for identification and recognition; in fact, he reads the labels on things.”
If seeing in labels is the peril of modern life—that is, if industrial routine numbs our perceptions to the point of automatism—then to draw at a new angle might be to free the soul, helping us to notice and exalt the spirit within the flesh: “In the emotional life things are valued for their significance—for what they are, not for what they can be made to do; they are seen whole because they are seen as ends.” Art rips away familiarity and exposes us to things as they are.
Bell reviews these arguments in the first section of Art. Descriptive paintings fail to move us as art, he says, because although they provide information—they may be “beautiful,” may provoke desire—they lack significant form (16-17). Even an artistic style far from realism, Futurism for instance, can fail as mere psychological portraiture, a clever technique for rendering “the chaos of a mind” (20). The artist must look outside himself, and with eyes that can penetrate surfaces.
How does significant form move us? Bell has a theory that line and color register the energy of the creating soul at the moment of inspiration, and that this energy seizes the viewer. (This explains why it’s impossible to perfectly copy an original: “The hand not only obeys the mind, it is impotent to make lines and colors in a particular way without the direction of a particular state of mind.” We’re assured that the artist’s emotion is real—although our own emotion makes such assurance unnecessary—in the same way that photographs once seemed to be irrefutable: they are indexes, documents that carry the physical trace of what they describe.) (60) What inspired artists experience, and what they compress into their art, is intense feeling for objects as ends in themselves; these are worth feeling for (as Bell elaborates in his criticism) because in a certain important ontological sense all things are one—everything participates in the being of the world:
What is the significance of anything as an end in itself? What is that which is left when we have stripped a thing of all its associations, of all its significance as a means? What is left to provoke our emotion? What but that which the philosophers used to call ‘the thing in itself’ and now call ‘ultimate reality’? Shall I be altogether fantastic in suggesting, what some of the profoundest thinkers have believed, that the significance of the thing in itself is the significance of Reality? Is it possible that the answer to my question, ‘Why are we so profoundly moved by certain combinations of lines and colors?’ should be, ‘Because artists can express in combinations of lines and colors an emotion felt for reality which expresses itself in line and color’? (54)
Art can compare itself with religion not only because both rise from the passion for goods beyond material existence, but because of the kind of truth that both come to teach (91). Religion and art don’t work by logical persuasion, nor do they need to; theirs is the large truth that one accepts because it brings with it the sense of sureness felt in the presence of the sublime.
The second section defends art, and especially Post-Impressionism, in spiritual terms. For Roger Fry, the Post-Impressionists promise freer expressiveness for ideas. Bell explains his own enthusiasm for Post-Impressionism by describing the renewal stage in his cycle, a religious phase that sometimes fails to come, but brings, when it comes, a spiritual renaissance. In great spiritual ages, the veil of practicality thins to a film; Bell thinks that Post-Impressionism will be the next movement to refine away the veil (81). “We may say that both art and religion are manifestations of man’s religious sense,” he says, “if by ‘man’s religious sense’ we mean his sense of ultimate reality” (93). (Fry also claims a religious dimension for art, but he grounds it on different terms.)
The third section maps Bell’s theory onto 1,400 years of art. Bell claims, for reasons that can’t be guessed, that historians see no interest in the art of the epochs they study, and presents his own opinion that art helps us to understand something of a people (Art, 98). “But, after all,” he adds, “what does it matter to me? I am not a historian of art or of anything else. I care very little when things were made, or why they were made; I care about their emotional significance to us” (99-100). Great movements rise from similar origins, primitives in every culture resemble one another, and from whatever era it hails, good art is good for one reason—it expresses significant form (185).
The final section returns to Post-Impressionism, especially its debt to Cézanne. If the comparison (familiar since the mid-nineteenth-century) of Imperial Britain with Imperial Rome has any accuracy, then the movement that came about under Cézanne may well augur a spiritual revival like that of the Roman decline, when Orphism, Mythraism, and Christianity blossomed, and a new force drove art upward to full Byzantine glory (202). “There never was a religion so adaptable and catholic as art,” Bell says. “And now that the young movement begins to cast about for a home in which to preserve itself and live, what more natural than that it should turn to the one religion of unlimited forms and frequent revolutions?” (278)
1 This simplifies Moore’s views, but the extent to which the members of Bloomsbury understood and adapted him is enough in contention that simplicity has the virtue of stability across a range of interpretations. George Edward Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge U Press, 1993): 53-54
2 People often complain that the term “influence” is too imprecise; it tends to imply a one-way transmission of ideas, whereas often such relationships are more like dialogues. Still, Bell owed a clear debt to Fry from the start of their acquaintance through its course. Letters among Bloomsbury members make fairly clear that they regarded Bell as his friend’s plagiarist.
3 Frances Spalding, Roger Fry: Art and Life (U of California Press, 1980): 124
4 Clive Bell, Art (Chatto & Windus, 1928): ix. Hereafter cited by page number only. Spalding reports that Vanessa Bell was shy and reserved during this conversation.
5 Roger Fry, “The Old Masters at Burlington House,” Athenaeum, 6 January 1906, 24-25; and 20 January 1906, 84-85. Clive Bell, Review of Notes on the Post-Impressionist Painters, Grafton Galleries, 1910-11, by C.J. Holmes. Athenaeum, 7 January 1911, 19-20.
6 Review of The Flight of the Dragon: An Essay on the Theory and Practice of Art in China and Japan, by Laurence Binyon. Athenaeum, 7 October 1911, 428-29.
Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (Random House, 1999)
Fry, Roger. “An Essay in Aesthetics.” New Quarterly, 2 (April 1909), 171-90. Reprinted in Vision and Design (Chatto and Windus, 1928), pp. 16-38.