A good work of visual art carries a person who is capable of appreciating it out of life into ecstasy: to use art as a means to emotions of life is to use a telescope for reading the news.
—Clive Bell, Art, (29-30)
Clive Bell’s book Art (preface dated 1913), expounds on his ambitious attempt to articulate his theory of art. What is art? is the question to which he thinks he knows the answer. That last sentence makes it sound as if I don’t think he does, but in fact his thesis is completely acceptable if for no other reason then it defines without revealing. While my edition of the book is nearly 300 pages long, he comes right out with it—Art, Bell states, is always this one thing: significant form. Lines, colors, shapes, and material must always relate significantly to each other in order to precipitate the aesthetic emotion. Bell is a very clever fellow, of course, so I can not argue with a man that defines art so succinctly while leaving the puzzle of the how and even the why untouched. In fact, this is his cleverness, because, of course, must know what one is dealing with—significant form— in order to consider the Yes or No.
Be they artists or lovers of art, mystics or mathematicians, those who achieve ecstasy are those who have freed themselves from the arrogance of humanity. He who would feel the significance of art must make himself humble before it. (70)
There is a lament in the museum world that goes something like this—do you know that the average museum go-er spends less than 30 seconds in front of a piece of work?—Whenever I hear that I want to say—hold on a minute. Ars longa, vita brevis, no? Too short to waste more than 30 seconds, or whatever the amount is (30 may be generous), on a No. We feel it right away. The aesthetic emotion hardly requires seconds to register. Yes or No? Or as Bell cheekily puts it: “there are two types of art: good and bad.”
Yet, though the echoes and shadows of art enrich the life of the plains, her spirit dwells on the mountains. To him who woos, but woos impurely, she returns enriched what is brought (35).
What is in the substantial form that moves me? Or doesn’t. By feeling the Yes or No we can then be on firm ground to approach the why. And that is not to say that one can not come to be moved differently as one’s emotional intelligence becomes refined and freed, but, alas, Bell has a rather low opinion of most people’s ability to really feel, and therefore understand, a good work of art. As with a writer who with “nothing to say soon come[s] to regard the manipulation of words as an end in itself” (222), so too the artist can make a perfect representation of an object or display impressive control of materials without touching anything true in the realm of Art, he/she makes mere “labels” by which many viewers get hopelessly distracted:
The habit of recognising the label and overlooking the thing, of seeing intellectually instead of seeing emotionally, accounts for the amazing blindness, or rather visual shallowness, of most civilized adults (79).
Bell blames the culture of intellectual appreciation. Coming at a work of art through the intellect, through a learned (ruinous!) and well-intentioned study (the road to hell is paved!) of art history and methodology is a useless and damaging endeavor as far as he is concerned. What does history have to add to a work of art’s quiddity? He doesn’t say it isn’t potentially interesting in itself, but the objects and images in a painting, the historical placement of a painting—these are details that mean nothing to its value as a work of art. It is the emotion that transports one away from the plebeian, away from the emotionless news report of the image and/or its happenstance— perfectly rendered or not.
Just as the aesthetic problem is too vague, so the representative problem is too simple. (67)
Unapologetically and amusingly bitchy at times, Bell’s book is refreshingly blunt. Despite the fact that he is an intellectual, he argues for something more from artists and art lovers alike. The mind is not enough, one must invest one’s heart, truly and purely.
He who goes daily into the world of aesthetic emotion returns to the world of human affairs equipped to face it courageously and even a little contemptuously (292).
*Title from p 263: Let us try to remember that art is not something to be come at by dint of study; let us try to think of it as something to be enjoyed as one enjoys being in love. The first thing to be done is to free the aesthetic emotions from the tyranny of erudition.
**photo: Marble relief of the Three Graces. Roman, mid-imperial, ca. 2nd Century A.D., The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Three Graces—Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance)—bestow that which is beneficent in nature and society: fertility and growth, the arts, and harmony between men.”