Free from the Tyranny of Erudition

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).

Ecstasy awaits.

*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.”

19 responses to “Free from the Tyranny of Erudition

  1. Nice post.

    I like the way he nearly personifies art as though it’s a God worthy of worship. I almost agree with him on that. As an artist, I don’t think art is a deity to be worshiped but I certainly do think of the arts as a means to get closer to God.

    I respect art as one of our species’ most profound means of expressing ideas. It is a highly creative and potentially moving form of communication.

    If I am to draw a spiritual parallel, I liken it to speaking in tongues. Not everyone can understand it. Only a select population or the one who is most sensitive to the expression will understand what is being said.

  2. Mr. Bell seems to define art as a visual object that elicits the “aesthetic emotion” via “significant form.” all other attention to this object is pathetic, be that the representative content of the thing, know facts of the creator’s intentions or even the history of the object itself. I’d argue that he was just attempting to justify liking the increasing abstract ‘isms making themselves know in 1913. but looking back, as we now do, we can say, thanks to Clive et. al., that “significant form” is necessary for art. But we can also say, after the collapse of modernism, that it’s not sufficient. We still don’t know what art is.

    • I think you are probably right, except that I don’t think the collapse of modernism makes his thesis wrong. His idea is dependent on the result of the significant form which evinces aesthetic emotion, so where modernism and any other ism does that—it is art.

  3. I never really appreciate how hard it is to define what art is beyond being something that seems to define us and unite us as a species. War used to be an art. What does it say about us that this seems so wrong now?

    • That’s an interesting point. Of course, these terms: art, science, not to mention philosophy, have changed in meaning over the time…still you raise an interesting thought. It is a surprisingly difficult thing to define.

  4. There is still the popular assumption that ‘art’ is equivalent to ‘skill’, but no the same as ‘craft’

  5. (Apologies, finger blip). Craft is more readily understandable, having reference to the usefulness of objects. Things made well for a practical purpose. Craft has a high degree of the aesthetic of somatic and emotional empathy (looking and holding confirms a ‘rightness’ of dimensions that brings a definite insightful joy). Much (popularly acceptible, palatable) art is appreciated for the skill of handling, representation, but the same pieces may not be as highly valued by those trained as artists. There is a sophistication required, a different level of immersion and a willingness to accept unusual or unpleasant or puzzling sensations without immediate judgement (like, dislike, meh -the three poisons). Stimulation of neural patterns creating ecstacy without the need to judge…. Perhaps…

  6. Is art formalist, persuasive—in intent, at least—or expressive? The various -isms and theories pick one of these as its purpose and deny the others. Consider this: All three are necessary but not sufficient.
    Bell’s formalism, above all, implies the there is something called “significant form” in all art, something that “stir[s] our aesthetic emotions.” This seems a tautology, yes? Try to locate an example of either not in the presence of the other. Also, does formalist art theory require an artist to create this significant form? Can, let’s say, a sunset over the ocean which stirs aesthetic emotions be art as much as a painting of it? Does art have to be created by a human or can it something simply found and declared art? And even if human made, if it is made by accident does it count as art?
    Is art merely that artist’s expression? Does this art have to be a truly deep felt, be it therapeutic or self-destructive, emotion made concrete? Not all expression has to be art. Honking your car‘s horn or yelling at the TV are expressive but not art. R.G. Collingwood says there is a difference between expressing emotions and betraying (great choice of word!) them. The former is conscious and art, the latter is neither.
    And not all creation of objects or events declared by some on or another as art is expressive/sincerely felt. It can be a cold-hearted attempt to persuade. Collingwood still considers this to be an art, I’m unconvinced. In this case the artist wants you, the observer of her efforts, to react in a preconceived manner and all her creative powers are directed towards that end. She may be doing this on the behalf of others, e.g. advertisements, propaganda and PR, or she could simply want you to give her money for her efforts.
    The formalist says art is what it is; neither the particulars of artist nor the observer matters much. What the artist felt while creating (finding, declaring, whatever) the thing/event count, nor do her celebrity and/or insanity. Likewise the observer’s intellectual/financial/historical baggage is irrelevant. Somewhat more inclusive are the espressivists and the persuasivists, they think we all count. Until all too human tribalism wins out, that is.
    Consider this again: All three points of view are necessary but not sufficient to appreciate, let alone judge art. There seems to be a necessary formal quality to art. I try to intellectualize it to teach it but don’t do well there. I know (feel?) good art when I see it. And showing students what I see as good art over and over again seems to get them doing that as well. We may disagree on the specifics but we agree on the process.
    And, per the other theories, people count too. The artist feels, then that feeling is expressed into the object or event then the object/event creates a feeling in the observer. The expressivist school limits the feeling to that of the artist whereas the persuasivist’s range of feelings to be generated is unlimited. If we humans didn’t count, the above-mentioned sunset would have been art in the Jurassic period appreciated only by dinosaurs and will be still beloved by insects after humanity has long since killed itself off. This seems absurd.
    But how do you measure feelings in art? Whose neurosis is more aesthetic than someone elses’s? Are greed and other forms of self-aggrandizement emotions made concrete? Silly questions only answered by shape-shifting consensuses, skewed, as well, by dark money and self-made ignorance, resulting in a tragic—and not so—brief terms of artistic office.
    Examples: Messonier in, then out; Manet out, then in. Vermeer was lost, then found, imagine what greatness remains lost? Kinkade remains popular in some locales and Masereel unknown most everywhere; I just don’t get that. Or consider the 1000s of internet posters—be they formalist, expressionist or propagandist—doing what they do, for better or worse. Who—critics, cockroaches, or idle web-surfers—has the final word who is making art or not?

    • Perhaps the cockroaches are indifferent, but I would answer you do. And I do too. We say for ourselves whether or not it is yes or no, and then we can discuss why. There is no real measure of course, this is why I always cringe when I hear someone say “I love you so much” it makes me immediately suspicious because, for me, love doesn’t have degrees. I love or I do not. There are plenty of other words to describe degrees of affection.
      I think it is fair to say that as a social group there are often things that many people respond to in a similar way at a similar time, but it is not a fixed point, nor is it absurd for someone to disagree at any time. As far as I am concerned the only worthwhile thing to attempt to measure in art IS feeling. If it doesn’t make you feel, it might as well be a mere object.
      As far as a sunset goes I think Bell would say that art does have to have an intention behind it. The artist starts with her own aesthetic emotion and interprets that into significant form.

  7. Pingback: The Vital Imagination | so very very

  8. I think art, spirituality (or religion of if you like) and healing work from the same nerve point or source. If asked what I mean by source or nerve point I’d be unable to explain. That it is simultaneously an intellectual pursuit, is a certainty. The artist would no doubt ‘feel’ she or he is inspired to make something (feeling) and then the how and why of it is researched. When I see a new work of art (and like it), the first sensation is the pit of my stomach. Then only would I ‘research’ the work regarding markmaking, composition, colour use and so on. I try and check the title last.

    • I take a similar approach.

      • Without the “need,” the unexplainable energy to make something, the explainable education and even the idea lay fallow.

      • True, but “need” can come from many different quarters and as far as I can see in human history there has always been a need. Art is the constant.

      • I agree that art is one of many needs that come from many different quarters. The need to create competes with many others: to belong, to surpass, to control, as well as to comfort or to destroy. But art is different, in its “pure” form anyway, it doesn’t require others’ participation as either a catalyst or executive.
        But needs expressed are rarely purely one or another of the above labels of convenience. What comes out is always a mix. Whether that’s a solution or pollution is a matter of opinion. So art on the street/in a gallery is generally a collaboration, a competition or both.
        Yes, art has been a constant need; but the others are too, thought their relative value in a given society is anything but constant. Here and now it seems that the needs to surpass and thereby to profit irreversibly pollute expression of the need to create and as an unintended consequence lessen the possibility of belonging and comforting.

      • Yes, I only mean to say that “need” is not innately negative, and even if money is not the motivating (and corrupting) factor, desire for recognition can too always swing from healthy to abject cynicism. But I try to resist abject cynicism because even when it is a fact of the creation, the creation—the art—still can stand, timeless and glorious, on its own. That comforts me.

      • What can be negative about being needy is how we seek to be less so. Simply being needy is a fact of life. Re: art and neediness. Beyond art’s value as therapy in its construction—like a friendship—or as currency, a means—like money—to the end of respect or security, it, as an object/event, surely “can stand, timeless and glorious, on its own.”

      • Yes, I think that is true.

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