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Clive Bell's Aesthetic: Tradition and Significant Form Author(s): Thomas M. McLaughlin Source: The Journal of
Clive Bell's Aesthetic: Tradition and Significant Form Author(s): Thomas M. McLaughlin Source: The Journal of

Clive Bell's Aesthetic: Tradition and Significant Form Author(s): Thomas M. McLaughlin

Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Summer, 1977), pp. 433-


Published by: Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics

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CLIVEBELLhas often

been dismissed

by aes-

theticians and art critics who demand rigor- ous logic in their disciplines. They point persuasively to his circular reasoning, in- consistencies, and even overt contradictions. No one, though, has denied his sensibility, especially since he championed the artists of his time who have survived to be recog- nized universally as masters. But Bell claimed for himself more than sensibility. At the outset of his career, in Art (1913), he designated the qualities that aesthetic think- ing demands: "artistic sensibility and a turn for clear thinking." 1 Obviously he considered himself so qualified, but many

of his critics have since questioned his "clear


only because of his own weaknesses, but be- cause he is so often invidiously compared to Roger Fry, whose superiority need not be secured at Bell's expense. In addition, Bell has unfortunately, if inevitably, been identified almost completely with the phrase "significant form," and has suffered the fate common to any critic whose impact relies on one memorable phrase: the rest of his career has been neglected, and the setting in which the phrase first appeared has been forgotten. Bell's thinking, then, can be dis- torted either by arbitrarily translating his

His reputation has suffered not

THOMASM. MCLAUGIILINis visiting assistant pro-

of English at Temple






explanations into more limited formulas or by ignoring all of his works but his most famous, Art. For example, if his conception of form is reduced to "outline," as it was by one reviewer of Art, then an antagonistic critic can easily dismiss Bell's theory as rigid and narrow.2 Similarly, Bell is often attacked for failing to provide an adequate defini- tion of "significant form" by critics who have apparently considered only his first attempt to do so.3 When Bell's entire career is considered, a more fully developed aes- thetic system than his detractors have been willing to recognize is apparent. The system depends on Bell's formulation of a theory of tradition which provides a coherent ex- planation of the process by which form is imposed on the world, and which antici- pates at least in part many of the objections raised against him. This is not to overlook the weaknesses in Bell's theory; his system can legitimately be questioned on several important issues. However, simply to dis- miss Bell (as some critics have done) be- cause of the apparent circularity of one of his arguments - the definition of signifi- cant form - is to overlook his considerable achievement both as a critic and as a theo- retician. In fact, that a critic whose method depended so much on the articulation of his direct emotional responses to various works of art should also construct a consist- ent aesthetic theory is itself an achievement that deserves our attention. Bell's system attains its theoretical con-

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sistency in spite of local faults; indeed, even the faults deserve close critical attention be- cause of the revelations they provide about the very habits of thought that produced the system. For example, the definition of significant form has often been sharply criti- cized as circular, but this flaw results more from the imprecise language of Bell's first attempt at a definition than from inherent conceptual weaknesses in his fully developed


usually formulate his circular thinking in

this way: he begins his analysis by asserting the existence of a purely aesthetic emotion, and then argues that all art must possess some quality to which this emotion responds, that is, significant form, which he then de- fines as form capable of stirring aesthetic


circular, but it is only a reduced version of Bell's actual argument. A closer look at "The Aesthetic Hypothesis" shows that the circularity is more apparent than real, and an examination of Bell's later explanations clarifies some of the confusions actually pres- ent in the early definition. Bell does begin by arguing for the exist- ence of "a particular kind of emotion pro- voked by works of visual art" (Art, p. 17), and strongly distinguishes this aesthetic emotion from those which respond to life. "To appreciate a work of art," Bell argues, "we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no


the problem.4

Bell's critics

Such an argument is obviously



its emotions



. for

a mo-

ment we are shut off from human inter-


." (Art, p. 27).



is pecul-

iar to the experience of art; the vast majority, at least, cannot respond aesthetically to the world outside of art. They cannot do so be- cause the events that they witness in that world demand from them a moral response; in art they are free to be merely spectators,

detached sensi-

to respond as uninvolved,

bilities. There is, therefore, an amoral allure

to this emotion; the spectator observes a scene or a pattern which does not in any direct sense concern him, and so his normal instincts and ideals can be set aside during this isolated experience. What differentiates this aesthetic emotion, then, is its detached, almost impersonal quality. While Bell ad-



mits that some art excites the emotions of life, he still maintains that the function of the highest art is to produce this aesthetic emotion. The validity of these claims will be considered later, but their importance here is in the task that they set for Bell. He will attempt to discover what it is in the work of art that is the ground for this particular emotion. Bell's answer, significant form, must be

seen over against its opposite

understood. Bell usually speaks of art in terms of its purely visual qualities, that is, as line, color, mass, and volume. Significant form is these elements seen as visual pattern, rather than seen as representations of the ex- ternal world. In reaction to the nineteenth- century academic tradition, which Bell and all of Bloomsbury accused of reducing art to illustration, he insists on seeing each ele- ment of a work primarily as part of an interrelating structure. What Bell calls "descriptive painting" is that in which the artist has directed his spectators' attention to forms as illustrations, and has thus denied that which is peculiar to art; in such works, Bell says, "forms are used not as objects of emotion, but as means of sug- gesting emotion or conveying information" (Art, p. 22). R. Meager has noted that, to Bell, the potential for aesthetic emotion is deeply human, but has been blurred in his time by the constant enshrinement in offi- cially sanctioned art of the common emo- tions of everyday life.5 Bell demands that this historical movement be reversed, that artists force their audience to see forms as forms, and that critics foster attention to form, so that spectators may experience the aesthetic emotion. Since this emotion is absolutely distinct from those which re- spond to life, it follows that forms seen as illustrations of life cannot cause it. Only forms seen as ends in themselves can achieve what Bell defines as the purpose of art, to transport the viewer into a purely artistic world, cut off from life. When Bell defines significant form, then, as that which pro- vokes aesthetic emotion, the emphasis must fall on the word "aesthetic" as opposed to "life" emotions, and the distinction be- tween form as an end in itself and form as

to be fully

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Clive Bell's Aesthetic

an illustration must be remembered. Inter- preted in this way, Bell can be seen as mak- ing necessary distinctions rather than as constructing a mere tautology. At the same time, however, it must be admitted that Bell does not often press himself to explain away the circularity. He seems to have assumed that no further argument was necessary, that any person of taste and refinement had experienced and could identify an aesthetic emotion, and knows instinctively the quality that causes it. His arguments are, therefore, often more vitriolic than rational, because he aims at revealing his opponents as phi- listine fools rather than at developing a coherent argument for what seems to him self-evident. Nevertheless, Bell does avoid simple circularity, despite the admitted flaws in his presentation.

II. The Aesthetic Emotion

More damaging than the charge of circu-

larity is the controversy over the very exist- ence of a purely aesthetic emotion. I. A.


issue, but their interchange provides little intentional illumination. Richards simply denies the existence of an aesthetic emotion, asserting that "psychology has no place for such an entity." 6 Although Richards's solu- tion to the problem, that art produces a "finer organization" of emotions which oc- cur elsewhere, may seem more satisfying, and has been more influential, in this argu- ment he gives no compelling reasons for rejecting Bell's position. Similarly, Bell an- swers Richards's criticism only by suggesting that Richards was incapable of an aesthetic

experience, and so could not encompass it in his psychology. Bell's ad hominem argu- ment can be seen as a justifiably angry and rhetorically effective response to Richards's scientific absolutism, but it in fact reveals much more about Bell's position on this issue. His argument assumes not only that the aesthetic emotion should be immedi- ately accepted by any cultivated man, but that its existence is self-evident, known by what G. E. Moore calls an "intuition," and that therefore no argument is possible.7 But Bell's certainty has not been shared by re-

first clashed






cent commentators, and indeed the asser- tion that the emotional response to art is absolutely distinct from life-emotions seems extreme and rigid rather than obvious. It could be argued, for example, that even in the midst of an aesthetic experience the responses of the spectator are influenced in

great part by his normal emotional patterns.

Certainly his emotions

the pressure of the artist's vision, but the spectator must bring with him into the ex- perience his own sensibility, one which has been shaped not only by other aesthetic experiences but by his daily interaction with the world. Bell's vision of aesthetic emotion is almost apocalyptic; the man who views art divests himself of all prior emo- tional tendencies in order to experience this new and higher emotion. What Bell misses is the dialectical pressure between the work of art and the normal emotional patterns of the spectator. An interchange occurs in that moment in which the powerful work of art reveals the limitations of the spec- tator's vision, and forces him to grow, to accommodate this new perspective. Thus Bell's image of a morally detached, dis- tanced spectator is illusory. Whether the audience wills it or not, its strongest emo- tions are brought directly into play, under the control of the artist's technique. Bell's theory of aesthetic emotion in fact reveals a spectator so willing to receive the momen- tary salvation of art that he cannot play his part in the real imaginative exchange. He is looking for a defense against emotion, not growth. Further, much of Bell's occasional criti- cism suggests the practical impossibility of experiencing a purely aesthetic emotion. For example, Bell's approach to African sculpture reveals the inevitable intermixing of "life" emotions in the response to art. These works were crucial to his develop- ment of the concept of significant form, be- cause at the time their historical context was unknown, and so their formal qualities were foregrounded.8 Bell praises the "beauty, taste, quality, and skill" of the works, but denies them full artistic status because they are not the products of indi- viduals, 'at least in his terms, but rather

are altered under

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have been produced unself-consciously, much as birds produce their nests. Here, where a detached analysis of pure form is rhetorically necessary, Bell's cultural pre- conceptions dictate his response. He cannot remain morally neutral to works which question his beliefs. Further, the real limita- tion of his approach is revealed by the fact that, in the end, his beliefs cannot be al- tered by these new works of art. The critic who most firmly denies the role of normal emotional patterns in his response is most liable to their subtle influence. Such a fail- ure on Bell's part must bring his entire argument on the nature of aesthetic emo- tion into question.9

an early review of

Enjoying Pictures, suggested that the under- lying cause of Bell's belief in a purely aes- thetic emotion was his fear of life, which required that he separate the art that he so valued from the world that he feared.10 Although it is difficult to reconstruct Bell's mental state, there are numerous references in his criticism to the unsatisfying, dis- ordered state of the external world. There Bell sees only "clatter and tumult," and "incoherent facts." It is the very function of art to raise man above this "grey and trivial affair," to release him from normal perceptions and daily emotions.11 The aes- thetic emotion, then, would need to be held distinct, since the origin of the emotions of life is of such dubious value. Bell's con- tinuous reference to the high spiritual value of art indicates the importance that he at- taches to the aesthetic emotion, and to the distance that it provides from life. Although the existence of a purely aes- thetic emotion is at least questionable, it provides the starting point for Bell's more successful theoretical work and for his prac- tical criticism. His system is frankly sub- jective; one commentator has accurately de- scribed Bell's work as an "elucidation of the aesthetic thrill." 12 Bell himself an- nounces his subjective base in Art: "the starting point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a pecul- iar emotion" (pp. 16-17). The ways in which this subjectivity shapes Bell's critical practice are not always beneficial, but at its







best, his criticism communicates his emo- tion forcefully enough to lead his reader to


sympathetic experience of the work, even


he does not share Bell's assumptions. As

Bell said, "I have no right to consider any- thing a work of art to which I cannot react emotionally" (Art, p. 18). Many of his critics have asserted that no true critical judgments are possible if they spring from subjective experience.'3 But criticizing Bell on these grounds raises two distinct diffi- culties. First, he is neither the first nor the most influential thinker to claim that art can only be recognized through the exist- ence of a particular mental state. Kant, for example, contends that we recognize beauty only through our experience of the equilib- rium of certain internal powers. Bell, then, participates in a much larger historical phe- nomenon, and cannot be criticized in isola- tion, especially since the more general notion that all criticism and aesthetics should retain the integrity of the original experience of the work is shared by a wide range of critics. Secondly, those who criticize Bell's subjectivity often ignore the objective phase of his theory. Once an aesthetic emo- tion has been experienced, the spectator can then point to the work to show the grounds for his emotion. The forms to which the spectator responds do exist objec- tively. In fact, Bell's entire career can be seen as an attempt to educate the visual sensibilities of the public so that they could see those forms more clearly. Certainly a subjective experience is the clue that a given set of forms should be seen in this way, but Bell maintains that the experience leads us to objectively existing forms.14One indication of Bell's objective phase is his admonition, expressed in Since Cezanne, that the existence of a good response is not an infallible sign of great art, since other, purely subjective causes may account for the response (p. 164). Strong emotion is necessary for an assertion that significant form exists, but it is not a sufficient reason for such an assertion. Since Bell's system is so subjective, some critics have charged that he simply ex- tended his personal tastes into a theory of art. Lawrence Buermayer, for example,

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Clive Bell's Aesthetic

argues that Bell's theory is inevitably nar- row and exclusive, since it dismisses works valued by more flexible tastes which would result in a more inclusive theory.15 Buer- mayer apparently objects not so much to the practice of basing an aesthetic on one's personal tastes, but rather to the restrictions of Bell's own taste. If Art is taken as an example, Bell certainly does display limited taste. In that work only "primitive" art, especially of the Byzantine period, and post- Impressionism are sanctioned, while the en- tire Renaissance is depicted as decadent. However, it should be noted that Bell's tastes become more catholic as he realized that significant form could coexist with even a strong representational element. In Art, for example, Raphael plays the role of the darling of the corrupt Academy

(p. 120), while in Enjoying Pictures (1934),

Bell lavishes on Raphael perhaps the high- est praise expressed in his criticism. Simi- larly, in Since Cezanne, Bell discards his earlier view of the history of painting, which had elevated Byzantine art and Cezanne into lonely achievements on oppo- site ends of a period of great decline. He now constructs a continuing tradition of great artists, including many he had deni- grated in Art, of which Cezanne, for all his experimentation, is a reaffirmation.16Bell's tastes, it is clear, became increasingly inclu-

sive, but more significantly, it is doubtful that his theoretical system was ever limited absolutely to the range of his sensibility. Even in Art Bell says, "we may all agree about aesthetics, and yet differ about par- ticular works of art" (p. 19). That is, Bell admits that he might not see significant form in a work, and yet have no quarrel in theory with a critic who did, so long as both agreed on the quality being discussed. It is more accurate to depict Bell, as some critics have done, as accepting a new and challenging artistic style, and then creating a theory to account for the qualities he had perceived there. Bell believed that the emo- tion he experienced in the presence of modern art differed in quality from that which purely representational art elicited. As Morris Weitz has pointed out, Bell is simply attempting to construct a theory to


account for paintings which the accepted theory of his time would not allow him to understand.17 When Cezanne, for example, was judged by the dominant canon of veri- similitude, he was declared a "botcher." 18 Bell's system was intended to reduce the obvious gap between practice and theory, to widen the definition of art to include the vigorous creative artists of his time. His books, particularly Art, are polemical; they are aimed at an audience which had been educated under the old theories, and which Bell rightly assumed would be hostile to these new artists. In this context, it is not surprising that the rhetoric of the attempt to widen the definition of art at times de- manded a rejection of the preeminent models that Bell's opponents upheld. His growth as a critic, though, is indicated by his later recognition that the fault lay with traditional critics, not with traditional art- ists, who were capable of creating significant form even in the midst of a representational intention. He realized, for example, that the academy had misunderstood Raphael, and that his own appreciation of Raphael had been perverted by his overreaction to the false use to which his works had been put. Undeniably, then, Bell's system is thoroughly subjective at its outset, but it does not necessarily limit him to expressing his own responses, or to canons of taste de- rived from a narrow sensibility. The defini- tion of the aesthetic emotion, questionable as it is, retains the virtue of consistency; the rest of Bell's system derives from it directly. It is the definition of significant form that causes extensive questions regarding the in- ternal coherence of Bell's aesthetics.

III. Tradition and Significant Form

The development apparent in Bell's range of taste perhaps accounts for the increas- ingly confident tone of his theoretical specu- lations. The definition of significant form, especially, develops from a tentative specula- tion in Art to a fully developed governing principle in later works. This movement is typical of Bell's thought; hypotheses which are never adequately tested or defended

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seem later to be taken for granted. They are so thoroughly assumed that they are no

longer the subject of speculations but rather

the basis for new investigations.

Elliott and Solomon Fishman have shown, underlying the definition of significance is the assumption that the artist's and the spectator's experiences are identical.19 Just as the work's form appeals to the spectator, so the artist is susceptible to form in the external world. Therefore, when Bell an- nounces that "created form moves us so

profoundly because it expresses the emotion of its creator" (Art, p. 43), he is not simply equating significance and self-expression.

He suggests that true art recreates and

artistic form to the artist's own aesthetic

response to the world. The artist, Bell says, is uniquely capable of seeing the external

world as form, and thus of

responding to it

in a way which will eventually induce the

aesthetic emotion

chaotic, fragmented world in which Bell habitually lives and from which he hopes art can deliver him seems to be suspended for the artist, who sees about him a more hospitable, more orderly world. Explana- tions for this inconsistency have varied: it has plausibly been dismissed as one of Bell's careless contradictions, or it can be seen as one more instance of his uncritical venera-

tion of artists. In fact, throughout his ca- reer, but especially in Since Cezanne, he

offers an implicit answer to these objections, slowly extricating himself from the paradox.

To see objects as ordered and

the artist must somehow see them "not as


forms" (Art, p. 45).

"life" emotions

are to the spectator. They lead him away

from an object's shape and texture into the learned emotional associations that objects

used throughout


"ultimate reality" (Art, p. 45) of the ex- ternal world; he sees objects as "things in themselves," in Bell's terms, as forms to be admired rather than as matter to be


As R. K.







shrouded in associations, but as pure


for the artist,

are as irrelevant as they


man's life





the artist reveals the


By Since Cezanne (1922), the expressive

nature of

art has become an




principle. Here Bell asserts that the artist "creates forms that shall correspond with his intimate sense of the significance of things" (p. 101), and defines "the proper end of art" as "externalizing in form an aesthetic experience" (p. 30). The tone in these passages is confident and dogmatic, far from hesitant. In Art Bell's theory amounts to a statement of his faith in the superior ordering powers of artists; in Since Cezanne his faith has been confirmed. His continued devotion to Cezanne seems to have been the catalyst for his developing confidence. Cezanne was the breakthrough; he "removed all unnecessary barriers be- tween what [artists] felt and its realization in form" (Since Cezanne, p. 15). Not only had Bell proved to be right and Cezanne's critical detractors come reluctantly to accept him, but the new masters of the modern French movement also followed in his direc- tion. The metaphysical hypothesis became more acceptable to Bell as his successful models reinforced for him its plausibility, and as he realized that it applied to artists whom he had previously rejected. Although Bell became increasingly con- vinced of the truth of his hypothesis, two serious difficulties still arise with regard to his explanation of significance. As R. K. Elliott has pointed out in his brilliant essay on Bell, if the artist can discover significant form in the external world, then the distinc- tion between art and that world cannot be so complete as Bell claims, since significance can only be encountered in an ordered ob- ject, certainly not in the collection of "in- coherent facts" that Bell more typically sees in the world.20 In some way the artist must be able to see as form what others - includ- ing Bell - see as chaos. Otherwise, the claim that art begins in the artist's own aesthetic experience of the world is impossible. Bell was aware of the confusion provoked by his definition, and in 1919 suggested this ex- planation of the difference between the sig- nificance of art and the mere beauty of nature: "in a work of art an artist expresses an emotion, whereas the flower and the gem express nothing and are, in that sense, in- significant." 21 This attempt at simplifying the issue unfortunately adds to the con-

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Clive Bell's Aesthetic

fusion, since, as we have seen, the meta- physical hypothesis states that the emotion expressed by art is precisely the artist's sense of the significance of things. Bell even suggests in another context that, to the art- ist, objects are somehow themselves expres- sive. This provokes the second major ob- jection to the theory; if significance and expression are related, and if the artist sees significance in the world, whose emotion does it express? Jerome Stolnitz has noticed this problem, and C. J. Ducasse takes it an incongruous further step.22 He imports into the discussion a divine figure, which he ad- mits is foreign to Bell but nevertheless seems to him to be implied by an "expressive" external world, and then wonders what was the object of the artistic creator god's emo- tion, which his creation, the natural world, expresses. The tone of Ducasse's essay mocks Bell rather than controverting him, and his intention here is simply to trivialize Bell's argument. However, Bell's problems with these issues have not been manufactured by hostile critics; they arise from his own flawed formulation of the metaphysical hy- pothesis. He uses terms like "expressive" with too little rigor, and his use of "dis- cover" to describe the creation of form cannot be taken literally as signifying his belief in a world in which order can be found. Although Bell's works do not pro- vide a direct, conscious answer to these ob- jections, an implicit answer does arise, al- though Bell never connected it to the meta- physical hypothesis. It is through Bell's theory of tradition, indebted strongly to T. S. Eliot, and developed and applied in Since Cezanne, Landmarks in Nineteenth Century Painting, and An Account of French Painting, that the difficulties are dimin- ished. Bell's limitations as a theorist, how- ever, are suggested by the fact that so much interpretation and synthesis is required from a reader of his works to construct a coherent theory from his less systematic approach. Bell never makes the connections that I will suggest here, but the connec- tions can still legitimately be made without falsifying the material that he could have provided in his own defense. Further, if these connections are ignored, his career


becomes truncated and distorted. If Since Cezanne does not take up the problems that arose in Art, then we must posit in Bell a lack of intellectual continuity and integrity more massive than any of his most virulent critics suggest.

provides the

solution to the apparent contradiction that Elliott points out. In Since Cezanne Bell sees the artist as living within a world of art. Through his training and his natural interest in the works of other artists, his perception of the world becomes condi- tioned by the artistic orders which he has encountered. The works of the past pro- vide him with structures which at once order and ennoble the visible world. Un- consciously these works exclude from his vision the trivial, mundane facts that en- trap Bell. Because these past works are themselves ordered and significant, the artist lives in a world which, for him, has already been transformed when he turns his con- scious mind to the task of creation.23 Those who are not artists can only recognize sig- nificant form in art, where it has been "ordered for [their] apprehension." 24 The artist himself, of course, benefits more subtly from the same ordering power of art; its results remain with him whenever his crea- tive vision is in play. The gap between Bell's experience and that which he imputes to artists may explain at once the tentative- ness of the original metaphysical hypothesis, since he was then ascribing to artists an emotion foreign to his experience, and also his respect for artists, as beings capable of experiences higher than his own. Bell's theory of composition explains how these higher experiences can occur. He divides the creative process into two parts, "sensibility" and "the artistic problem" (Since Cezanne, pp. 41-43). Sensibility is that openness to ecstasy which occurs when the significance of external objects becomes apparent. The artistic problem is that which focuses the artist's powers so that a new aesthetic order can be imposed. Bell most directly connects the tradition to the artistic problem, seeing it as the source of each artist's solution to his problem (p. 76), or as "an indispensible means to self-


theory of


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expression" (p. 125). On this level, the art- ists of the past merely provide technical possibilities which the artist can utilize when necessary. However, if as Bell says, seeing artists as traditional places them in a world of pure art (p. 75), then the influence of tradition must extend to sensibility. There is evidence that Bell employed such an as- sumption in his practical criticism. He says of Turner, for example, that "the subject is seen purely in terms of art" (Landmarks, p. 137-emphasis added), and it is clear that the tradition operates directly on Turner's actual visual experience, since Bell

also asserts that

he sees without producing mere illustra- tions. Turner's immersion in the world of art alters his perception so that the world appears as already formed with a signifi- cance of its own. Similarly, Bell notes the influence of Japanese art on the visual ex- perience of Degas (Landmarks, p. 191). When Bell uses a term like "discover,"then, suggesting that order exists in the world to be found by the artist, the verbal context that his entire critical canon establishes de- mands that we read the word as shorthand for apparent discovery by means of an un- conscious imposition of forms derived from the tradition of art. The contradiction that Elliott sees in Bell's work results, again, from a difficulty in articulation rather than in conception. Interpreted in the way that I have sug- gested, Bell implies that significance exists in the external world only to artists. The

work of art retains its unique quality. Any- one can perceive the significance of art works, without needing to transform them in any way. The work of art is visibly sig- nificant because it expresses the emotions of the artist. The world is significant to the artist because of his superior powers of "self-assertion"; he sees in the world only the structures that he has unconsciously im- posed on it. In this case, Bell's entire aes- thetic system explains the dilemma posed by Art. He seems to have lacked the sus- tained intellectual rigor to forge some of these connections within material written over a twenty year period, but his mind re-

Turner simply reports what



turns fruitfully to the same problem, offer- ing compelling new solutions.

theory of tradi-

tion answers Ducasse's and Stolnitz's objec-

tion to Bell's argument that significance exists in the world. That is, if the objects in the world are significant, whose emotions

do they express? Within

course, there is no need to invent a creator god expressing himself in natural form. In fact, if significance is imposed by the artist through the tradition, then it is the art- ists of the past themselves, as imaginations interrelated in the new artist's mind, who

are the composite god that creates expres- sive emotion in the world. When a given artist looks at the world, then, in effect he comes into direct contact with the emotions of other artists. His struggle, then, is to express his own unique sensibility and join the tradition. The individual psychological


structures of each artist interact with

tradition so that new visions are always en-

Similarly, the extended

Bell's system, of




work of the



embody the new artist's personality and mode of perception perfectly. All works are, therefore, imperfect frames for the artist; he must fashion with their aid and direction an object which embodies his vision more precisely, which corresponds to his own psychological makeup more pro- foundly. The determining interaction in the creative act, then, occurs between the individual artist and the artists of the past; at no time is there an unmediated vision of the external world. Bell's sense of tradition is closely allied with his use of the term "primitive" to de- scribe authentic art.26 Although the term is available to Bell because of the renewed popularity in his time of early African art, he does not intend the word to carry a sim- ple historical meaning. Bell associates the primitive not only with the earliest origins of art, but with any artist who returns to its fundamental task, the creation of signifi- cant form. In Art he contrasts the primitive with art which displays representational skill, and provides a general historical explanation for the difference. In Bell's vision, the earliest primitive artists, out of

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Clive Bell's Aesthetic

ritualistic requirements and religious fervor, created a spiritual art which aimed at sim- plicity and purity. This art excluded all reference to irrelevant detail and called its spectators into contact with the world of the spirit. But, as civilization develops, rich patrons begin to finance art, and their tastes must be flattered (p. 113). Such patrons are, in Bell's view, necessarily vulgar, and de- mand representations of the objects that

they gain pleasure in possessing.


rently, the role of the artist becomes spe- cialized, and artists must compete for pa- trons by developing meticulous skill at imitation. The result, says Bell, is that "formal significance loses itself in preoccu- pation with exact representation and osten- tatious cunning" (p. 26). Ages which lose touch with the primitive create "obsequious



official, eclectic,


cal, plutocratic, palatial, and vulgar" (p. 97). Bell's original paradigm for this conflict was the gradual change from Byzantine to Renaissance art, but he later realized that the conflict was perpetual. In each age, By- zantine significance and Renaissance repre- sentation conflict. The post-Impressionists, for example, are primitives in their concern for formal significance, and oppose the aca- demic artists of their time (personified by the Royal Academy) who value only exact imitation of nature. Artist's like Cezanne also share the primitive emphasis on spiritu- ality. They include nothing in their work that does not contribute to its design, and thus to the spectator's spiritual exaltation. They avoid all reference to the brute, un- transformed world that man wishes to escape through art. In Since Cezanne Bell identifies the tradition as including all artists who choose to create significant form (p. 75), thus suggesting that it is a tradition of primi- tives. That is, the true artist instinctively recognizes the genuine purpose of art and then immerses himself in the works of other artists who have achieved this purpose. But this effort, especially since the Renaissance, has always been resisted by those who have gained power through representational skill. Thus, in effect all true art has become revo- lutionary; especially in Bell's time, when


representation has become to the establish- ment the sole criterion of quality, the genu- ine artist must outrage the tastes of his spectators and contemporary judges, in order to gain a permanent importance and to provide the highest possible spiritual benefit to his true audience. Thus the art- ist must return to the tradition to fulfill his purpose, but he must bring to the task his own perceptual experience and imagina- tion. For this reason, he cannot merely imitate his predecessors, since he would then not express his own responses and could not create the truly expressive form that makes artists a part of the continuing


There is a darker side to the artist's rela- tionship with the tradition, and Bell is fully aware of its possible consequences. He sees that the artist can at times face a danger more powerful than the corrupt and suc- cessful figures of his time; the tradition it- self, whose function is to enable the artist's creation, may instead overpower him with a sense of what Harold Bloom would call his "belatedness," his need to create the new in the face of the monuments of the past. This is especially critical for artists who live in highly civilized ages, which wor- ship the art of the past. French painting, in Bell's view, has not produced as many original personalities as the English, pre- cisely because it has not needed to rebel against a corrupt authority. French painters are the direct descendants of a tradition too noble to be rejected, and so unique sensi- bilities give way to a rich, but predictable store of works (Civilization, p. 91). Bell's Civilization, which seems to be a hymn to man's civilized achievement, in fact at- tempts to define the limits of civilization's values. Such a society may venerate its artistic past and thus intimidate its own artists into repeating past successes. As Bell says, "savages create furiously," and each artist must retain that primitive energy if the past is to act as his partner rather than his adversary. Tradition must remain for him that "indispensible means of self- expression," or it can become a sacred and unalterable edifice. Either he uses the tradi-

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tion in his own struggle against complacent taste, or it stifles his belief in his creative powers.

IV. Conclusion

of the artist's inter-

action with the tradition, Bell's definition

of significant form becomes less mysterious. What the spectator sees in a genuine work of art is a creative mind's struggle to express its own vision of the world, by means of its memory of earlier works of art, which at once make the expression possible and problematic. Without the contribution that other creators have unconsciously given, the artist would be trapped in a world in which order is impossible. But other works of art assert the priority of their own vision, and so tempt the later artist into submissive imitation. The genuine artist, however, negotiates these difficulties through two complementary desires: the need for order and for self-expression. The order he reveals

is imposed on the visible world by the inter-

action of his personality and the tradition that lives in him. It is, therefore, an order which externalizes in a satisfying way the artist's creative self, yet filtered through a process so subtle as to allow the artist him- self to believe absolutely and his spectators to believe momentarily that such an order pre-existed him in the natural world. Thus the twofold function of art for Bell. Primarily, art provides man an escape from

a "greyand trivial" world. For the moment of his aesthetic exaltation he sees that world as "the echo of some ultimate harmony" (Art, p. 55); the painting presents a vision of a more perfect world, ordered and serene. However, the moment is elusive, and can only be followed by a more sober discovery, that any order which man can encounter is the result of human creative energy. The spectator comes to recognize the act of "self- expression" responsible for this ideal world. Significant form, then, leads the spectator inevitably to the artist who produced it, and to the imaginative power in the artist and potentially in himself. For Bell, a life committed to the experience of art is spent

In his explanation



in the midst of a higher world, one which asserts its difference from the real, and thus attests to the power of its human creator. Bell combined this commitment to aes- thetic experience with a desire to clarify the processes by which art is produced. His theory of tradition has the advantage of grounding that explanation in a recog- nizable feature of any artist's life, his own aesthetic experience. Bell's entire system shows the ways in which an artist's training,

his inevitable


proceed and surround him, deter-

the works

familiarity with

mine his very vision of the world. That he left to his readers the substantial task of

connecting his earlier and later works does not diminish Bell's theoretical system, al- though it does call into question his rhe-

torical abilities.

the importance of art, the spiritual rewards

to be gained from aesthetic experience. In this endeavor, the rigors of logic are un- important to him if this central message is communicated. That a coherent system should still emerge from such an unsys- tematic thinker is remarkable, certainly more so than his coining of one memorable phrase.

Bell's theories argue for




(1913; rpt.















2 Charles Aitken, "On Art and Aesthetics,"? Bur-



26 (1914-15),


3One example

is Jerome Stolnitz,

Aesthetics and


Philosophy of Art Criticism: An Introduction

ton, 1960), pp. 145-46.

4 Cf., for example, C. J. Ducasse, The Philosophy

York, 1929), p. 308; and








Meager, "Clive Bell

and Aesthetic



Journal of

Aesthetics, 5

(1965), 124.

RI. A. Richards, Principles

of Literary Criticism

(New York, 1925), pp.


7 See G. E. Moore, Principia


(1903; rpt.


8 Clive Bell, Since Cezanne (New York, 1922), pp.


edition. 9 A case in which the emotions of life are mixed

into an aesthetic response does not, of course, prove that a purely aesthetic response is impossible. How-






support his positions. This example is only the

1968), p. x.













to recount


the purest of emotions

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Clive Bell's Aesthetic

most blatant of many in which other emotions, not

20Elliott, p.



See also D. W. Gotshalk,



to form, are present.

put does not support his position,

Bell's entire out- but rather re-

and the Social Order

(Chicago, 1947), p. 148.

21Bell, "Significant Form," The Burlington Maga-

veals that a spectator brings his values and beliefs

to the experience, elements of art.







even in responding to the formal

rev. of





.4rt, 27








Stolnitz, p. 148; and Bernard

C. Heyl, New Bearings in Aesthetics and Art Criti-


" See Art, p. 55 and 59 and Enjoying

York, 1934), p. 28n.


of Enjoying



(1934), 400.

13Cf., for example,



by Clive Bell,

1943), p. 121.

14Cf. Art, p.


15Lawrence Buermayer, "Pattern and Plastic Form," (1926) in John Dewey, et al., Art and Edu-



See also Beryl

Lake, "A Study of

thetic Theories," in W. Elton, ed., Aesthetics and

Language (Oxford, 1959), pp. 112-13.



1947), p.




of Two

16 See Since Cezanne, p. 18 and


17 Morris Weitz, Philosophy of the Arts (New

York, 1950), p. 1.

18 Art, p. 11. Bell attributes this phrase to

Sargent. 19 R. K. Elliott, "Clive Bell's Aesthetic Theory and Critical Practice," British Journal of Aesthetics, 5 (1965), 112; and Solomon Fishman, The Inter- pretation of Art (Berkeley. 1963), p. 84.



(1919), 257.

22Cf. Stolnitz,

23 Bell,

24Landmarks in Nineteenth Century Painting


146 and Ducasse, p. 313.



Cezanne, pp.

(New York, 1927), pp. 175-83. All subsequent ref-

erences will


portance of individuality



in artists in Sinlce Cezanne,

be to this edition.

Civilization: ,4n

25See Bell's comments,

124 and


for example,





1928), p.



I have found



noticed. 27 The parallels between Bell's theory of tradition and that outlined by T. S. Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" are striking. In both cases, the artist is pictured before the works of the past, which assert their presence in every artist. In both Bell and Eliot the artist must create an original

work by means of his relationship with the tradi- tion, so that the tradition can grow. Both see the tradition as dynamic, changing as new authentic works enter it. A plausible case could be made for Eliot's theory influencing Bell directly. Eliot's essay falls between Art and Since Cezanne, the works which exemplify the major shift in Bell's position on tradition.

Bell's prefer-

2 The










Bell's primitivism













is surprising

has gone

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