Chapter 24. "Art as Significant Form" by Clive Bell

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from Art
The Reading Selection from Art
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

Clive Bell adapted from a sketch by Henry Lamb

About the author …

Clive Bell (1881-1964), Cambridge educated, was a member of the Bloomsbury Group. This literary, cultural group included Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, and John Maynard Keynes. His ęsthetic theory was especially influential in early twenienth century art criticism.

About the work …

In his Art, [1] Bell outlines a formalist theory based on his definition of art as "significant form." True art, he believes, exhibits combinations of lines and colors which engender intellectual recognition and ęsthetic experience in persons of taste. The resultant ęsthetic emotion, he believes, is unique, morally transcendent, and independent of other kinds of human emotions. Ęsthetic value in art, he argues, is based solely on the forms and relations which evoke the ecstasic artistic response. These forms and relations seem to be a pure, simple quality intuitively known by the "rare gift of artistic appreciation."

Ideas of Interest from Art

  1. According to Bell, what two qualities should an ęsthetic theorist possess in order to write well about art. Why are there so few good art critics? Which of the qualities does Bell believe to be the most valuable?

  2. What does Bell think is the starting point for theories of ęsthetics? Why is this so? How does Bell characterize the central problem of ęsthetics? What is it that defines the essential characteristic of artistic works?

  3. Summarize the argument Bell offers against ęsthetic subjectivism. Is Bell a subjectivist? How important is "intellectual rightness," the recognition of the form independent of emotional significance, for Bell?

  4. How does Bell distinguish "significant form" from beauty? Why does Bell wish to avoid use of the term "beauty" when discussing art?

  5. Why does Bell believe descriptive painting is not, in general, genuine art? What is the relation of art and morality on Bell's view? How does he maintain the distinction between "ęsthetic emotion" and "the emotions of life"?

  6. Characterize clearly Bell's explanation of "significant form" in art. Why does Bell think so highly of primitive art?

  7. "Great art," according to Bell, is independent of time and place. Explain whether or not Bell commits himself to a kind of ęsthetic absolutism based upon the objective recognition of "significant form" by the ęsthetically competent?



Clive Bell. Art. London: Chatto & Windus. 1914.