Ideas of Clive Bell, by Theme

[British, fl. 1914, Writer on aesthetics, and prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group.]

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21. Aesthetics / A. Aesthetic Experience / 2. Aesthetic Attitude
Good art produces exaltation and detachment
     Full Idea: The contemplation of pure form leads to a state of extraordinary exaltation and complete detachment from the concerns of life.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], I.III)
     A reaction: The last part is what gets the arts a bad name with the people who do deal with the concerns of life (which won't go away, even for an artist!). However, being totally trapped in the concerns of life is probably a recipe for misery.
21. Aesthetics / A. Aesthetic Experience / 4. Beauty
The word 'beauty' leads to confusion, because it denotes distinct emotions
     Full Idea: The word 'beauty' connotes objects of quite distinguishable emotions, and the term would land me in confusions and misunderstandings.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], I.I)
     A reaction: His main example is a comparison of beautiful women with beautiful art. Personally I don't think the word aspires to be precise, so there is no problem. Maths has beautiful solutions, golf has beautiful shots, cooking has beautiful results. Wow!
21. Aesthetics / A. Aesthetic Experience / 5. Natural Beauty
We only see landscapes as artistic if we ignore their instrumental value
     Full Idea: It is only when we cease to regard the objects in a landscape as means to anything that we can feel the landscape artistically.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], II.I)
     A reaction: This sounds as if only the exploitative attitude blocks the artistic view, but I would expect the scientific view (of an ecologist, for example) to do the same.
Our feeling for natural beauty is different from the aesthetic emotion of art
     Full Idea: It is not what I call an aesthetic emotion that most of us feel, generally, for natural beauty. …Most people feel a very different kind of emotion for birds, flowers and butterfly wings from that we feel for pictures, pots, temples and statues.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], I.I)
     A reaction: Not convinced. I think the main difference is our awareness that art is a human production, the result of choice, whereas nature is a given. Beethoven 9 and a good sunset don't seem to me far apart in our responses.
21. Aesthetics / A. Aesthetic Experience / 6. The Sublime
Visual form can create a sublime mental state
     Full Idea: Pure visual form transports me to an infinitely sublime state of mind.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], I.I)
     A reaction: Unusual for anyone to use to term 'sublime' for works of art, and I suspect that Bell was the last to do so. Bell offers a quasi-religious role for art. I accept that being struck by something exceptionally good in art is a very distinctive experience.
21. Aesthetics / B. Nature of Art / 1. Defining Art
Aestheticism invites artist to create beauty, but with no indication of how to do it
     Full Idea: The danger of aestheticism is that the artist who has got nothing to do but make something beautiful hardly knows where to begin or where to end
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], I.III)
     A reaction: Aestheticism strikes me as the main motivation for art nouveau artifacts, which I love. You start with beautiful lines, and then find ways to implement them. Bell has a point, though!
Art is the expression of an emotion for ultimate reality
     Full Idea: My hypothesis is that art is the expression of an emotion for ultimate reality.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], II.II)
     A reaction: So later in his discussion the word 'ultimate' has crept in, after a chapter about the close relation between religious and artistic attitudes. He also sees good art as deeply 'spiritual'. It seems that religious belief is essential to his theory of art.
21. Aesthetics / B. Nature of Art / 2. Art as Form
Only artists can discern significant form; other people must look to art to find it
     Full Idea: Bell thinks that only artists can discern significant form directly in the natural world, and that all others must look to art for significant form.
     From: report of Clive Bell (Art [1913]) by Sebastian Gardner - Aesthetics 3.3
     A reaction: I have a horrible feeling that 'significant' form will turn out to be the sort of form that artists can see. Presumably the form spotted by geologists won't be quite so 'significant'. Not a promising theory.
Maybe significant form gives us a feeling for ultimate reality
     Full Idea: When we strip things of all associations and significance, what is left is 'the thing in itself', or 'ultimate reality'. …Artists can express an emotion felt for reality through line and colour. …So through 'significant form' we sense ultimate reality.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], I.III)
     A reaction: [compressed] The thing in itself is a Kantian idea. He offers this as a speculation, rather than a fact. Maybe quantum physics gets us closer to the thing in itself? Bell knows that his faith in significant form needs more justification than an emotion.
Significant form is the essence of art, which I believe expresses an emotion about reality
     Full Idea: My view that the essential quality in work of art is significant form was based on experience I am sure about. Of my view that significant form is the expression of a peculiar emotion felt for reality I am far from confident.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], II.II)
     A reaction: It is hard to understand the idea of 'significant' form without a clear proposal for the nature of the significance. A detective doesn't stop at the point where evidence is seen as significant. Why should a 'peculiar' emotion matter?
'Form' is visual relations, and it is 'significant' if it moves us aesthetically; art needs both
     Full Idea: By 'form' Bell means the relations of lines, colours and shapes. Forms are 'significant' when the relationships of lines and so on move us aesthetically. If something is art it must have, to at least a minimum extent, significant form.
     From: report of Clive Bell (Art [1913], p.17) by Susan Feagin - Roger Fry and Clive Bell 3
     A reaction: So art has two necessary conditions - that it move us aesthetically, and that it does so by means of its form. The obvious problem is to explain which forms are 'significant' without mentioning the aesthetic feeling they have to invoke.
21. Aesthetics / B. Nature of Art / 4. Art as Expression
The only expression art could have is the emotion resulting from pure form
     Full Idea: If art expresses anything, it expresses an emotion felt for pure form and that which gives pure form its extraordinary significance.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], III.I)
     A reaction: I don't think 'expresses' is the right word here. Artists express, but works just transmit. I personally doubt whether anything can have 'extraordinary significance' simply because it expresses one particular emotion. Why art, but not geometry?
21. Aesthetics / C. Artistic Issues / 2. Copies of Art
Mere copies of pictures are not significant - unless the copies are very exact
     Full Idea: A literal copy is seldom reckoned even by its owner a work of art. Its forms are not significant. Yet if it were an absolutely exact copy, clearly it would be as moving as the original, and a photographic reproduction of a drawing often is.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], I.III)
     A reaction: What if the original artist made the copy? In 1913, Bell begins to spot this modern problem. He undermines his own theory of significant form here, if the form only becomes significant once we have checked it is an original.
21. Aesthetics / C. Artistic Issues / 4. Emotion in Art
Art is distinguished by its aesthetic emotion, which produces appropriate form
     Full Idea: The characteristic of a work of art is its power of provoking aesthetic emotion; the expression of emotion is what gives it its power. ...Rightness of form is invariably a consequence of rightness of emotion.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], I.III)
     A reaction: Bell doesn't dig very deep, because the obvious next question, not really addressed, is what makes the emotion 'right'. He suggests that significant form reveals reality, but why would an emotion do that? Does each work have a distinct emotion?
21. Aesthetics / C. Artistic Issues / 6. Value of Art
Aesthetic experience is an exaltation which increases the possibilities of life
     Full Idea: Those who have been thrilled by the pure aesthetic significance of a work of art …carry a state of excitement and exaltation making them more sensitive to all that is going forward about them. Thus they realise …the significance and possibility of life.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], IV.III)
     A reaction: This seems like a bit of an afterthought, because he struggles to explain why his 'significant form' is so important. He shifts between it being an end - an intrinsic value - or a moral state, or now an increaser of life potential.
Aesthetic contemplation is the best and most intense mental state
     Full Idea: Art is not only a means to good states of mind, but, perhaps, the best and most potent that we possess; …there is no state of mind more excellent or more intense than the state of aesthetic contemplation.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], II.III)
     A reaction: Why does intensity make it good? It is pretty intense being involved in a road accident, but that doesn't make it good. There are many states of mind we enjoy or value highly, but we need more than that to prove them objectively 'excellent'.
21. Aesthetics / C. Artistic Issues / 7. Art and Morality
Only artistic qualities matter in art, because they also have the highest moral value
     Full Idea: The only relevant qualities in art are artistic qualities: judged as a means to good, no other qualities are worth considering; for there are no qualities of greater moral value than artistic qualities, since there is no greater means to good than art.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], II.III)
     A reaction: Wishful thinking, I suspect. I can't see anyone acquiring a moral education just by looking a Cezannes. This seems to be a late manifesto for the aesthetic movement.
29. Religion / D. Religious Issues / 1. Religious Commitment / a. Religious Belief
Religion sees infinite value in some things, and irrelevance in the rest
     Full Idea: The essence of religion is a conviction that because some things are of infinite value most are profoundly unimportant.
     From: Clive Bell (Art [1913], II.I)
     A reaction: The aspect of religion which most worries atheists like Nietzsche. You can end up with a rather cool and detached view of genocide, if you really believe that worldly matters are unimportant. Do souls in heaven worry about the next life after that?