• You’ll be given a hard copy of one of the topics
• Summarise it by making up a slogan or catch-
phrase for the discussion-point.
– 6 words max!
• You will feed this back to the board.
DISCUSSION TOPIC 1.
• What is ‘significant form’?
– Some commentators have characterised it as
balance or proportion or structure or harmony or
wholeness…do you agree?
– Is the notion clear to you?
– How might you go about defining it?
– Does Bell need to give a definition in words?
DISCUSSION TOPIC 2.
• Can you make sense of the idea of ‘significant
form’ across all genres of art?
– Where might the idea have ‘traction’ - explain art
that other theories struggle with?
– Where might the idea struggle?
– Does some art have more ingredients than just
DISCUSSION TOPIC 3.
• Are there ‘formal universals’ which have
qualities of timelessness and universality?
– Are these present in art from all cultures, and in
all kinds of art?
– Is the fact of art enduring across time explicable
only through formalist theories?
– …or could it be explained in other ways?
DISCUSSION TOPIC 4.
• Is ‘significant form’ important enough to be
the essence of art?
– Is it necessary to art? (in all art to some degree)
– Is it sufficient? (the essence of art)
– Is it contingent? (in some art but not in other art)
– Does all art have ‘significant form’, or is the term
just empty in that all it signifies is approval?
DISCUSSION TOPIC 5.
• Does formalism make too little of the role of
art in society, or of other factors which
influence our understanding of art?
– What would a Marxist say?
– Can art really be separate from societal concerns,
economic concerns, ‘status anxiety’?
– Isn’t art valued for its emotional, mimetic
DISCUSSION TOPIC 6
• How can Bell claim that art is known both only
subjectively and that there is an objectively
present common quality underlying all art?
– Is there a contradiction here?
– Do you accept his ideas about exceptional
individuals having a greater sensibility than
– Can we accept the notion of ‘the critic’ and how
such people might be trained?
– Is training not just really lots of context, though?
DISCUSSION TOPIC 7
• What kind of art is well-explained by this
– What kind of art less successfully so?
– What is wrong with some other kinds of art?
(political art, ‘descriptive art’)
– Is the art that the theory discounts sufficiently
important to show that the theory does not have
adequate explanatory power?
– Can Bell explain art that we value but he doesn’t
using e.g. political, cultural factors?
DISCUSSION TOPIC 8
• Is Bell’s view of contextual, historical factors in
the understanding of art a reasonable one?
– Could an understanding of context, reception,
artist’s intention (things outside the artwork) etc
enrich our understanding of it?
– Does it always?
– Could it be better to come to something ‘fresh’?
Are ‘naïve’ responses sometimes better?
– Could Bell’s ‘critic’ really just be an art historian in
DISCUSSION TOPIC 9
• For Bell, what is the nature of the aesthete or
person able to understand art adequately?
– How do they come to exist?
– Is his account simply elitist, or are there some
people with greater capacity in this regard than
– Is elitism a bad thing?
DISCUSSION TOPIC 10
• What characterises the ‘aesthetic emotion’?
– Do we recognise its existence?
– Is it indeed a special feeling that arises because of
– Does it arise for another reason?
– Why is neutrality (if it is neutrality here) to be
praised in our response to art?
Discussion: Writing Phase
• Now write a paragraph capturing your discussion point.
Form is too inclusive a criterion
– It collapses the art/aesthetic distinction.
– Like Hanslick, Bell fails to distinguish between
aesthetic interest (Kant pointed out that most
features of our perceptual environment may
stimulate this interest) and art (which typically
combines aesthetic interest with interpreting the
Form is not art’s essence
– it is necessary but not sufficient.
– Bell is right that aesthetic interest in surface
appearance is a feature of all art.
– We do value formal or compositional features.
– Yet art without reference to emotion or
representation pretty patterns/ ‘wallpaper’…
– A major role of art is to express emotion and
offer us interpretations of the world.
Formalism is simply ‘elitism’
• Bell values the art of his avant-garde friends,
and devises a theory (and a role for the elite
critic) to account for it.
• But art’s emotional and mimetic qualities have
hugely important social roles for all…
• (But surely there is a role for the critic to play?
Don’t you have to learn to appreciate art?)
‘Form’ makes the artwork unnecessary
– ‘Significant Form’ is universal and atemporal.
– The feeling of calmness, contemplation etc
that SF produces is the thing that matters.
– So the artwork is just a vehicle that causes
this feeling and therefore can be discarded.
Form isn’t universal
– Are there formal qualities that apply to all the arts?
– How do compositional or formal features in different art
forms relate to one another?
– Each art form has its own range of techniques and its own
scope of possibilities.
– Do Bell’s ideas about shape and colour in visual art work
– (A reply: actual sensations produced by different arts
differ, but the emotion of aesthetic appreciation is the
Is the concept of ‘Significant Form’ clear?
– Can we define it?
– Can we ‘deflate’ it by suggesting that it is simply a
term of (emotive) approval…
– is the concept of ‘significant form’ simply a way of
trying to explain that we like something?
Form is reducible to skill.
– Does form exist, or is it collapsible to simpler
– Is form, for example, any more than ‘skill’?
– Isn’t a great artist just a skilful one?
‘Significant Form’ is culturally relative.
– Is appreciation of form a subjective or culturally
– Clive Bell says that only some can appreciate
‘significant form’ in art but that this judgment is
– Isn’t this just empty subjectivism, or, alternatively,
a refusal to see that ‘universal’ just means
‘approved of by my culture’?
Now that you’ve looked at some issues, pick one then write a
paragraph in which you:
• Summarise the objection in a phrase.
• State the objection.
• Illustrate or exemplify it.
• Evaluate it initially.
• State a counter-objection or alternative.
• Illustrate or exemplify this.
• Evaluate it. (4-6 ad nauseam…)
• Conclude (thesis? antithesis? synthesis? alternative?)
Assessment and Evaluation:
• For: Allows for an objectivity of aesthetic judgement. Formalism is the
only theory to take seriously the view that what we value in art is the art
work itself, rather than the more ‘utilitarian’ view presented in
expressivism and representationalism (in these theories the artwork is
treated as ‘a means to an end’, an expendable vehicle of communication).
• Yes and No: Can we appreciate ‘significant form’ without entertaining at
least some background understanding of what the artwork is about?
Surely the author’s intention and the cognitive features the artwork seeks
to convey have to play some role here?
• Against: Can we really listen to a piece of music and hear just ‘sound’ or
appreciate a painting for the perceptual richness of its colour alone?
Ignoring expressive and representational qualities trivialises our reasons
for valuing an artwork. Aesthetic delight is an important feature of art
appreciation, but it should only ever be regarded as a secondary function
and never the primary purpose of such appreciation.
– An alternative view could be defended at this point.