Aristotle: discusses the importance of form in tragic drama…
18th century in Europe
Hume, ‘Essay on Taste’: experts have a key role to play, aesthetic appreciation is subjective.
Shaftesbury (England), Baumgarten, Kant (Germany) isolate aesthetic pleasure (as different to our moral and cognitive faculties)
Kant (1724-1804) focuses on ‘free beauty’ of nature rather than art. The Critique of Judgment: aesthetic experience = disinterest, contemplation, being open and receptive to the object.
Historical background: C19 C20
Hanslick (late C19) argues that music is pure form or pure sound – hearing music as expressive of emotion or representational is simply a distraction.
This perspective entailed seeing all vocal music as a failure!
Clive Bell (early C20) put forward a similar view of painting in order to defend the new style of Post-Impressionist painting (Cezanne, Matisse, early Cubism).
Bell argues that modern, ancient, primitive art (and key art works of Renaissance) are best appreciated through notion of ‘significant form’
‘ Significant form’ is constituted by the shimmering arrangement of solids, planes, lines and colours that make up the structure of the artwork and is recognizable by our experience of a distinctive ‘aesthetic emotion’.
This emotion is a non-possessive delight in the perceptual richness of the art object. A calm ecstacy (oxymoronic?)
Art may have representational content but only as a peg on which to hang SF.
If such content is the main focus, then the painting is merely ‘anecdotal’, having no more aesthetic interest than did vocal music for Hanslick.
Just about everything has a form - even a screwed up piece of paper or a spilled drink- so what is so special about Significant Form in art?
SF = the relationship between the parts and a unified perceptual whole e.g. in visual art, the patterning of lines, sheens, hues; in music, temporal patterns (melodies and rhythms); in writing, word sounds/rhythms and quasi-perceptual mental imagery.
Such unities are not all necessarily tidy/balanced ones (i.e. Vermeer portrait), but may be precarious or sprawling (Kandinsky, modern classical music, Dickens).
The trained critic (lots of exposure to great art + a refined intellect) can identify Significant Form at a glance…
(Can we ‘deflate’ the concept of SF by suggesting that it is simply a term of (emotive) approval given by a (self-appointed?) critic?
(Does form exist, or is it collapsible to simpler concepts such as e.g ‘skill’? (Great art = skilful art?)
(Is appreciation of form a subjective or culturally relative matter? Bell says that only some can appreciate ‘significant form’ in art but that this judgment is universal. Isn’t this just empty subjectivism, or, alternatively, a refusal to see that ‘universal’ just means ‘approved of by my culture’?
Form is too inclusive a criterion to adequately characterise art. 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 world).
Form is necessary but not sufficient: it is not the essence of art. Bell is right that aesthetic interest in surface appearance is a feature of all art. We do value formal or compositional features. But surely what art represents or makes us feel is vital too? A major role of art is to express emotion and offer us interpretations of the world.
Pure form is too narrow a criterion to specify art. Art without reference to emotion or representation pretty patterns/ ‘wallpaper’ – yet art is highly valued! (by Bell, amongst others.
Other problems II
Is formalism 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?)
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 more widely? (A reply: actual sensations produced by different arts differ, but the emotion of aesthetic appreciation is the same)
‘ 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.
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.