1 Michael Lacewing For m The numbered artworks referred to in this handout are listed, with links, on the companion website. THE IDEA OF FORM There are many non-aesthetic descriptions we can give of any artwork. We may describe the shapes and the colours in a painting. We can note the rhymes, metre, and alliteration of a poem. Of a piece of music, we can list the key it is in, how many movements it has, the pace of each, the motifs and when they appear and reappear. In a novel, we may talk of the structure of the plot. In aesthetic judgments, we say that a work is balanced, harmonious, or feels complete (e.g. 15. Leonardo Da Vinci s The Virgin of the Rocks (c ). We may say that a work feels complete, well-rounded. In sculpture and architecture in particular, we will say that it is well-proportioned (16. Palladio s Villa Capra ( )) or flows dynamically (17. Brancusi s Fish (1926)). In ballet, we talk of the elegance and grace of the dancers bodies, both individually and in arrangement together. In each case, we pick out relations between non-aesthetic features. We are talking about the form of the work. Kant argues that in aesthetic response and pleasure, we respond to the formal properties (the properties of form) of a work. What we value, then, about a work of art is its form, which is its particular aesthetic quality. This position was also famously defended by Clive Bell in his book Art. He argued that accuracy of representation is not the point in art. It must therefore be something else about the artwork, viz. its formal qualities, how the artist has manipulated (for painting) colour and shape. In 18. Cezanne s Hillside in Provence (1890-2), the view is not realistic, in the sense of an accurate portrayal, but this is irrelevant. What captures us is the way he has put colours together to produce the effect that elicits from us an aesthetic response. Bell argued that because form is the object of aesthetic appreciation, everything we need to take into account is there in the work of art. We do not consider what it is meant to represent, why the artist made it, or the culture in which and for which it was made. The view that form is what we value avoids a number of the objections we made against representation. For example, every artwork has formal qualities, but not every artwork represents something. Formal qualities are properties of the representation (the artwork), not what is represented this explains how we can be interested in a painting but not in what it is a painting of. We may object that form does not distinguish art from what is not art, so it cannot be what we value about art. We can respond that while everything, in a sense, has some form, what is distinctive about art is that it explores, develops and manipulates formal qualities just for the sake of contemplating them. Many artists spend their careers
2 attempting to discover and present a perfection of form, and a great deal of both art theory and criticism has been written on the techniques of creating good form. BELL ON SIGNIFICANT FORM In fact, Bell argues that it is not form per se that we respond to, but what he calls significant form. After all, everything has some form or other. But not all form is significant form, which, in painting, is a matter of lines, shapes, and colours in certain relations. (Bell develops the account just in relation to visual art (and painting specifically), but believes it is possible to extend it into other types of art.) Only art can have significant form, and significant form is what all good art has. As we saw above, representation is irrelevant for Bell. His one concession is the representation of three dimensional space what is represented as behind and what in front. Otherwise, he argues, to appreciate art we need no knowledge of life or the emotions. What is significant form? First, we can only know it, says Bell, through what he calls aesthetic emotion. Second, in significant form, we get a glimpse of the world as it is, though not directly (Bell admits this claim is very speculative). The artist looks at the world without concern for associations or the function of things; they are interested only in the pure form of things. This vision produces an emotion in the artist, and they express this emotion through the significant form of the artwork. Significant form has the power to move us, to create the aesthetic emotion in us, because it is the expression of the artist s emotion. This sounds similar to expressivism, but Bell argues that we should not look for expression of emotion in art or seek to respond to this. We should focus on significant form; that is the way in which aesthetic emotion will be invoked in us. CRITICISMS OF FORMALISM Is the notion of form clear? A first objection to formalism is that the central concept of form is unclear. If we want to defend the value of an artwork, we cannot simply say look at its form. Even to say that it is elegant is unclear are all elegant artworks elegant in the same way? We need to illustrate the formal description (elegant, balanced, etc.) by what is specific in this work of art. Until we have done that, our praise remains vague. It seemed a strength of the account that all artworks have form. But without application to specific cases, this gives us no idea of what we value. The same is true of significant form. Bell s account of significant form and aesthetic emotion is unclear. First, his description of significant form lines, shapes and colours in a certain relation is in fact a description only of form. So Bell hasn t established what is being talked about. Second, he then says that we detect significant form by aesthetic emotion, but his definition of aesthetic emotion is what we feel in the presence of significant form! This is circular, so if we do not understand significant form or aesthetic emotion, his account doesn t help at all. Bell can reply that it is impossible to identify the value of an artwork except through our intuitive response to it. The criticism that we cannot infer value from formal qualities is right. We must experience the work; and in our experience of it, we discover its value.
3 But at least, we may ask, what is significant form significant of? It signifies the expression of the artist s emotions in response to their glimpse of the pure form of reality. This makes the value of form depend on the value of the emotion expressed, rather than being valuable in its own right. Bell s formalism becomes expressivism. Form and representation To say that we respond to just the form of a painting is very implausible. To ignore what it represents, as Bell suggests, would undermine our response. That a painting is a portrait (that is, that it represents a person) and of this person (4. King Henry VIII) forms part of our understanding of it. The same goes for the importance of facial expressions, as in 19. Rembrandt s Self-portrait at the age of 63 (1669), and of knowing the story that a painting represents, as in 20. Velazquez s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618) (the story is to be found in the gospel of Luke, Ch. 10). Furthermore, we cannot begin to understand certain works of art, such as 21. Duchamp s infamous Fountain (1917), without knowing the context in which they were made. Even for Cezanne (Bell s chosen example), it was important that he was true to life, that he captured the natural scene and its mood, though not through direct resemblance. Second, for the vast majority of representational paintings, it is impossible for us to experience the form in isolation we do so via representation. For example, it is almost impossible to describe shapes, as in a portrait, without saying what they are shapes of (eyes, nose, chin), and it is impossible to see them just as shapes in formal relation to each other. Formalism is perhaps most persuasive in the case of music, when there is no issue of representation. The sounds by themselves are clearly not what we value, it is their arrangement. Our aesthetic appreciation of music is therefore an appreciation of the form. But even here we should not overgeneralize. Many people have thought that music in some way expresses emotions, and that this is what gives us pleasure. And when music is accompanied by words or actions (as in opera), and the music works with the words and drama to represent or express something. Are there recognisable formal universals displayed in art? Bell thought that for us to talk meaningfully about art, there needed to be something universal across all works of art. But it doesn t look like the same formal qualities are displayed throughout art. Even when we might use the same word, such as elegant, of a painting, a poem, a ballet, it is difficult to say what these difference elegances have in common. And we don t always value particular qualities each time they appear. So, for example, a painting might be elegant yet it would have been better if it had been rougher, e.g. because the subject matter requires it. It is too elegant. But we can reply that there do not need to be universal formal qualities. The only universal is form itself, but like colour there are many, many ways in which artworks can display good form. Yet we can still say that we value form, because in each case we are basing our judgments on the relations between features of the work. But we can press the objection by appealing to the point above that the general idea of form is doing almost no work. Until we have applied it to the particular artwork and
4 demonstrated how this work has good form, we have not clarified the claim that the work is valuable because of its form. EVEN IF FORM MATTERS, IS IT THE ESSENCE OF ART QUA ART? We can argue that it is not form, but what form expresses or enables, that we respond to in art. To support this claim, note that we cannot move from aesthetic descriptions of a work s formal qualities (elegance, balance, etc.) to a judgment of whether it is any good, i.e. whether we value it. Unity can be tedious, harmony can be mindless. So we need to go beyond form, as we need to go beyond representation, to find what makes art valuable. In fact, Bell agrees with this objection; we cannot infer something s value from its form. But that is because not all form is significant form. It is only when we feel aesthetic emotion that we know we are in the presence of significant form; it is not something we can infer any other way. But the claim that it is only form that matters faces further objections. First, we may object that a perfect forgery would have same form (or significant form) as the original; yet we value the original more. Bell replies that a perfect forgery is not possible, and so any forgery would not have the significant form of the original. The minute differences between the two would be felt immediately. And the reason a perfect forgery is not possible is because it is created in a different state of mind; it is not an expression of the emotion of an artist who experiences pure form. But in this response, Bell again relies on expressivism. Second, Bell is ready to reject works that do not have the right form. He argued that works that don t produce aesthetic emotion aren t in fact art. They are either descriptive simply conveying anecdotes or ideas or cause emotions directly (not through significant form). As a result, he rejects a great deal of art as of secondary value. We can question these judgments, and may suspect that formalism is not an account of what we do value but of what formalists say we should value. DOES FORMALISM NEGLECT THE PLACE ART HAS IN LIFE? The syllabus raises this final point about formalism. Formalism threatens to detach art from the rest of life completely by its emphasis on attending just to form, on a completely original and distinct aesthetic response, on the irrelevance of what is represented and its relation to our interests and concerns. Against formalism, we argued above for the importance of context and what the artist is trying to express in interpreting the work. Creating art is part of the lives of artists, and those lives are lived under certain cultural conditions, in certain relationships to other people, and they witness important historical events. Other people commission artworks, from private portraits to public statues to religious altarpieces. Most of us simply experience artworks, and while the experience of finding a moment of tranquillity and reflection, detached from the rest of our lives, is an important reason we seek out art, we can also argue that art can contribute to self-understanding and illuminate our experience of life more generally. Furthermore, Tolstoy argued that art serves a social function, bonding artist and audience in a common understanding or experience.
5 In all these ways, art is closely tied into life. That formalists have been willing to reject much of art because it was, for them, closely tied to life through representation or emotion, should make us suspicious that it is not a complete account of why we value art.