We’ve had the squire. Now we have the aesthete:
I have a friend blessed with an intellect as keen as a drill, who, though he takes an interest in aesthetics, has never during a life of almost forty years been guilty of an aesthetic emotion. So, having no faculty of distinguishing a work of art from a handsaw, he is apt to rear up a pyramid of irrefragable argument on the hypothesis that a handsaw is a work of art.
Sensibility is all, it seems. In the passage above I think Bell is right, but the absolutism of his views limit his criticism – for he reduces everything to this insight. Religion is reduced to art, and art is the judge of history and society (they are rated on their ability to generate aesthetic emotion). But, as T.S. Eliot shows, art is more than emotion, it is an emotion of a particular kind, which we then put into right order – the images and words we select to create the poem. That selection is mostly touch and feel; but because more of the conscious mind is involved it will include a lot of surface phenomena, that is, representation and meaning. It is this mix that is so difficult to disentangle, and can lead, where the balance is wrong, to formlessness and nonsense, to cliché; or to the inclusion of too many un-integrated elements.
The difficulty of Bell’s approach is seen clearly in these two passages:
Only by setting himself new problems can the artist raise his powers to the white heat of creation. The forms in which artists can express themselves are infinite, and their desire to express themselves keeps up a constant change and reaction in artistic form.
The shape of every form in the work of art should be imposed on the artist by his inspiration. The hand of the artist, I believe, must be guided by the necessity of expressing something he has felt not only intensely but definitely.
In the first paragraph he sounds like Ernst Gombrich; and contradicts the general thrust of Art, and it emphasis on emotion. But then how can he relate the finished work to styles and surface form; for the mind has to get in somewhere.
In the second he is himself. He wants to rid ourselves of mind, for he associates it with all the decorative and moral content of, particularly, 19th century realist paintings; those catalogues of appearance and incident (he talks in large historical periods, but really he is reacting against the Victorians, a common Bloomsbury pursuit). He wants a spiritual experience (very clear in the last chapters where art is equated with mystical religion) that goes beyond appearance and the conscious mind, but in doing so he conflates the effect of art with its mode of creation. For even though the intellect may be involved in the shaping of the art object, it can still create an artwork that provides the aesthetic effect; providing the source and determination of that work is derived unconsciously (that place that is not quite emotion or idea, to again quote Eliot).
Then there’s Bell’s big idea: Significant Form:
In each [great painting – of which there are not many in the Millennium], lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”…
But how is this different from beauty, which Herbert Read defines so:
…a unity of formal relations among our sense-perceptions. (he makes the point that art and beauty are not necessarily the same thing).
Isn’t this old wine in a new bottle? Bell’s response is to limit the definition of beauty to nature: the effects of art are different from those of animals and plants. I don’t disagree with the latter part of the argument; but to agree with him in total would be ignore three millennia of artistic work and criticism. Is Bell a genius?
Like many writers Clive Bell wants to be original. However, to come up with new ideas is very hard; too often they are merely variations on old themes. Thus there is a tendency to create new names for ancient ideas, a much easier task. In his book he gives a plausible reason for this (he is writing about art): imitation comes from the conscious mind, real art from the sensibility; a much rarer quality, it seems. The source of new ideas is almost certainly the same; but in Bell’s case that source is not quite strong enough.
Bell also wants a break from the preceding period, that Victorian bugbear. So we have the aesthete reacting against his nouveau-riche background; the gentleman against the industrialist… art criticism thus becomes a bomb, primed to blow up the social order. All artists are anarchists, says Bell. This may explain the proselytising tone of the book, which has the simplicity and hardness of a political tract. It is an intolerant book, though in places a true one.