Does 'Aesthetics' Make Any Sense?

a dialogue between

Melissa Orr & James Soderholm

MO: In 1914, Clive Bell published a book entitled Art in which he describes his theory of ‘Significant Form’. He states that within a piece of art there should be ‘lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, [that] stir our aesthetic emotions’. This emotion is defined as being unlike any other emotion, and this emotion is caused by ‘Significant Form’.

All sensitive people agree that there is a peculiar emotion provoked by works of art. I do not mean, of course, that all works provoke the same emotion. On the contrary, every work produces a different emotion.

This quote raises several questions. First, the assumption ‘all sensitive people’ appears incredibly vague and nondescript: how does Bell define sensitive? On what basis has he become assured that these people agree that they experience this ‘peculiar emotion’? Such an audacious claim must surely expect negative consequences, inviting a seemingly endless stream of questions one would feel is in need clarification. The most pressing issue is the interpretation of the emotion; from a relativist perspective one may argue that this feeling varies for each individual, however Bell also claims that each work of art additionally provides assorted forms of the aesthetic emotion. Therefore, not only is there a capacity for this emotion to be a personal feeling for each individual, but it is then expanded by a multitude of different sensations generated by an infinite number of works. With this vast spectrum, how can we be expected to group all these together into one collective definition of ‘aesthetic emotion’? Second, how can even grasp at understanding the aesthetic emotion when we have no way of clearly describing what we are feeling other than the loose terms Bell imparts?

Furthermore, I cannot help but wonder how this Significant Form is created. Is it the painter, who is consciously aware of how his work is structured to compose the emotion, or is it something beyond our consciousness? The phrasing Bell uses alludes to something almost metaphysical, and beyond our understanding, given we can only predominantly experience it through an emotion. The use of the word ‘emotion’ implies it is naturally not something we can control, and with no clear pattern of what specific visual factors cause this emotion, perhaps the thing that determines this Significant Form is a force larger than humanity itself.

There is no doubt that all Aesthetics is a troubling subject to discuss and I respect Clive Bell for clearly attempting to assert a more robust method of determining what art is. Sometimes defining things is hindering because it places limitations on the exploration of the subject rather than letting it naturally evolve. It is possible for his theory to work when applying the elitist response to people who fail to or refuse to experience the emotion: they are simply not educated enough to understand Significant Form. His theory can also potentially benefit artists when developing their ideas, by taking into account the pure effect the image should have on the viewer and focusing less thought into the actual subject matter. I remain dubious in regards to the stability of his theory, but I feel assured that the criticisms concerning this may eventually shed some light on a more defined and elegant description of art.

JS: I am somehow reminded of a line I heard many years ago about the kind of academically-informed aesthetic inquiry in which we are now engaged: ‘Aesthetics is for artists as ornithology is for the birds’. That is, aesthetics is a useless and pretentious discourse that is superadded to ‘beauty’ but the addition is mostly irrelevant. So I wonder about how well we can come up with ‘a more defined and elegant description of art’. In addition, is Bell really the one to get us there?

MO: In reference to 'Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds’, I wonder to what extent the 'Significant Form' Bell suggests is unintentional. An artist is unlikely to be unaware of the aesthetic emotion that supposedly is present within their work, so must we assume that it is just down to a talent unbeknown to the artist? Do artists then just create work that is judged by the viewer for its 'form' and nothing more?

What about when you apply Arthur Danto's scenario of several red canvases that are all identical but painted for different reasons? This shows that aesthetic properties alone cannot define an artwork. I suppose it ultimately all depends on whether you believe art is created upon creation or whether it is created upon inspection.

Bell would probably claim that Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock's artworks do have form but either we don't see or we can't interpret it correctly. Otherwise we can say it just doesn't fit the pattern and it disproves his theory.

Bell, like Kant, seems to be frustrated with the vague subjectivity of paintings, resulting in an aim to define art. Perhaps, as Wittgenstein believed, art is simply impossible to define. Alternatively, Hume puts forward a less capitulating compromise stating that aesthetic values are objective to some extent: we have a sense of aesthetic taste much like our sense of smell. Allowing a relatable analogy and a relativist approach, I presume Hume's theory is much more accepted and regarded by scholars.

JS: You are on target. Bell’s terms are too vague to be helpful in defining either Art or Emotion. And what he does say about Significant Form really is obvious when you think about it. Clive is trying to have his Kantian form and eat it emotionally as well. That effort leads to fuzzy and muzzy terms and loose arguments.

Form must be ‘put there’ by a painter or where else does it come from?   But what do we then do with Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock? Does ‘form’ really ‘work’ in their paintings the way it does in Giotto or Rembrandt?

MO: This is something else Bell seems to have left ambiguous: is form intentional? Artists are unlikely to have heard of the theory of Significant Form, so do we assume it is always a mere coincidental chance by which they seem to achieve what critics are eliciting? If this were the case, then artists would presumably follow the same structure and style of the previous successful pieces in the hope of a similar response. But what about Matisse, whose work is a series of violently different styles and techniques, yet they are all still regarded as masterpieces? When the properties of these ‘form’ remains unclassified it leads to endless questioning on what it is appears to cause the aesthetic emotion Bell speaks about.

Can we visibly see ‘Significant Form’? Clive Bell states that there isone quality common to all works of visual art’. However, if art is always unique then the form is going to appear different every time, so we cannot give it physical properties. If it has no physical properties, then we cannot accurately determine whether we have seen the form. If one does believe an aesthetic emotion was felt when observing art this can instantly be overturned and disregarded by more logical reasoning according to Ockham’s razor.

Comparing Kandinsky and Pollock to Giotto and Rembrandt reinforces how diverse form can supposedly appear. These images all contain ‘lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, [that] stir our aesthetic emotions.’ if they are also classed as art. With these two ends of a spectrum it presents a difficult test of time. Bell witnessed the Abstract Expressionist movement as well as being aware of classical Greco-Roman art, yet he remains positive that these still contain one shared similarity within them visually. Can his theory truly be applied to all variations of art, or is he catering to a more traditionalist crowd? Perhaps the form manifests itself in an array of styles throughout time, although this again prompts the struggle of a clear definition.

JS: I admire Bell for at least trying to come up with a formal definition of art, but all the examples and the ‘array of styles’ you discuss show just how difficult it is to generalise and come up with a single quality that ‘runs through’ Giotto to Pollock. It’s interesting that 124 years before Bell attempts to define ‘the beautiful’, Kant published his treatise on aesthetics, Critique of Judgment (1790). It is tempting to see Bell’s idea of ‘Significant Form’ as an echo of Kant’s idea of ‘purposiveness without purpose’ and his interest in the purely formal qualities of art that allow for ‘a pure judgment of taste’. Here is a bit from Kant’s ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’.

In painting, sculpture, and in all the formative arts—in architecture and horticulture, so far as they are beautiful arts—the delineation is the essential thing; and here it is not what gratifies in sensation but what pleases by means of its form that is fundamental for taste…Every form of the objects of sense (both of external sense and also mediately of internal) is either figure or play (Kant’s emphasis).

Like Kant, Bell wants to concentrate on the formal qualities of art but, unlike Kant, Bell wants to smuggle in an emotional response that Kant was at pains to expunge in favour of ‘disinterested satisfaction’. The attempt to see in all beautiful works art a delineation of form seems to be one way out of the radical subjectivity of the question of taste. It is actually a little startling to see someone holding onto the idea of ‘form’ in a time where artistic achievement is so bewilderingly varied that there would seem to be no one quality that can possibly make sense of Rembrandt and Renoir, Michelangelo and Mondrian, Giotto and Picasso? Is there any other way of talking about ‘the beautiful’ that dismisses form but does not descend into the messy content of emotion, even if the emotions are as varied as the artworks?

On a separate but related note, one wonders if the committee that decides who wins the Turner Prize anguishes over these aesthetic debates and ideas. Although I love our present discussion, I wonder if most others in the contemporary art world would see it as helplessly traditional and, well, quaint? But is it, really? Is there something wrong with us, or something wrong with them?

MO: I think Bell’s argument would be much stronger if he had not used the word ‘emotion’ to describe the sensation caused by observing the aesthetics of a piece of art. By applying this it creates confusion as we try to relate the experience to other emotions we have felt, and yet Bell emphasises that it is not similar. Emotions are an incredibly complex area of study in its own right, so to apply that word in the context of an already complicated subject is problematic to say the least. You mentioned emotions being varied; this does indeed lead to an obstacle in the theory of Significant Form, which Kant had not encountered. It is as though he is attempting to combine relativist and realist opinions within one idea: there is one fixed Significant Form, but several types of emotions that are felt differently depending on the person. The two counteract each other and perhaps this is where the major fault lies.

Advancing in time from Kant’s original Critique of Judgment, I presume Bell was taking into account the radical new stages art developing during his own lifetime, and so tried to come up with a definition that would include the immense range of recent techniques and styles. Although a definition can be provided to cater for the more traditional art Kant was exposed to, venturing into the realm of conceptual art and modernism opens up a vast area to which it becomes difficult to even draw the line of what actually art is. Is it possible to combine the entirety of all artworks into one description? Or are the movements and change throughout history too much to be contained simultaneously?

In a way the Turner Prize could be seen as an extremity of Bell’s argument; it is notorious for the abstract and somewhat bizarre prize-winners, daring the public to find the reason as to why the work has been awarded. The justification could be that one is not educated enough as an art critic, resulting in a lack of knowledge and clarity towards understanding the telos of the art. Surely this seems far too pretentious? Is there an alternate method to rationalisation of the obscure?

JS: When a work of art puzzles and upsets all my expectations, it is usually the case that I am deficient as a judge, and simply need to give the work far more time, good will and patience. But when I sense that a given work is playing a game with me, a bad game that will not reward my patience and industry, I get frustrated and bored. Most of Tracy Emin’s works do that to me. A lot of contemporary installation art also makes me wonder if the artists isn’t having a laugh—perhaps all the way to the bank—as was often the case with Andy Warhol, whose New York apartment was the epitome of middle-class, traditional taste.

And I think you’re right to point out that Bell’s ‘emotionalism’ muddies the already murky water of aesthetics. So we are left with the institutional definition of art: it is art if a curator lets it into his or her gallery or museum. Simply being in the institutional setting of a gallery makes it art, full stop. Is this all we can say?

MO: Perhaps the best art involves a gradual understanding? Or at least, more sophisticated art pieces anyway - maybe this is how galleries such as the Tate Modern distinguish a hierarchy of work and values are determined. I can see that to an extent: a typical realistic oil painting seascape at sunset, for instance, may exhibit good talent, yet it doesn't involve any thinking to comprehend why it was created. It also doesn't allow originality, whereas clearly if one has to ponder over art for some time, the likelihood is that one has not come across anything like it before. As a result, the work is far more memorable.

For example, the first piece of ‘art’ I saw at a colour-themed exhibition in the Tate Modern recently was a Sainsbury’s receipt encased in glass, placed on a wall. I was instantly sceptical; the description explained that this receipt contains a list of items that were all white, and the artist was questioning whether white is truly a colour, producing this as a result. I am still uncertain about what it all means, yet because of this it was the most notable piece I saw in the exhibition. This idea is something I feel Bell would whole-heartedly disagree on, but I think it’s something that needs to be considered, particularly in regards to modern art. Is the most surprising and obscure art considered the best simply because it is so unforgettably odd?

I can certainly understand the idea you give, saying that ‘being in the institutional setting of a gallery makes it art’. It makes sense when there seems to be no other connection between pieces. However, a multitude of questions are produced if were to be the case: who is it that allows the pieces to be placed in the gallery/museum? How do they decide? Do the public then have no say in the matter?

JS: I am reminded of one of my favourite passages in Nietzsche on the nature of the beautiful: “The slow arrow of beauty. The most noble kind of beauty is that which does not carry us away suddenly, whose attacks are not violent or intoxicating (this kind easily awakens disgust), but rather the kind of beauty which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams; finally, after it has for a long time lain modestly in our heart, it takes complete possession of us, filling our eyes with tears, our hearts with longing”. Art that has shock value, and the easy gratification that kitsch affords, is the opposite of Nietzsche’s slow arrow. Thus, pondering a work of art over a very long period of time is precisely the point. So, how do we determine what ‘lasting value’ is and which works of art that have shock value will also last for centuries, and what does that determination have to do with Bell’s theory or Danto’s theory of the ‘art-world’? And if the public is bored and indifferent, does that matter? This seems to me a fundamental difference in debates about aesthetics: Should we consider art from the standpoint of the producer or the consumer, from the standpoint of the artist or the audience? But whose ‘should’ is that?

MO: When thinking about the significant art pieces throughout history, it becomes fairly obvious that the memorable and most highly regarded were ground-breaking, movement inspiring works, and not just about aesthetic appeal. Michelangelo, Picasso, and Andy Warhol, for example, all created radical and exciting contributions to the art world in their society. These artists have inspired the High Renaissance, Cubism and Pop Art movements respectively; they all represent individual periods of history. So it is purely when the art is different from what people are accustomed to that makes it so valuable? To what extent, then, does talent contribute to all this?

We could consider Tolstoy’s interpretation from What is Art? (1897): art stems from a need to express feelings, which aim once produced is to be shared with the public to form a kind of emotional connection with the producer and consumer.

‘It is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.’

According to this, it would seem that we must combine both the standpoint of the artist and audience; both are necessary for the work to be defined as art. This communication relies on the pair to contribute to its validity. Here is another extract:

Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression. […] However poetical, realistic, effectual, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it).

There are elements of this that are echoed in Bell’s theory again: it is as though he has taken the emotional, abstract aspects of Tolstoy’s theory and combined it with linear approach from Kant’s Critique of Judgement. As we discussed when referring to Bell, the argument lacks a certain degree of stability when emotions are so difficult to accurately relate to. I also wonder how Tolstoy’s ideas distinguish between what we classically think of as art, and what is merely an emotion felt between two people? However, I think the point taken from this is that there should be a significant and defining link between creating the work and observing it. Perhaps we can consider art from equal perspectives simultaneously?

JS: Of Ulysses, James Joyce said, ‘It took me ten years to write it. It should take you ten years to read it’. I am fairly certain Joyce was thinking of an intellectual contract with the reader more than an emotional one, but I think in really great art the line between heart and head, intellect and emotion, is suggestively blurry. I know it’s a great novel when I dread finishing it and have to sort of pull my eyes down the last page, covering the words ahead with my hand so I cannot skip down and see the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last word. That kind of contract with the author I certainly can understand. And then I want to start from the beginning of the book again so as never to be not linked to the work of art. Art that pulls us in—I am also thinking of certain works by Tchaikovsky and Bach and paintings by Cezanne and poems by Larkin (‘Aubade’)—makes us never want to leave the quiet bower it creates for us. I think of the music the sleeping Caliban hears Ariel playing in The Tempest.

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

Ariel’s mysterious link to Caliban parallels Caliban’s link to the audience in the Globe Theatre. We listen to the music of Shakespeare’s ‘twangling’ blank verse and we long never to leave the place where poetry itself gives delight and hurts not. If only one never had to leave the art-world for the so-called real world. ‘Reality,’ wrote Flaubert, ‘is essentially shabby’. Not only do I honour the aesthetic contract you speak of, but I often want to disappear into its ‘sweet airs’. An insomniac since the age of ten, I once fell asleep in a painting of a bed—Van Gogh’s—and I never slept better. Waking was hard.

But—as you say—these emotional/intellectual moments are highly specific. And aesthetic theories like to generalise. So, we are back to our title: does ‘aesthetics’ make any sense?

MO: The eloquent feelings you describe seem worthy of their own deserved category, and I presume aesthetics aims to ultimately fulfil that demand. This is not something that should remain overlooked, and evidently you are not isolated in these experiences when encountering art. I use the world ‘art’ loosely here; you refer to a diversity of media, leading to the conclusion that art is significantly more than the visual kind many associate the word with. The basic central theme throughout these examples is that they are all methods of communicating thought; in this context, Tolstoy appears accurate. It is challenging then to know where to draw the line: does this mean a diary could be art? Or a philosophical debate? Even this dialogue?

What would someone completely dissociated from our society see in regards to art and our appreciation of it? I doubt that they would connect all these different ‘types’ of art, and instead perceive them differently depending on how they are appreciated – whether it’s by sight, listening or reading. Even once they have done this, I don’t expect they would make any real immediate connection with all these pieces. Art seemingly becomes very much a generalising term to loosely combine anything of vague aesthetic appeal. On top of this uncertainty, the reactions caused by art may occasionally be similar, but in truth this will always be relative and deeply personal. This is something that is impossible to overcome; we must accept that we will never fully comprehend the individual emotions felt in the presence of art.

When the initial definition of art remains unsolved, the questions asked by aestheticians persist to produce ambiguous and uncertain discussions. If art were to be placed in one category and be considered in a more specific way, we would be prohibiting its progression and the creative stamina it is praised for. So maybe it is undefined not because of our inability, but because it allows one’s imagination to flourish with the liberty of no boundaries. Consequently, one cannot answer questions or make statements in reference to what is not certain in the first place, just like how you cannot accuse someone of theft when you don’t know what was stolen. Are there any ideas we can take from aesthetics as a convincing and ground-breaking theory? Or will it retain a murky resonance of neutralism, infinitely circling around the same points again, without any satisfying development?

JS: What would someone completely dissociated from our society see in regards to art and our appreciation of it?

That’s a very good question. What would a denizen of the Amazon rainforest make of Picasso and our debate about taste and judgment? And by a similar token, what do we make—what must we make—of something so detached from us as the image below, probably ‘painted’ about 27,000 years ago.

It seems as if we must say something about these wonderful hands. But do they really require interpretation? Do they need to make aesthetic sense?

MO: I cannot help but think that when observing an image such as this, we unintentionally apply our own context to determine some sort of meaning. Perhaps this is in the hope of deriving utility by making sense of what we see. Using our own experience in an attempt to understand something is what we do best, so whether that leads to a conclusion of appreciation in visual terms or with the addition of external knowledge is down to us personally. One can analyse art in the hope that it will all become clear, understanding why it was created, and how best to appreciate it. In this way, someone unaccustomed to our society must surely relate by acknowledging things in the same way, simply as part of human nature.

We are told to appreciate art differently depending on various perspectives, imposed on us by a range of different types of academics with numerous methods of thinking … A philosopher and art critic such as Clive Bell could encourage us to look at the patterns within the painting, and the visual connections we can make. An art historian, however, could place the image in a more scientific and logical light, in search of answers to questions: Why was this created? What does it symbolise? What does it tell us?

Evidently we are not able to choose what we subconsciously take from a painting. I like to think we are able to compromise between both the abstract and contextual aspects, selecting elements which we find most fitting depending on how we perceive the world. Through this I am reminded of the quote you used earlier: 'Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds’. In retrospect, we naturally judge and create art despite a probable lack of knowledge in aesthetics, so is it really necessary to deliberate over how we should go about it?

I doubt one could ever successfully critique a painting ‘incorrectly’; ultimately it’s all based on personal opinion. Culture admittedly must play a key part in that, and a ‘denizen of the Amazon rainforest’ may perceive our societal judgements differently, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong. By pushing the idea that there are intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ paintings, we are faced with endless uncertainty as to how we decide this, which is what many aestheticians have ceaselessly pursued. Maybe there simply is no answer. But can we really accept that when there is such a distinction between masterpieces throughout our history? Is it because they change the way we think? Is aesthetics required to determine this? Other areas of philosophy have played major roles throughout society and history, influencing the masses and leading to the formation of many subjects all of which have all contributed to humanity in some way. Has aesthetics ever truly achieved anything significant and, if not, will it ever be able to?

JS: Your final question drives home the point that aesthetics may be for the birds, at least from the standpoint of artists, most of whom—unless they are part of some Academy or other—are too busy being ravished by their own genius and their palette or chisel or vocabulary to give any thought to the debates we have been discussing. If you think of art from the standpoint of the viewer or consumer, then the issues of taste and judgement seem plausible and even important. I think Bell tries to split the difference between creator and consumer, with unhelpful and finally confusing results. Aesthetics cannot explain why those hand-prints deep in ancient caves are negatives—mouth-blown paint creating outlines of a hand—rather than hand-prints pressed directly on the wall. That question troubles me, but the fact that the cave-hands were created at all is so marvellous, enchanting and puzzling that all other questions—especially questions of interpretation—leave me cold. When you use your hands to create, are you thinking about aesthetics?

MO: Prior to engaging in the study of aesthetics, I am very much aware that I was able to create a decent quality of art, without delving into the deep and pressing questions this subject has the ability to provide. I did, however, feel as though there was something missing. The pieces I created were aesthetically pleasing yet lacking in some sort of moving, thought-provoking and emotional substance, which could inspire the viewer in such a way as you previously described when encountering art. Clive Bell seemed to vaguely define the element within artwork I wished to pursue, leading to a discovery of increasingly abstract painters such as Paul Wright and Gerhard Richter. The quest to find what it was about the colours and composition that made these paintings ‘good’ heavily influenced my own work in ways I would never have otherwise explored. Whether it is of any improvement I remain uncertain, but in hindsight I believe that aesthetics has deeply affected the artist: it is just a question of how popular this influence is.

So does ‘aesthetics’ make any sense? On one hand, we can select aspects of the many theories available and use them to our advantage, either to simply provoke thought, to construct an alternate concept, or even inspire an art movement. It can make sense when the individual interprets these ideas in a way that matters to them. On the other hand, with no absolute truths or evidence as a basis for these notions it seems staggeringly easy to refute them. The great philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries clearly felt it was worth discussing: from Kant to Kierkegaard, they have all contributed in some way. Hegel said that art changes through time in terms of importance and content, with only the ‘expression of absolute spirit’ to remain consistent. This aesthetic idealism appears particularly relevant today. The progression of technology is allowing the boundaries of art to become increasingly malleable and obscure; during this time, we are consistently challenged to determine what really can be categorised and praised within the art world. The radical changes taking place may lead to the fall in the meaning of aesthetics, but one cannot deny it is a fascinating topic to encounter in the 21st century.