comments on bell's 'aesthetic hypothesis'

mar 20 23

Clive Bell was an English art critic. Despite his Wikipedia page being available in only 16 languages, he does seem to end up mentioned a lot in aesthetic criticism, although relevancy/credibility or lack of is difficult territory anyway. This writing is my initial comments on the first chapter named The Aesthetic Hypothesis from his book Art, which I read as part of an anthology, but I will probably go through the whole thing sometime since I had come to similar places on many points. It would be better if we didn't feel gratified when someone 'backs you up' on a point, but that doesn't make it feel less good... I've always had severe issues with the term 'art' and related being a distinction on how the it was made rather than content. More specifically, any painting is called 'art' regardless of its designed utility--a painting of a political figure is inevitably going to spark discussion centering around the object of depiction and its individual merits or deficiencies, rather than anything related to the work as art. Bell says of Frith's Railway Station that it is 'not a work of art, [but] an interesting and amusing document,' because of how it details the 'manners and customs of an age.' It's of historical and interpersonal interest, but not because it's a painting. He points out that a photograph and 'a little bright jounalism' would easily achieve the same affect. I say that although that goes most of the way, making a statement like that in an artistic context does alter what we can 'get out of it' somewhat. Bell makes some comments about the confused usage of beauty, and how the term gets particularly abused by a set of people who have likely 'never had an aesthetic emotion to confuse with their other [ones].' He suggests that they've entirely confused sensuality for aesthetic appeal, saying that to them, 'a beautiful picture is a photograph of a pretty girl; beautiful music, the music that provokes emotions similar to those provoked by young ladies in musical farces; and beautiful poetry, the poetry that recalls the same emotions felt, twenty years earlier, for the rector's daughter.' I don't have any real comments, just thought it was funny. A lot is predicated on this claim that aesthetic rapture is some sort of state that forgoes reference to the material world or whatever, but he says that 'to appreciate a work of art we need bring nothing but a sense of form and colour and a knowledge of three-dimensional space.' This is something that's given me trouble--can we claim to have moved past representation if our exploration is still expressed through qualities that are derivative from that same sensory experience? One counter could be that our ability to extrapolate conceptual qualities from sensory observation creates this space for us, that is, when we say something is 'boxy' or 'curved', this is a generalization and not empirically present in the thing itself. Bell has a limited appreciation for representation, proposing his theory of 'significant form,' that the relation of shapes and colors produces the moving aesthetic effect. Representation is neither inherently valuable nor undesirable, but irrelevant to him. One question that arises from his assertion that enjoyment of art on a representational level is inferior to pure aesthetic movement is how the two are comparable. It's not really the sort of thing you can quantify. I imagine it would just depend on how valuable immediate sensory stimulation is to the individual, so in that case it doesn't really make sense to claim that they are 'missing out,' exactly. A general criticism of 'significant form' is its vagueness. He does say, 'all systems of aesthetics must be based on personal experience—that is to say, they must be subjective.' My own position is more conflicted. I can certainly get behind the dismissal of some sorts of 'art' as utilitarian appropriation (propaganda, in more or less explicit form), but I don't know where I'm willing to draw that line. Ultimately, all art as it is conventionally apprehended (in current general western culture at least) is as means of explicit reference to symbols to signal some alignment or another, that is, personal expression. I think I agree in principle with the non-intrinsic value of respresentation, but that some arbitrary representational statement is necessary as a premise for the work existing in the first place, as well as providing a frame to make decisions about the design against. That, or 'art' in its entirety is a materialistic indulgence. There's no 'content' without a goal for the work--if you can paint anything, then what do you paint? Certainly, if the arrangements I find appealing in art can be construed as 'significant form', which I am willing to say at least, we have substantially different criteria as to what constitues it. I've never liked/'got' post-impressionist art.. Finally, I'm not so convinced that aesthetic appeal can be entirely separated from referentiality, that great art is entirely atemporal, acultural. Claiming you can pass judgement without any sort of environmental coloring is highly dubious, to say the least.