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and Formalism

by Miles Mathis

I have mentioned Clive Bell before in my art papers, namely in a couple of early papers that discuss Cezanne. But I have not yet counter-critiqued Bell with any rigor. Some will ask why I would do so now, given that Bell is not exactly a household name in art criticism. I do because I believe that Bell's influence is greater than is commonly supposed. Much of the burgeoning stature of Cezanne in the early part of the 20th century was due, one way or the other, to Bell, and this growing influence of Cezanne and formalism led directly to where we are now. In other words, the mistakes of Bell have had a lasting effect on art criticism. These mistakes are among the foremost mistakes of Modernism, and they have never been pulled apart to the extent they must be. The mistakes have acted as a hidden foundation beneath the other more obvious and more recent mistakes, and it is this foundation that must be addressed.

Bell was part of the famous Bloomsbury group that flowered just before the first World War. He was married to Virginia Woolf's sister, and so was positioned perfectly to write for the magazines of the time. His first major book and the one I will counter-critique here,
Art, was published in 1914 but compiled from articles Bell had written in the years just before that, up to 1913. In this way, Bell slightly predates his friend Roger Fry, who published Vision and Design in 1920. Although Fry published his “Essay in Aesthetics” before Bell really took off, even Fry admits that Bell got to Cezanne before him, which may be the deciding factor in all this. Cezanne is their crux, as Whistler has been mine. In fact, I will argue here along the lines of Whistler, who would have mocked any painting of Cezanne and any output of either Fry or Bell as an “Essay on Inaesthetics.”*

Although the main lines of either Fry's or Bell's arguments appear at first glance to have a similarity to Whistler's argument about form, and although the their arguments have been conflated with his by art critics and artists who came after, the differences are crucial. Let us see precisely how. Whistler insisted in his Ten O'Clock Lecture that art was not about morals or stories or descriptions; rather it was, or should be, an arrangement of forms. This led, in pretty direct channels, to Bell insisting that art was defined by “significant form.” For him, it was not the subject matter that was primary, or that caused “aesthetic pleasure,” it was the forms. It was the shapes and colors.

You can see why Bell thought he was following Whistler, and why many others have thought the same. If you ignore the context, read in low light, and don't pay proper attention, you can easily misunderstand Whistler in this way. Even Swinburne misunderstood Whistler in this way, and it cost them their friendship. However, I don't blame Whistler for the misreading of any of these people, Bell, Swinburne, Fry, or any of the rest. It is their fault for not listening closely enough. Or perhaps, not being natural painters themselves, they simply didn't have the ear to hear. Whistler admitted in court, in his suit against Ruskin, that it “was like pouring notes into the ears of a deaf man”, trying to make non-artists understand what art was about. But I will try once more to pour, and those with ears should try once more to open them.

When Whistler tried to turn painting away from morals and stories, it was a reaction to a glut of poor storytelling and hamhanded moralizing by the painters of the first six decades of the 19th century. He was therefore forced by circumstance to accentuate the non-narrative aspects of painting. But we can see just by looking at his work that he was not interested in jettisoning subject matter from painting. His works rely on their subject matter:
it is the subjects that have the forms. Venice was subject matter, and it had form. His interesting people had form, their dresses had color, the Thames had fog, and so on. In this way, his painting was not an arrangement of abstract or theoretical form, it was an arrangement of real things. It was a selection from life. Nor had he any idea of jettisoning beauty from painting, since his arrangements were chosen because they were beautiful. It wouldn't have been enough for him just to paint a beautiful lady: that wasn't artistic in itself. No, one must arrange a beautiful lady in a beautiful composition. It was this arrangement that was the art of it. That and actually painting the arrangement. There was arrangement in the very paint itself, in the way it was applied.

The lady was already beautiful, and the artist got no credit for that. It is what the artist did with this lady that made him a good artist or a poor one. A poor artist could make even the loveliest lady into a vulgar painting. A good artist could make a dreary or common scene into a masterpiece.

But this did not make the dreary scene superior to the lovely lady, as a general subject. Non-artists have misunderstood such statements by artists to mean that lovely ladies should never be painted again, or that the only scenes worthy of painting were dreary or horrid ones. Nothing like that. The only things artists want to forbid is bad paintings, and you can make a bad painting of anything. You can ruin a glimpse of heaven, by improper arrangement.

So, in highlighting the importance of forms Whistler was in no way discounting subject matter, beauty, or even storytelling. Whistler wasn't much interested in storytelling himself, but for him even a narrative or historical painting could have been successful, as long as it was also successful as an arrangement of forms. The narrative or history didn't disqualify a thing from being art, but a story arranged poorly was like a beautiful woman in a gaudy or gawky composition: all the art in the thing had been lost, and thereby the beauty.

Bell never understood this. He took a highlighting of form as an excuse to jettison non-form, and once “significant form” became the defining quality of art for him, all else in a painting could be dismissed. True, Bell didn't immediately dismiss all other content, but his argument allowed others to easily push his theory to its inglorious end. To see what I mean, we only need to study Cezanne. For Bell, the fact that Cezanne had highlighted the form and played down the rest was a sort of purification of art. But Whistler would have seen it differently, I assure you. For although Cezanne was good at highlighting the form, he was not good at arranging it. His lines and colors are awkward, unbalanced, and, in a word, vulgar. Precisely because they lack grace and harmony, Whistler would say they are inaesthetic. Aesthetics
is this grace and harmony. The forms cannot just be highlighted or simplified, they have to be arranged aesthetically, which means they must be arranged and painted with consummate skill.

Neither Bell nor Fry were very good painters, which is probably why they thought Cezanne was a good painter. He was good because he was more like them. Here is a portrait of Bell by Fry.

You see much of the clumsiness of Cezanne in Fry. Fry was actually better at figures than Cezanne, but he still wasn't very good. His line lacked the natural grace of the best painters, and the same can be said of his color. I think it is entirely possible that these critics who have championed Cezanne were not so much championing Cezanne as they were championing themselves. I suspect that the idea was buried somewhere deep within them that if they could sell Cezanne to the world, they could eventually sell themselves to the world. It was a lowering of standards by roundabout means. And, as it turns out, this is what eventually happened. The critics began as Fry and Bell did, subtly turning the field away from grace and harmony by championing Cezanne and others like him. A few decades later they would give up this subtlety of argument and admit that they were undermining art history on purpose. Clement Greenberg was the one who led this phase of the collapse. And a decade or two later, these critics had actually taken over art, becoming artists. We see this first with Barnett Newman, a person with no artistic ability at all, but great skill at manipulating opinion. After Newman, this would become the standard. Art had been redefined as art criticism, and artifacts were no longer created to cause “aesthetic pleasure.” No, they had fallen far beneath the original vulgarization of Bell. They were now created to cause a
critical experience, or to say it another way, a delusion of artistic relevance. That and to promote the critic as artist.

Yes, Bell was certainly guilty of a horrible vulgarization of art, but compared to where art ended up a century later, Bell actually looks pretty tame now. He knew how to write, had a fairly keen sense of humor for a critic, a full command of the language, and said many things that were true. That immediately puts him in an entirely different category than the current art critic, who can't put two sensible sentences in a line. Let us look at what Bell actually said, and see what was true and what was false.

On page 9, Bell says that “we have no way of recognizing a work of art than our feeling for it.” True, though Tolstoy said the same thing years earlier. At the bottom of the same page, he says, “All systems of aesthetics must be based on personal experience—that is to say, they must be subjective.” True—and false. All aesthetics must start with personal experience, as in the feeling one has for particular works of art. But that does not make aesthetics subjective. Bell pretends to rigor, but he extends a long misunderstanding of objective and subjective. Bell implies that all things that are based on personal experience are subjective, but that isn't so. According to the original subjective/objective split, a category could be based on personal experience and still be objective, if you were experiencing things that were intrinsic to the object. “Subjective” doesn't mean “based on personal experience.” It means, “the quality experienced is not in the object, it is a construct of the mind.” Bell has not proven or argued that aesthetics is a construct of the mind, or that the object does not itself have significant form, therefore he has not shown that art is subjective. He has simply assumed it, on page 9. That is what one would call a fundamental error of philosophy.

It doesn't take a lot of esoteric quibbling to show that Bell is wrong, it only requires showing that objects of art have significant form in them already, before I experience that form. In other words, we must ask whether my experience makes the form significant, or whether it is the form that makes my experience what it is. Since the form exists before my experience of it and in the absence of my experience of it, the logical assumption is that the form causes the experience. If art critics want to argue the opposite, I would think the burden of proof is on them. How can my experience of something make that something significant, if it was not already significant, or potentially significant? Logically it cannot, so all argument to the contrary is illogical. I, the viewer, do not make a painting beautiful by looking at it; it makes me experience beauty. The painting is primary and the experience is secondary. The painting is cause and the feeling is effect.

Do I make an apple red by looking at it? No, something intrinsic to the apple causes my eye to see red. The eye does not give red to the apple, the apple gives red to the eye. The eye may translate what it receives, yes, but it is a receiver. That is the point. The subject receives and the object gives, not the reverse. We could get that just from the definitions, without further study; but no matter how closely we analyze, we come to the same conclusion. Just as red must be given us by the object, so must any other quantity or quality, no matter how complex.

Interestingly, Ruskin understood this perfectly. He had no confusion regarding subject and object, and no such confusion of aesthetics, so we may assume that this bastardization of aesthetics was not universal, or not English at any rate, until the early 20th century. In “Of the Pathetic Fallacy,”** Ruskin said,

Now, to get rid of all these ambiguities and troublesome words at once, be it observed that the word ' Blue' does not mean the sensation caused by a gentian (flower) on the human eye; but it means the power of producing that sensation; and this power is always there, in the thing, whether we are there to experience it or not, and would remain there though there were not left a man on the face of the earth. Precisely in the same way gunpowder has a power of exploding. It will not explode if you put no match to it. But it has always the power of so exploding, and is therefore called an explosive compound, which it very positively and assuredly is, whatever philosophy may say to the contrary.

As with blue, so with aesthetic form. Paintings are clearly objects with unchanging forms and colors, and as such they have unchanging artistic qualities. They are what they are, no matter what one critic feels or says, or does not feel or does not say, or what a million such say or feel. Although theories of aesthetics may be built on personal experiences of viewers, paintings are not. A theory of painting is not a painting. Furthermore, theories are neither subjective nor objective. Experiences are either subjective or objective, but theories are either true or false. I have shown that the theory that all experiences are subjective is false, by definition. A dream is a subjective experience. Looking at a painting is not. And I will go on to show that many other theories are false. They are false not because they do not conform to experiences, but because they do not conform to the information we receive from objects. That is to say, they do not conform to the facts.

So I have already shown that the dissolution of art and aesthetics in the early part of the 20th century was tied to a dissolution in philosophy. These absurd theories came from critics unable to make simple logical distinctions, as between a painting and a theory of painting, or from critics unable to understand straightforward definitions of words, as in the definitions of objective and subjective. This is interesting because we find the same thing in science. On my other website, I have shown a breakdown in thought in the sciences during the same period. It would appear that people could no longer think straight about anything, for reasons yet to be shown. Many have said that the first World War was the cause, but I think it is clear that the war was an effect, not a cause. The breakdown of sense occured before the war, and so could not be caused by it. I will not pursue the real cause here, but I suggest we would be better looking for it where Nietzsche looked for it in the 1860's and 70's: in the breakdown of hierarchies and the rise of “democracy.” I put democracy in quotes there because I have shown elsewhere that it was not democracy, strictly defined, that was or is the problem. The problem is a perverted sense of equality, by which those who have less skill demand equal consideration. We see that clearly here in this problem, where people who can't paint well demand equal consideration as artists or art experts. Real qualifications are ignored, while equality, equal opinion, and relativism are promoted. This can only promote a general breakdown of sense, as those with less sense are given greater and greater pulpits.

We reach another big philosophical problem with Bell as soon as we reach page 12. Bell tells us that art is defined by significant form, and that significant form is form that moves us artistically. That is circular, and has no real content. It is to define art as that which has artistic form, which can tell us nothing we didn't already know. It is like defining redness as that quality which a red thing has. Of course most definitions are circular like that, but it does not prevent us from being annoyed with them. A dictionary is forced to say things like that, the writer of a book on aesthetics is not. The writer could just as easily write a book on something else, or keep quiet.

In fact, Bell begins his book with this pair of sentences:

It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that. It is certain, however, that about no subject with which I am acquainted has so little been said that is at all to the purpose.

Unfortunately, Bell corrects this by simply adding to the literature of the subject. Defining art as significant form is not to the purpose. It is more nonsense. It is not false, but it is blather.

Bell does try to refine this definition a bit, but his refinement is mainly more blather as well. He says that painting may be “descriptive”, in which case it has other, lesser, qualities of art, but is not aesthetic. Aesthetics is not just “suggesting emotion or conveying information,” it is “being an object of emotion.” In other words, in descriptive paintings “it is not their forms but the ideas or information suggested by their forms that affect us.”

So art must cause emotion directly, without any mediation by ideas or information. Well, we can see what Bell intends by this, and he is partially correct. On one level, this is precisely how art does work. On another level, we still have a lot of confusion here. Just to start with the most obvious problem, we have Bell calling art an object of emotion, when he just told us that art is subjective. If art is an object of emotion, and is causing us to feel things without any mediation by ideas, then art can hardly be subjective. Bell has not only used the word “object” here, he has also used the word “cause.” The art object is the cause of the aesthetic response. That is practically the definition of aesthetic objectivism.

Another problem is Bell's method of separating the aesthetic from the non-aesthetic, in that he makes you think the separation can be or should be complete. For the truth is that aesthetic forms are just non-aesthetic forms arranged in a certain way, as I pointed out with Whistler. Whistler is not demanding an arrangement of abstract forms, he is demanding an arrangement of existing, natural forms. These existing natural forms are normally descriptive, and they may still be descriptive after they are arranged, in which case they will be both descriptive and non-descriptive in the same painting. So there is no real division into descriptive and non-descriptive. The categories are not at all exclusive of one another.

This is crucial, because this misunderstanding is what led subsequent artists and critics to try to jettison the descriptive from painting. They thought that by minimizing the desciptive they could maximize the non-descriptive or aesthetic part of the painting. See Clement Greenberg, who based his career on this. But we have seen that this method fails. This “minimalism” has not maximized aesthetics, it has minimized it. You cannot make art more artistic by jettisoning all real objects. As Whistler knew, you make art more artistic by a more artistic arrangement of real objects.

Why is this so? Why has it proved impossible to separate the descriptive and the non-descriptive? Why is abstraction always a ghost, even as regards emotion? It is because Bell's aesthetic emotion is a subset of all human emotion, and all human emotion is tied to the real world. What I mean is that aesthetic emotion is not emotion in some sort of artistic vacuum, purified from all previous emotion and knowledge. You feel artistic emotion because you have felt previous emotion, and all or most of this previous emotion was felt for real things. That is to say, you cannot feel things for paintings if you have not felt things for real people or objects. This is why you cannot separate the descriptive from the non-descriptive in a work of art. You need both. To elicit an emotional response, you must have an arrangement of
familiar objects. The unfamiliar can cause no emotion but fear or unease. The unfamiliar is neither pleasant nor beautiful.

Bell is correct that it is the arrangement that is the art, although we knew that from Whistler. But you cannot have an arrangement of nothing. Nor can you have an arrangement of abstractions. The arrangement of abstractions can only elicit emotion insofar as it mimics familiar objects or compositions. An object of aesthetic emotion is not an abstract form, it is a familiar form arranged in a pleasing or poignant manner. The human mind is simply not set up to respond emotionally to the abstract and unfamiliar. It is set up to respond to the real, which is familiar and thereby
not abstract.

I will be asked why people respond to abstract paintings, then. Well, they don't, not strongly. Yes, they may respond to familiar colors or pleasing patterns, but these responses are generally quite weak. And in the rare cases that people respond strongly to abstract paintings, we find it is the idea in the abstraction that speaks to them, which immediately undercuts Bell's argument. When I have heard people talk about Rothko, Agnes Martin, Gottlieb, and so on, I have been struck by the amount of talk about ideas I hear. For the people who like these paintings, the abstractions don't seem to be objects of emotion, in the way Bell is describing. These abstract paintings seem, rather, to be
suggesting ideas or emotions, which makes them descriptive, by Bell's own definitions.

As I have said in another paper, an abstract painting is actually less direct than a descriptive one, since it has to be interpreted to a greater extent by the mind. The mind already knows what to make of a descriptive painting, so it is free to intuit the pleasure in the arrangement. But with an abstract painting, the mind has to first create a meaning. It does this, most often, by attaching some previous explanation or interpretation to the abstraction. It almost needs to have read about the abstraction before it sees it, to know what to make of it. It is then unclear if the viewer is feeling something about the painting or about the explanation of it. Is it the text that causes the emotion or the painting?

On the other hand, if it is simply the colors and patterns that are causing pleasure, it seems to me a weak drink. I have felt a low pleasure from such paintings, the same sort of pleasure I felt from making God's eyes with my own chosen yarn in grade school, but I wouldn't attempt to define all of art on that pleasure. I have felt much greater things in front of great paintings, and those feelings can't be explained by Bell's theory of significant form. Form was only a part of it. Subject matter was always also a large part of it. It was not one or the other, but a combination.

Bell tells us that Frith's
Paddington Station is not a work of art, but of course that is already going way too far. It may not be among the greatest works of art, but it is certainly a work of art. Bell wants to dismiss it simply because it contains so much description, but that is no reason to dismiss it. We would be better to critique it on its lack of arrangement, which is what Whistler would have done. It has plenty of arrangement, but this arrangement, though done with skill, is not done with consummate skill. It might have been done better, and in fact such things have been done better. Bell should have said that its aesthetic content might have been higher. If he had, I could not have argued with him.

Bell tells us that in future we will go to photography to get what Frith is giving us, and this is one of the places where that idea came from. When we hear the same sort of thing from Robert Hughes, this is where he learned it. The falsehood is long-lived. For Bell is wrong once again. Frith's painting hasn't been replaced in the modern world by photography, and can't be, since although photography can catalog events and can even provide some degree of arrangement, it can't do what Frith has done. Frith has composed this entire thing, so that Frith's intention and emotion colors the entire canvas, from corner to corner. No photograph can have that sort of content. Photographers have a very limited control of their canvas, compared to painters. Nature herself composes a far larger percentage of the photo than of the painting, and a large part of any photo has come to us with no effort or planning by the photographer. This fact cannot be overlooked. Everything touched by the human hand has an element of art in it, good or bad, so that any painting is more artistic than any photo by definition. Photos are highly interesting and partially aesthetic, but they can in no way compete with paintings as works of art. As far as photography has tried to replace what Frith gave us, we have nothing but a void.

Bell next dismisses Luke Filde's painting
The Doctor, which is just a smaller painting of the Frith type. Bell works up quite a hatred of this little painting, based on nothing as far as I can make out. Bell sees in it a “sense of complacency in our own pitifulness and generosity,” but I see nothing of the sort. The painting has a bit of Hollywood in it, but I don't see the complacency. Who is being complacent? What is not being done that should be done? Bell may be implying that they needed better hospitals for the poor, but this child is not being neglected. A private doctor is always better than any hospital, as we now know, and this child is not dying alone in the streets.

Bell says that “art is above morals,” thinking, perhaps, that this again put him with Whistler, but it doesn't. Whistler said that art had nothing really to do with morals, which is true, but that doesn't imply that the subject of a painting cannot be an explicitly emotional one. Art can be moral and sentimental at the same time it is being art. Art doesn't
need to be moral or sentimental, that was Whistler's point. But the presence of morals or sentiment is not enough to disqualify a painting from art.

You can see how Bell is an overzealous hausfrau, sweeping the dinner out with the leavings. In his rush to define and purify, he has swept the greater part of history's real artifacts out the door. If we start sweeping out the Friths and Fildes for being sentimental and descriptive, we have to sweep out Michelangelo and Raphael, Titian and Botticelli, Rembrandt and Rodin, Chardin and Corot. Bell usually didn't go this far, but his theory doesn't give us a place to stop in the housecleaning. In fact, art criticism quickly went where Bell was pushing it, and it did dismiss all these artists and most others as being descriptive, sentimental, moralistic, and so on. All the art of the past was swept into a pile and dismissed as academic, Alexandrian, aristocratic, hierarchic, or some other manufactured and twisted term of abuse.

On page 20, Bell dismisses the Futurists as inaesthetic, and of course we agree with him there. The Futurists were strictly political and admitted to caring nothing for art, so it is not surprising to find politics utterly swamping art. I would not claim that political content is disallowed in art, but its presence is always a danger. Politics always wants to usurp the art, to replace it totally. Politics in the modern world is much more predatory than morals or sentiment, since it is much more powerful and ubiquitous. What morals used to be, politics now is.

Bell then promotes the primitives, telling us that because primitive art has “no accurate representation” it is therefore free from descriptive qualities. That does not follow. Poor description is not thereby non-description. Beyond that, primitive art is often or always drenched in religious symbolism. Almost no primitive art was created strictly as a combination of forms; it was the representation of an idea. As such, it must have been the
suggestion of emotion, in the words of Bell. Primitive art was usually in the form of a totem, and a totem is the exact opposite of a pure form. Totems are drenched in ideas and rules and morals, so it is unclear why a Filde painting should get blasted for such content and primitive art should be sold to us as pure.

Primitive art proves my point, not Bell's. The simplicity of primitive art meant that the artifact must be cuing the primitive viewer to ideas and emotions by its
familiarity. In other words, the primitive viewer already knew what the totem meant, so its forms didn't need to be precise. It acted only as a suggestion of what was already known. In this way, primitive art is actually the least objective and the least aesthetic, by Bell's own criteria. The idea has already been drummed into the viewer by previous education, and the art acts only as a reminder. The arrangement of the forms can therefore be very clumsy, since the forms only have to roughly match the forms already in the heads of the viewers. No grace or harmony is required for this.

We can see that Bell is completely misdefining what it is that he gets from primitive art. I have no doubt he is receiving some strong emotion, but I strongly doubt his report of it. It cannot be his “aesthetic emotion” he is receiving, so it must be something else. I would suggest he is being cued to the same cultural memory the original viewer had, and that it is his distance from this memory that is pleasant. It is exceedingly pleasant not to be a primitive any more. It is exceedingly pleasant to dine on ones own elevation. It is exceedingly pleasant not to live in a tree anymore. Nostalgia may also be a large part of it. It may be pleasant to remember living in a tree, provided one does not get cold and wet from the memory.

But even here, Bell says some very true and clever things. He says,

Formal significance loses itself in preoccupation with exact representation and ostentatious cunning.

True. Just as politics can and often does usurp art, an overconcern for precision can as well. Then he says, “A perfectly represented form can be significant, only it is fatal to sacrifice significance to representation.” True again. If a simplified form creates a stronger emotional response, there is no reason to prefer a more complex form in its stead. However, this must depend on the situation. Not all emotions or representations call for the simplest form. Some degree of complexity is often a requirement of the art at hand.

Bell proves he misunderstands the limits of his own rules when he says, “But if a representative form has value, it is as form, not as representation. . . . The representative element . . . is always irrelevant.” That is false. If a representative form has value, it is because the artist understood just how much representation was required for the art. Since the representation is required for the art, it cannot be of secondary value or of no value. Again, it is the combination of representation and of formal arrangement that is the art. In such a case, right representation is not a by-product, an add-on, or a accident. It is one of the fundaments.

On page 26, Bell says, “The significance of art is unrelated to the significance of life. In this world the emotions of life find no place. It is a world with emotions of its own.” No. As I have already said above, this cannot be true. Bell is blowing at his romantic worst here. I normally come off as the romantic and idealist against these critics, but I never say such absurd things as Bell says here. It is simply precious to claim that art and life can be separated emotionally, and I have never been a preciosista. Art is special, but it isn't that special. Art may be a subworld or a superworld, but it isn't a parallel plane, with its own rules and its own emotions. It is precisely because Bell can say such things that he can create the theory he does. Only by believing that art was a world all its own could you create a theory in which everything to do with life should be jettisoned. First you state the case and then you try to make it true. You state that art should be separate, then you go about separating it. You state that art is not about representation, then you ditch all representation. You state that art is not about description, then you ditch all description. You state that art is not about convention, then you ditch all convention. You are left with what all otherworlds have always been left with: nothing.

On page 39, the second page of chapter 2, Bell begins to wax really loathsome. He says, “Before the late noon of the Renaissance, art was almost extinct.” He dismisses Rembrandt to Van Dyck as “tedious portraiture.” I said above that Bell rarely does what Greenberg does, dismissing all the greats of Western art, but here we seeing him doing it. All of art history was only a building up and precursor to his “Post-Impressionist revival.” While he is showing his ignorance, he also shows his confusion. He says, “The art of Poussin, Claude, El Greco, Chardin, Ingres, and Renoir, to name a few, moves us as that of Giotto and Cezanne.” These are his few exceptions, we are to understand, but the mix is mysterious. How do Poussin and Ingres fit into his definitions, especially? With them we have a hard-edged description, which would appear to conflict with his previous statements. Are Poussin and Ingres mainly about forms? If description is superfluous, then a large part of Ingres must be superfluous. And we find Ingres right next to Renoir, although Renoir came from the Delacroix side of the Ingres/Delcroix split. I can make no sense of this list. Bell is free to prefer them, of course, but he might give us some clue as to how they fit his theory.

As for the Giotto-Cezanne pairing, I have never understood it. We continue to get it to this day, but the joining has never been explained to me. Giotto is warm and round while Cezanne is cold and square. Giotto is red while Cezanne is blue. Giotto is almost all figures while Cezanne is almost no figures. Giotto is big while Cezanne is little. Giotto is ambitious while Cezanne is not. The only similarity would appear to be a certain clumsiness in forms, although I would say Giotto has a naïve charm where Cezanne does not. The figures of Chardin and Corot bring this naïve charm into later centuries, but the figures of Cezanne are never charming. Giotto was the most skilled of his time, whereas Cezanne was among the least skilled of the famous artists of his time. Like Goya, Giotto seems to have succeeded brilliantly despite his natural limitations. Cezanne has not. Even at his best, Cezanne seems pinched. You can almost read his frustration in the strokes of paint.

This is not to say there is nothing to like in Cezanne. As most agree, he was at his best when he limited himself the most, as with his fruit. But he has been terribly oversold by the critics, and sold in false terms and similes and comparisons. He should never be compared to Giotto, and should never be listed above those “tedious portraitists” like Rembrandt or Van Dyck. Van Dyck reached pinnacles of grace and harmony Cezanne never so much as imagined. No one ever arranged with more skill than Van Dyck. No one. If we judge art simply as an arrangement of forms and colors, as Bell is trying to do, we must put Van Dyck at or near the top and Cezanne far below.

Bell says that “Post-Impressionism is accused of being a negative and destructive creed. In art no creed is healthy that is anything else.” Absurd and exclamatory, especially considering that Bell was the most vocal and excitable cheerleader for Post-Impressionism that any movement ever had or is ever likely to have. The false praise heaped upon the Post-Impressionists by Bell and Fry couldn't have been any louder, longer, more positive, or more overwrought. As just one example, Bell finishes this chapter by stating,

Tradition ordered the painter to be photographer, arcobat, archaeologist and litterateur: Post-Impressionism invites to become an artist.

And just before that he said, “Post-Impressionism takes its place as part of one of those huge slopes into which we can divide the history of art and the spiritual history of mankind.” Good lord, the spiritual history of mankind, with Cezanne as Christ no doubt. Even Cezanne must have wondered what he did to deserve this. If he had lived long enough to witness it, he must have been embarrassed by such maunderings and noodlings. Bell does everything but get down on his knees and weep, and we must assume he did that in between chapters.

On page 50, Bell tempers his loathsomeness somewhat by speculating that maybe “the artist feels for material beauty what we feel for a work of art?” Just so, Clive. You have discovered a nut. But even then, Bell keeps talking, to his detriment. He speculates that the artist discovers an object of emotion in material beauty. Yes, but again, not only that. As above, we have a mixture of the descriptive and the non-descriptive that is appealing to the artist. Yes, the forms cause us pleasure, but the forms are never pure and we don't want them to be pure. It is the mixture that is most pleasant. We do not desire that life be pure: we are most in love with the mixture as it is, and do not wish to change it. That is to say, the material beauty of a woman is for us both form and description and idea. It is not form separated from desire or description, but all three. When we paint a woman, say, we do not wish to sift the form from the rest, because the form by itself is bare and barren. The form is only pleasant married to the real. In this way, figuration is like music. To create harmony, you must have two lines of music playing off one another. Tempering, likewise. To create a tempered scale, you must have two notes that dissolve and resolve. It is the resolution or harmony that is most pleasant, and purification can only destroy it. Just so with painting.

Bell speculates further that significant form may be the “thing in itself” or “ultimate reality”, but again, he is just being hysterical. There is no thing in itself, if by that one means some deeper entity hiding behind the descriptive form. As Nietzsche told us, what we experience is all the reality we can get. Therefore our experience is real. Our experience already tells us much about the thing in itself, since our experience is caused by the thing in itself. Our experience of the thing may not be complete, because our senses cannot soak up all possible data. But that does not make our experience false. Nor can Bell's significant form be taking us beyond the sensible, since how else do we experience form and color except through our senses? Supposing it were possible to experience life beyond the senses, we could not do that through artistic form.

Don't misunderstand me, I am not saying that there is
nothing behind forms, as Sartre tried to tell us. I am just saying there is no division. There is not our experience, which is false, and a reality behind it, which is real. Our experience is real and something, so there is no nihilism involved. Our experience is already a direct perception of what is real, therefore we do not need to postulate something behind this reality. If reality were, as Sartre said, backed by nothing, we would experience nothing. Since we experience something, we may already conclude that reality is something. There is no horrifying void behind experience, just as there is no deeper reality. Experience is incomplete, yes, but it is neither shallow nor unreal.

I am also not saying there is no mystery in art. There is very much, both in its viewing and its creation. But in art we are not seeing a deeper reality, since reality is reality. The artistic arrangement may be heightening and sharpening our senses and our appreciation, but it is not taking us beyond the senses. A visual art could hardly do that. An art of significant forms could hardly be taking us beyond forms.

Bell again tempers his loathsomeness by speaking, on page 64, “of the absolute necessity of artistic conventions.” As I said above, Bell rarely goes as far as Clement Greenberg and his successors. Art critics after Bell set out to destroy all artistic conventions, and that told us they were doing it on purpose. But on this issue, Bell holds back. He understands that art cannot be created from mist and good intentions. It cannot be created with airy theories and white canvases, with a bunch of talk and promises. Bell admits, “The effort would be feeble and the result would be feeble. That is the danger of aestheticism for the artist.” Yes, though we could refine that a bit and say “that is the danger of critical formalism for the artist.” That is the danger of basing art on critical theories.

On page 67 Bells says,

It is so easy to be lifelike, that an attempt to be nothing more will never bring into play the highest emotional and intellectual powers of the artist. Just as the aesthetic problem is too vague, the representative problem is too simple.

I am reminded of a similar recent claim by the portrait painter Stuart Pearson Wright, who told us that anyone could create realist images now. The lie is alive and longstanding, you see. We see that so many of the current slanders and lies go back before the first World War, many of them beginning with Bell and Fry. Bell and Fry, neither of whom could paint beautiful figures, found the representative problem too easy. “I can't do it, but it is nonetheless too easy.” And now, because anyone can create awful, monstrous figures using cameras and projectors and so on, Wright assures us that realism is easy. But painting figures was never easy and it isn't easy now. People who do it well are extremely rare. Good figure painting is so rare now that most people don't know the difference between bad figuration and good. No one alive now is as good as Van Dyck. No one alive now is even as good as Sargent or Bouguereau. So how is it “too easy”?

Bell is partially correct when he says that an attempt to be nothing more than lifelike is bound to fail, but the best realists never limited themselves to being lifelike. Good realism has never been only that. Only a few beginners and hacks limit themselves to trying to be lifelike, so that Bell's statement is misdirection. We do not judge art on what a few beginners and hacks are doing. And besides, Bell has buried his little truth in a big lie. Telling us that realism is easy is just a hamhanded attack on skill. It is a poorly disguised bit of resentment. It is the attempt to replace the skilled by the unskilled, by telling us that skill is easy or universal and therefore unworthy of our admiration.

I have only counter-critiqued Bell's first three chapters, but I think I will save the rest for later. Sorting through the messes that critics make is sort of like slogging through a room full of tangled coat hangers, or trying to unwind a mile long extension cord, tied into knots. It isn't hard work, that is to say, but it is tiresome. And it is debilitating to an ordered mind, having to exist among the pages of a disordered one, even for an hour or two. I begin to get fluttery and irritable, and I long to hide away in Bach for an equal amount of time, to reorder the recent chaos. Or to climb inside a Titian portrait and breathe deep the perfection.

*Whistler mocked Ruskin's Slade professorship of 1869, and would have mocked even more viciously the Slade professorship of Fry in 1933.
**This is a must read, and you can find it here.

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