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Formalism In The Philosophy Of Art

Stephen Grant

1. Introduction

One of the central concerns in the philosophy of art involves trying to establish what single property all works of art share. What unites a sculpture by Rodin and a painting by Jackson Pollock such that they can both be included in the category of artworks? This question became more taxing from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards when a new and bewildering range of styles, media and artistic aims pushed back boundaries as never before. Prior to this time art was generally taken to mean representational painting, sculpture, theatre, literature and music. The new century saw both the development of new art forms such as cinema and photography, as well as revolutionary developments within the traditional arts such as conceptual art and atonal music. Theories developed prior to this period understandably run into difficulty when trying to pick out the essential features of works which were often designed with the express aim of calling into question the theory which sought to define them. But this challenge has provoked responses by those determined to pick out those properties which any work must have in order to be art, and one contemporary response has been that of Formalism.

2. Significant Form

The most influential formalist theory was set out by Clive Bell in his 1914 work, Art.[1] Bell argued that we go wrong if we try to identify art in terms of what it represents or expresses. This simply misses the point of what much art is about. Bell begins with a premise common to many theories of art, which is that 'the starting point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a peculiar emotion'.[2] In order to identify the essential property of any work of art we must therefore identify what causes this specific emotional response. Bell identifies the cause as 'Significant Form', which he claims to be present in all art from Mexican sculpture to the works of the French Impressionists.

In each, 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'; and 'Significant Form is the one quality common to all works of visual art.[3]

Bell finds it more difficult to provide a precise account of which sorts of arrangement generate the aesthetic emotion, but the existence of certain 'unknown and mysterious laws' is what any artist is trying to work with when producing a work of art.[4] Bell feels he need only establish that such laws exist, but needn't go as far as being able to articulate them precisely. The proof of their existence lies in the ability of art to produce an aesthetic response in us.

One possible objection to the theory is that many objects have form but are not works of art. The traditional map of the London Underground has a distinctive formal arrangement of lines and colours, but is not considered to be art. Bell's response is that we must distinguish between those works such as maps which convey ideas or information, and those works which move us aesthetically. It is here that the importance of the 'significant' in 'Significant Form' emerges. Art is distinctive because it aims at displaying the sorts of arrangements which elicit the aesthetic response. We might admire the map of the London Underground for the ingenious way in which represents an extremely complex transport system, but we aren't moved by it in the way we are by Gentileschi's The Mocking of Christ.

Orazio Gentileschi, The Mocking of Christ
The Matthiesen Gallery, London

This is because the Tube Map lacks the features which are capable of moving us as art does. But might there not be a beautiful map which we find aesthetically appealing? The answer is yes, but if we appreciate it for its aesthetic properties, this will be distinct from appreciating it as a map. The formal properties of a map are those which relate to its representation of geographical features. The Significant Form will be those properties which elicit the aesthetic emotion. For this reason, something could be terrible map because it is inaccurate, and yet be prized as a work of art on the grounds that the arrangement of lines and colours moves us as art does. This distinction between Significant Form and other formal features of objects allows us to explain how it is that we can find such a wide variety of objects visually attractive. Buildings, cars, vases and carpets share very few properties, but we could find instances of each which might be judged aesthetically pleasing. This can be explained on the grounds that each is capable of conforming to the 'mysterious and unknown' laws which make possible the aesthetic response.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red
Tate Gallery, London

fThis last point hints at one major advantage Formalism has over the Representation Theory. A major problem the latter runs into is the wide range of works which make no attempt to represent anything, but which still count as art. A classic example is the work of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. In his most distinctive works he aimed at expressing what he thought to be the basic form of beauty, using only straight lines and primary colours. As we have seen the representation theory will have to rule this out as art because it represents nothing. But the formalist can account for why this counts as art on the grounds that it contains an arrangement of lines and colours which produce that emotional response peculiar to art. Many works of art are indeed representations, but their representational character is not what makes them art. Bell goes as far as claiming that the use of representation is even a sign of weakness in art, because it suggests that the artist must fall back on images from ordinary life rather than creating pure form.

3. Form and Value

If we accept the basic premises of the formalism, we can now consider how the formalist will account for the value of art. The value of art is to be found in the aesthetic emotion that it provokes. According to Bell, this emotion is distinct from any of those which we experience in ordinary life. The world of art 'is a world with emotions of its own'.[5] One needs no wider knowledge or understanding of art either to produce or appreciate it, as the production and appreciation of pure form does not depend on a rich theoretical or intellectual background. Virtually any human has the capacity to appreciate form, colour and three-dimensional space. Given these very simple tools, we are capable of experiencing the extraordinary power of art.

Art transports us from a world of man's activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories are arrested; we are lifted above the stream of life.[6]

We go wrong if we try to relate the content of art to the concerns of the ordinary world, for the value of art lies precisely in its ability to let us move from mundane human reality on to a higher plane. The role of the art critic is to bring others to the point where they can experience the aesthetic emotion. This can be done through identifying how a work comes to exhibit Significant Form by revealing, for example, its unity. Such is the power of art that Bell is prepared to assert that 'Art is above morals' in that art is 'of the first importance'.[7] Once we lapse into any form of intellectual or theoretical contemplation of art then it ceases to have distinctive value because this approach inevitably involves relating the art work to the ordinary world, and this world is always beneath the experience of art.

4. Challenges to Formalism

Bell's account of the kind of rapture which art can induce comes close what one normally associates with a religious experience. He may well provide an alternative account of the essential feature of all art, but his theory is subject to a series of highly damaging criticisms. To begin with, how can the formalist account for the existence of bad art? Bell heroically asserts that 'I have no right to consider anything a work of art to which I cannot react emotionally; and I have no right to look for the essential quality in anything that I have not felt to be a work of art.'[8] It would follow from this that if I do not experience an aesthetic emotion when I view an exhibition of paintings by Rembrandt, then I would have to claim that none of the works were art at all.

The obvious move one can make on Bell's behalf is to claim that he has somewhat overstated his case. He should have claimed that all good art inspires the aesthetic emotion to which he refers, and bad art is art which fails to do this because it lacks the formal qualities which inspire the appropriate response. But this simply generates a further and equally difficult problem. If the aesthetic emotion is a response to good art, then what essential property do good and bad art share which makes both of them art? We can no longer say it is the ability to provoke a specific emotion through Significant Form because this is a property only of good art. What further property must they share? If the formalist tries to argue that there is some further property that all art works share, then she has acknowledged that something other than Significant Form is essential to art.

One response one might put on behalf of the Formalist is that there is no bad art. There is a certain intuitive appeal to this claim, in that when we describe something as a work of art we attribute to it a certain status which lifts it above other objects around it. When we take an ordinary household object and place it in a gallery, we transform it from being a mundane object into one which we now contemplate. This might be seen as a reflection of the fact that all art has something about it which commands our attention in light of its positive qualities. But this line of defence has limited plausibility. To claim that art has a certain status is not equivalent to the claim that it is all good. We may accept that a particular work of art demands our attention simply in virtue of its status as a work of art, but then conclude that it is bad art. Nor can one moderate the claim that bad works of art include Significant Form to a lesser degree than good art. Remember, Significant Form is the property which both provides art with its value, but which also identifies it as a work of art. If we say a particular painting is a poor work of art because it instantiates Significant Form incompletely then this would mean it is an incomplete work of art. But this is surely wrong. One can have a painting which is a complete work of art and a poor one.

A further serious objection is that formalism requires that the primary function of art is to display Significant Form. Art has value when the work is arranged in such a way that it elicits the aesthetic emotion, and this is what artists aim at. But this seems historically inaccurate. There have been long periods in European history when Christianity was almost universally accepted and many artists saw their role as one of promoting an overtly religious message. This means that representation was the key motive of the artist. One could argue that representing the works of Christ was one motive, and conveying this using Significant Form was another. But this looks question-begging. Surely there were many religious painters who saw their role as one of depicting accurately the suffering of Christ on the cross, and who approached their task with the sole aim of the faithful representation of this event in order to promote religious understanding. If this is plausible, then displaying Significant From need play no role in the motives of the artist.

One way round this is to drop the criterion of motivation from our account. Even if religious artists did not intend to display Significant Form, they succeeded in doing so, and this is what made their art so powerful. But this move creates a further problem. If art is defined as whatever has Significant Form, Significant Form is what stimulates the aesthetic emotion, then how do we account phenomena which are not works of art, but which stimulate this emotion. The most obvious example of this is when we are stunned by an extraordinary landscape or the waves crashing against a barren shoreline. Our aesthetic appreciation of nature seems qualitatively similar to our appreciation of art, but nature is not art. We need something like a criterion of deliberate production in order to distinguish between nature and art. If we have only Significant Form producing the aesthetic emotion then we cannot explain why natural phenomena which have Significant Form are not art.

These criticisms are problematic enough, but perhaps the most damning is the problem that there is no clear account of what Significant Form is. Formalists such as Bell provide examples of works of art which supposedly contain it, but this is inadequate. What common formal properties do Tolstoy's novels and decorative Greek vases share. To say that they share Significant Form without providing a more detailed account of the term is like saying they share mystery component X. A sound formalist theory would have to explain why a particular arrangement of lines and colours produces a particular response, and no such account has been forthcoming.

A final problem is that Formalism requires us to set aside the importance of what is represented. Even where we have a work of art which represents a particular event, the representative element is not what makes it good art, or even what makes it art at all. But can we really separate out form and representation in this way. Consider once again Gentileschi's The Mocking of Christ (Fig. 7). The use of colour includes the contrast between the dark red which represents Christ's blood, and the white of his tattered clothes. The lines painted by the artist generate an impression of inhumanity on the part of the gaolers and suffering on the part of Christ. Christ is central and the gaolers stand on either side. This arrangement focuses our attention on Christ. It is difficult to see how we can separate out the formal features of the painting such as use of colour and the arrangements of the lines, from the representational features of the work, such as the fact that Christ is shown suffering and humiliated. It would be bizarre to judge the use of the dark red independently from the fact that this colour represents blood. What this suggests is that the form of a work of art and what it represents cannot always be treated separately. Our appreciation of certain works must take them together when we come to understand and judge the work. If we fail to do this then we could not be moved by the work as one would expect. How could one appreciate Gentileschi's use of colour independently of his use of colour to represent the blood of Christ?

Formalism finds its strength in the fact that it can account for such a wide variety of different phenomena which have artistic value. Whether we are interested in the lines of a classic car or the brushwork of an old master, one can argue that they share certain formal qualities, and those qualities are the ones which make them artistic. Yet this strength also leads to the theory's great failing. In trying to fix upon an abstract quality which is common to all art, it leaves behind the representational property which is common to much of it. In the final analysis, this separation of form and representation is unsustainable, and we are left with a theory which still fails to provide us with the necessary condition which something must have in order to be a work of art. The absence of any satisfactory account of Significant Form coupled with the inability of the theory to explain the existence of bad art merely exacerbates the problem.

Stephen Grant
Richmond-upon-Thames College

References and Further Reading

The classic statement of Formalism is to be found in Clive Bell's Art (London: Chatto and Windus, 1914), and the key passages can be found in 'The Aesthetic Hypothesis', in Neil and Ridley eds., The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1995), p100.

There are many good general introductions to the philosophy of art, but three very good ones which cover all the issues discussed here are Noël Carroll's Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction (Oxford: Routledge, 1999), Colin Lyas, Aesthetics (Oxford: Routledge, 1997), Ann Sheppard, Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). Each of these texts summarises both the claims and criticisms of Formalism as well as providing plenty of suggestions for further reading.


[1]  An accessible account of Bell's work and wider influence can be found here.  [back] 

[2]  Clive Bell, 'The Aesthetic Hypothesis', in Neil and Ridley eds., The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1995), p100.  [back] 

[3]  Ibid.  [back] 

[4]  Ibid. p101  [back] 

[5]  Ibid. p107  [back] 

[6]  Ibid. p106  [back] 

[7]  Ibid. p104  [back] 

[8]  Ibid. 101  [back]