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III E x p re s s io n a n d th e P rim itiv e 113

15 Clive Bell (188 1- 1964) 'Th e Aesthetic Hypothesis'


B e ll a s s is te d F ry w ith th e s e c o n d o f h is 'P o s t- Im p re s s io n is t' e x h ib itio n s in 1 9 1 2 , a n d
th e tw o c ritic s w e re to b e c lo s e ly id e n tifie d w ith th e p ro p a g a n d iz in g o f m o d e rn a rt in
E n g la n d fo r th e n e x t tw o d e c a d e s . T h e p re s e n t te x t is ta k e n fro m th e firs t c h a p te r o f
Art, firs t p u b lis h e d in L o n d o n in 1 9 1 4 a n d c o n tin u o u s ly re p rin te d fo r th e n e x t tw e n ty
y e a rs . S e lf's a m b itio u s a im w a s to p ro v id e 'a c o m p le te th e o ry o f v is u a l a rt'. O n th e
o th e r h a n d h is e n d e a v o u r w a s c le a rly s h a p e d b y th e s p e c ific e ffe c ts o f a n e n th u s ia s m
fo r m o d e rn F re n c h p a in tin g . W h a t h e p ro d u c e d w a s a fo rc e fu l a n d g ra s p a b le m a n ife s to
fo r th e b ro a d a e s th e tic c o m m itm e n ts o f e a rly tw e n tie th - c e n tu ry M o d e rn is m .

The starting-point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience
of a peculiar emotion. The objects that provoke this emotion we call works of
art. All sensit ive 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. But a!l these emotions
are recognizably the same in kind; so far , at any rate, the best opinion is on
my side. That there is a particular kind of emotion pro\'oked by works of visual
art, and that this emotion is provoked by every kind of visual an, by pictures,
sculptures, buildings, potS, carvings, textiles, &c., &c., is not disputed, I think,
by anyone capable of feel ing it. This emotion is called the aesthetic emotion;
and if we can discover some quality common and peculiar 10 all the objects that
pro\'oke it, w'e shall have solved what r take to be the central problem of
aesthetics. We shall have disco\'ered the essential quality in a work of arl, the
quality that distinguishes works of art from all other classes of objects.
For either all works of \'isual art have some common quality, or when we
speak of 'works of art' we gibber. Everyone speaks of 'art ', making a mental
classification by which he distinguishes t he class ' works of art' from all other
classes. What is the justification of this classification? What is the quality
common and peculiar to all members of this class? Whatever it be, no doubt it
is often found in company with other qualities; but they are adventitious - it
is essential. There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot
exist; possessing which, in the least degree, no work is altogether worthless.
What is this quality? What quality is shared by all objects thar provoke our·
aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows
at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto's
frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and
cezanne? Onl y one answer seems possib le. ...., significant form. 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 aesthetical1y moving forms, I call 'Significant Form' ; and 'Significant
Form' is the one quality common to all works of visual art.
o 0 0
The hypothesis rhat significant form is the essential quality in a work of art
has at least one merit denied to many more famous and more striking - it does
help to explain things. We are all familiar with pictures that interest us and
, ............. 6 ..... 1 v' ....1"'VVIl :>I'

exciTe our admiration, but do nOf move us as works of :1 T l . To this class belongs
wh'at I call ' Descriptive Painting' - that is, painting in wh ich forms are used
not as objects of emotion, but as means of suggesting emotion or conveyi ng
information. Portraits of psychologic:lJ and hiSlOrical value, topographical works,
pict ures that tell stories and suggest situations, illustrations of all sort S, belong
10 this class. That we all recognize the distinction is clear, for who has nOI said
that such and such a drawing was exce llent as illustration. but as a work of an
worthless? Of course many descriptive pictures possess, amongst other qualities,
formal significance, and arc therefore works of art : but many more do nol. They
interest us; they may move us too in a hundred different ways, but th ey do not
move us aes theticall~'. According to my hypoth esis they aTe not works of arl.
They leavc untouched ou r aesthetic emotions because it is not their forms
but the ideas or information suggested or con\'eyed by thei r forms that affect
us. ( .. . J
Most people who care much about art find that of the WOrk that moves them
most the greater part is what scholars call 'Primiti ve'. Of course there are bad
primitives. ( ... J But such exceptions are rare. As a rule primitive art is good
- and here agai n my hypothesis is helpful - for , as a rule, it is also free from
descriptive qualities. In primitive art you will find no accurate represemation;
you witl find onty significant form. Yet no other an moves us so profoundly.
Whether we consider Sumerian scu lpture or pre-dynastic Egyptian art , or archaic
Greek, or the Wei and T 'ang masterpieces, o r those early Japanese wads of
which I had the luck to see a fe w superb examples ... at the Shep herd's Bush
Exhibition in 1910, or whether, comin g nearer home, we consider the primitive
Byza ntine art of the sixth century and its primitive devel opments amongst the
Western barbarians, or, turning fa r afield, we consider t hat mysterio us and
majestic art that nourished in Central and South America before the coming of
the white men, in every case we observe three common characteristics - absence
of representation, absence of technica l swagger, sublimely impressive fo rm.
Nor is it hard to discover the connection between these three. Formal signific-
ance loses itself in preoccupation with exact representation and ostentatious
cunnmg.
Naturally, it is said that if there is little representation and less saltimbancery
in primitive art, that is because the primitives were unable to catch a likeness
. or cut intellectual apers. The contention is beside the point. There is truth in
it, no doubt, though, were I a critic whose reputation depended on a power of
impressing the public with a semblance of knowledge, I should be more cautious
about urging it than such people generally are. For to suppose that [he Byzantine
masters wanted ski ll, or could nOt ha\'e created an illusion had they wished to
do so, seems to imply ignorance of the amazingly dexterous reali sm of the
notoriousl y bad works of that age. Very often, I fear, the misrepresentation of
the primi tives must be attributed to what the cri ti cs call , 'wilful distOrtion'. Be
that as it may. the point is that , ei ther from want of skill or wan t of will,
primit illes nei ther create illusions, nor make dis play of extra vagant accomplish-
ment , but concentrate their energies on the one thing needful - the creation of
form . Thus h3\'e they created the fin est works of art that we possess.
III E x p re s s io n a n d th e P rim itiv e 115
Let no one imagine that representation is bad in itself; a realistic form may
be as significant, in its place as pan of the design, as an abstract. But if a
representative form has value, it is as form, nO[ as representation. The repre-
sentati ve element in a work of art may or may nOt be harmful; always it is
irrelevant. For, to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from
life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions. An
transports us from the world of man's activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation.
For a moment we are sh ut off from human interests; our anticipations and
memories are arrested ; we are lifted above the stream of life. [ ... J
To appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing but a sense of
form and colour and a knowledge of three-dimensional space. That bit of
knowledge, I admit, is essential to the appreciation of many great works, si nce
many· of the most moving forms ever created are in three dimensions. To see
a cube or a rhomboid as a flat pattern is to lower its significance, and a sense
of three-dimensional space is essential to the full appreciation of most architec-
tural form s. Pictures which would be insignificant if we saw them as flat patterns
are profoundly moving because, in fact, we see them as related planes. If [he
representation of three-dimensional space is to be called 'representation' , then
I agree that there is one kind of representation which is not irrelevan!. Also, I
agree that along with our feeling for line and colour we must bring with us our
knowledge of space if we are to make the most of every kind of form .
Nevertheless, there are magnificent designs to an appreciation of which this
knowledge is nOI necessary: so, though it is not irrelevant to the appreciation
of some works of art it is not essential to the appreciation of all. What we must
say is that the representation of three-dimensional space is neither irrelevant
nor essential to all art, and that every other SOrt of representation is irrelevant.
ThaI there is an irrelevant representative or descriptive element in many great
works of art is nOt in the least surprising .. .. Representation is not of necessity
baneful, and highly realistic forms may be extremely significant. Very often,
however, representation is a sign of weakness in an artist. A painter too feeble
to create forms that provoke more than a little aesthetic emotion lVill try to eke
that little out by suggesting the emotions of life. To evoke the emotions of life
he mUSt use representation. Thus a man will paint an execution, and, fearing
to miss with his first barrel of significant form, will try to hit with his second
by raising an emotion of fear or pity. But if in [he artist an inclination to play·
upon the emotions of life is often the sign of a flickering inspirat ion , in the
spectator a tendency to seek, behind form, the emotions of life is a sign of
defective sensibilit y always. I t means that his aesthetic emotions are weak or,
at any rate, imperfec!. Before a work of ar.t .people who feel little or no emotion
for pure form find themselves at a loss. They are deaf men at a concert. They
know that they arc in the presence of something great, but they lack the power
of apprehending it. They know that they ought to feel for it a tremendous
emotion, but it happens that the particular kind of emotion it can raise is one
that they can feel hardly or not at all. And so they read into the forms or the
work those facts and ideas for which they are capable of feeling emotion, and
feel for them the emotions that they can feel - the ordinary emotions of life.
When confronted by a picture. instinctively they refe r back its forms to the
world from which they came. They tre:lt created form as though it were imitated
form, : I picture :IS though it were a photogr:lph. l nste:ld of going out on the
stre:lm of art into : I new world of aesthetic experience, the y turn a sharp corner
and come straight home to the world of human interests. For them the
significance of a work of :1ft depends on wh:lt the y bring to it; no nell' thing
is added to their lives, only the old material is stirred. A good work of visual
art carries a person who is capable of appreciating it out of life into ec.:stasy: to
use an as a means to the emotiuns of life is to usc a telescope for reading the
news. You will notic.:e that people who cannot feel pure ac.:sthetic emotions
remembcr pictures by their subjects; whereas people who e:m, a .~ often as nOI,
have no idea what the subjec.:t of a picture is. They ha ve never noticed the
representative element, and so when they discuss pictures they talk about the
shapes of fo rms and the relations and quantit'ies of colours. Often they can
tell by the quality of a single line whether or no a man is a good artist. They
arc concerned onl y with lines and colours, their rebtions and q uantities
and qualities; but from thcsc they win an emotion more profound and far
more sublime than any that can be given by the dcscription of facts and ideas.
l . J
Significant form stands chnrged with the power to provoke aesthetic emotion
in anyone cnpable of feeling it. T he idens of men go buzz and die like gnats;
men change their institutions and their custom.~ as the y ch:lnge their coat.~; the
intclkctual triumphs of one age arc the foll ies of another; only great art remains
stable and unobscure. Great art remains stable :lnd unobscure because the
feelings that it awakens arc independent of time and place, because its kingdom
is not of this world . To those who have and hold a sense of the significance of
form what docs it matter whc.:ther the forms that move them wc.:re created in
Paris the day before yestc.:rday or in Babylon fift y centuries ago? The forms of
art arc inexhaustible; but all lead by the same road of aesthetic emotion to the
same world of aesthetic ecstasy.

16 Herma nn Ba hr ( 1863-1934) fr om Expressio nism


A s o n e m ig h t e x p e c t fro m a n a c c o u n t o f E x p re s s io n is m p u b lis h e d in M u n ic h , th o u g h
S a 'h r b ro a d e n s th e fie ld o f re fe re n c e o f th e te rm , h is b o o k s h o w s th e in flu e n c e b o th o f
W o rrin g e r's id e a s a n d o f th a t c o n c e rn fo r th e s p iritu a l fu n c tio n s o f a rt w h ic h w a s
a s s o c ia te d w ith D e r B la u e R e ite r. It p ro v id e s a v iv id re p o s ito ry o f th e m e s a n d te n d e n c ie s
w h ic h w e re to re m a in im p lic it in m u c h m o d e rn a rt th e o ry a n d c ritic is m fo r th e n e x t th irty
y e a rs , to re s u rfa c e in e x p lic it fo rm in th e N e w Y o rk o f th e 1 9 4 0 s : re c o u rs e to s w e e p in g
a n th ro p o lo g ic a l g e n e ra liz a tio n ; b e lie f in th e s u p e rio r p h ilo s o p h ic a l w is d o m o f th e E a s t;
d is p a ra g e m e n t o f Im p re s s io n is t p a in tin g for its s u p p o s e d p a s s iv ity a s a fo rm o f re p re -
s e n ta tio n ; a s s o c ia tio n o f m o d e rn ity w ith d e h u m a n iz a tio n ; a n d c o n s e q u e n t ( n e o - ro m a n tic )
c o n v ic tio n th a t re c o v e ry o f a fo rm o f 'p re s o c ia l' s ta te is th e p re c o n d itio n fo r re c o v e ry
o f c ritic a l v irtu e a n d a u th e n tic ity . W ritte n in 1 9 1 4 , a n d p u b lis h e d a s £xpressionismus,
M u n ic h , 1 9 1 6 . E n g lis h tra n s la tio n b y R . T. G rib b le , lo n d o n , 1 9 2 0 , fro m w h ic h th e
p re s e n t e x tra c ts a re ta k e n .