Art I. Reading Clive Bell Sometimes I wonder about Clive Bell. After all, the man was obviously no fool. On the contrary-his every credential, every little detail of his career tells us otherwise: his life as the brilliant young student educated at Trinity College, hob-nobbing with other future intellectual heavyweights such as Lytton Strachey, SydneyTurner, Leonard Woolf; the young scholar (described by friends as being „a sort of mixture between Shelley and a sporting country squire¾) who, along with Thoby, Adrian, Virginia (later Woolf) and Vanessa (later Bell) Stephens, was to become part of the very core of „Old Bloomsbury¾; the eminent art critic who proved crucial in gaining popular acceptance for the art of the Post-Impressionists in Great Britain-all of this serves as an almost overwhelming body of evidence pointing to the fact that this man was an intellectual of the very finest water. For myself, however, the above also serves to add a measure of urgency to this question: why do I find myself in almost constant disagreement with practically everything that Clive Bell has to say about art? I am inclined to say that it has something to do with the fact that, for him, it is not „art¾-it is Art, art-with-a-capital-åa¼, so to speak. What I mean by this will be made plain through a discussion of his main book on the topic, (the very imaginatively titled) Art. Bell starts by postulating that there is but one kind of emotional response to all works of art, or at any rate to all works of visual art. This is what he calls the „aesthetic emotion¾; it is intrinsic to both the appreciation and creation of art, and it is a response triggered by what (according to him) all works of visual art have in common: „significant form¾ (which is a concept that I¼ll have more to say about later). True, he says, different people respond differently to the same works, but what matters, according to him, is that all of these different responses are not different in kind. For according to him „all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of åworks of art¼ we gibber¾. This extraordinary statement is to be found on page 6 of the edition of the book that I have before me-and here, already, I find myself in disagreement with Mr. Bell. In his statement of the case, is there any logical reason to believe that we do not gibber? Bell¼s first error, then, would seem to lie in the fact that he is allowing his own language, his terminology, to constrict his conception / perception. For I find it hard to believe (as Bell so evidently does) that, just because we apply the same term to a set (or perhaps more precisely: a conglomeration) of things, they must therefore necessarily have something in common. What we call art, we call by that
name largely by force of habit or long tradition: think you that the sculptors making statues of gods in Babylonian temples thought of themselves as artists? Laborers, craftsmen, certainly; artisans, perhaps; but artists the way Clive Bell defines it, men and women creating subtle combinations of line and color and form in order to arouse an „aesthetic emotion¾? On the one hand we have the Oxford English Dictionary telling us that the word åart¼ means I. Skill; its display or application. Sing. art (abstractly); no plural. 1. gen. Skill in doing anything as the result of knowledge and practice. 2. a. Human skill as an agent, human workmanship. Opposed to nature. ð b. Artifice, artificial expedient. (Cf. 12.) Obs. 3. The learning of the schools; see 7. ð a. spec. The trivium, or one of its subjects, grammar, logic, rhetoric; dialectics. Obs. b. gen. Scholarship, learning, science. arch. ð 4. spec. Skill in applying the principles of a special science; technical or professional skill. Obs. 5. The application of skill to subjects of taste, as poetry, music, dancing, the drama, oratory, literary composition, and the like; esp. in mod. use: Skill displaying itself in perfection of workmanship, perfection of execution as an object in itself. Phr. art for art¼s sake.