Jane Ellen Harrison

Art and Mr. Clive Bell

Sometimes—not very often—in the reading of a book, an odd thing happens. With feelings, instincts, tastes of the writer one is conscious of sudden and close sympathy; for his reasoned convictions, his theories, his dogmas, one has an equally strong antipathy.

This has happened to me with Mr. Clive Bell’s book on Art. I am almost sure that his theory is wrong, but his heart seems to me often in the right place, and, in the matter of art, he would be the first to own that the heart takes and keeps precedence of the head. What follows is written, not to attack Mr. Clive Bell, but to clear my own head. My heart being in the same place as his, I shall assume the soundness of our common tastes.

An author allures us at the outset who gives us illustrations so beautiful. The Wei figure which is frontispiece, the Peruvian Pot, the Byzantine Mosaic, the Cezanne, all make immediate appeal. Only as to the second illustration, the Persian Dish, we have our private heresy: the noseless—or is it mouthless?-rider (the doubt is permissible) leaves us cold for a reason that will appear later. Otherwise we see eye to eye and rejoice; we are conscious instantly of what we used to call “beauty,” and now, by an ugly but softer phrase, call “aesthetic emotion”; and a man who chooses with such, to us, apt instinct must needs, we fell, be heard.

We will begin with sympathies, reserving to the end our one crucial antipathy. I wish that thirty years ago, when Mr. Bell was probably being born or brought up, I could have read chapter iii.—“The Christian Slope.” It would have saved me much travail of soul. It was then my business to lecture on Greek Art. I knew instinctively, the moment I looked at the Parthenon marbles, that Pheidias was “a master of the early decadence”—“a man in whom ran rich and fast, but a little coarsened, the stream of inspiration that gave life to archaic Greek sculpture.” I knew that in the spell-bound Harpy Tomb in the half-awakened “Korai” of the Acropolis Museum was a form and a significance denied even to the “Ilissos,” and for about a year I timidly said it; and then, frightened by the big tradition dead against me, I tried to “take a wider view”—to “see beauty everywhere,” even in the Greco-Romans; and finally, disheartened and feeling myself an impostor, I threw up the lecturing sponge and fled. And again, when, a little later, I went to St. Apollinare in Clase, I knew that here was the real thing that made one’s heart stand still; but friends and companions whom I reverenced saw only what was “interesting” and “strange,” and I doubted my own instincts.

Next my heart goes out to Mr. Clive Bell when he talks of music, for his experience is mine. Sometimes, very rarely, the perception of pure form lifts me out of myself; often, mostly, music merely stirs wells of personal emotion. No new thing added to my life, only “the old material stirred.” “I begin to read into the musical forms human emotions of terror and mystery, love and hate.” “I have tumbled from the superb peaks of aesthetic exaltation to the snug foot-hills of warm humanity.” This, Mr. Bell says, is “a jolly country.” No one, he adds, “need be ashamed of enjoying himself there.” I differ wholly. Long ago I gave up going to concerts. It seemed to me, for me, wicked, blasphemous.

Again and again Mr. Bell cleanses the air of some foul fog of confused thinking. Take what he says of “beauty.” He rightly refuses to use the word because it has been abused. The word “beautiful,” he justly says, is to the man in the street, more often than not, synonymous with “desirable.” That is why it is tacitly, and sometimes overtly, demanded of all women that they should be “beautiful.” When an artist calls a wrinkled old had “beautiful,” he uses the word in quite another sense, and he is apt to be suspected of humbug.

Then, again, how clear-cut is his thinking on Art and Ethics! Mr. G.E. Moore has shown us that “states of mind” alone are good as ends—that is, states of mind alone, not things, are “good in isolation.” Art engenders ecstasy—a state of mind supremely good. It therefore is not a means of promoting good actions—to hold that, is, with Tolstoy, to put the cart obstructively before the horse. Actions are not ends in themselves: they are only roads to goods—i.e., to states of minds. To say that a thing is a work of art is in itself to make a “momentous moral judgment.”

Returning to “The Christian Slope,” how illuminating is the observation, that in the history of art “the summit of one movement seems always to spring erect from the trough of its predecessor!” The upward slope is vertical, the downward an inclined plane. For instance, from Duccio to Giotto is a step up, sharp and shallow. From Giotto to Leonardo is a long, and at times almost imperceptible, fall. This rids us at once—and how great the riddance!—of all the accumulated rubbish of “historical criticism,” of “evolution in art.” “To think of a man’s art as leading on to the art of someone else is to misunderstand it.” This rids us of all the traditional wrong-headedness that makes us try to show how Giotto must needs “creep a grub that Titian might flaunt a butterfly.” In the matter of command of tools and materials, in the matter of facility for photographic representation, this evolution is true. In the matter of what really matters, vision, significance, it is utterly false. Giotto at the top of the slope sees the Promised Land, and down the long Renascence slope the vision fades into the light of common day. “By a slope I mean that which lies between a great primitive morning, when men create art because they must, and that darkest hour when men confound imitation with art.”

I come to my crucial antipathy. Among sympathies so profound this antipathy must needs be crucial to be felt at all. It is, indeed, a most intimate division of soul, cutting at the very heart of Mr. Bell’s theory. He tells us at the outset that he who would elaborate a plausible theory of aesthetics must possess two qualities—artistic sensibility and a turn for clear thinking. About the robustness of my own logical faculty I have genuine and grave doubts; about the reality and intensity of my own rather rare a narrow aesthetic emotions, none. What of theory I have to bring forward is based directly on personal experience. But my theory would never have been formulated save as a counter-theory to Mr. Bell’s. Again and again, as I read his book, I felt, as to its main contention, How fine, how almost right, and yet now utterly wrong! So I had to turn to and examine my own experience.

Mr. Bell’s theory is well known, but for clearness’ sake I restate it. To talk about aesthetic emotion at all, we must admit that a certain quality is shared by all objects that provoke aesthetic emotion. What is that quality? Only one answer seems, to Mr. Bell, possible—Significant Form. In each object of art, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, he calls “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common, he things, to all works of visual art. I am not sure that this quality need be one; there may be a fundamental pluralism in art. But let that pass. The word “significant,” with its intellectual associations, is, I think, misleading: “emotional” would have been, perhaps, nearer the truth, though “significant” has a fine, almost magically suggestive, air. But I am not going to quarrel with a label. Had Mr. Bell been satisfied with the positive content of his definition, I should probably have agreed. Form—call it emotional or call it significant—is a prime element in the causation of aesthetic emotion. But he goes on to negation, and here the worm turns.

It is on page 25 that negation, and with it, I think, error, creeps, or rather tramps, in.

“Let no one imagine that representation is bad in itself.” For that let us be thankfull. “A realistic form may be significant in its place as part f the design, as an abstract. But if a representative form has value, it is as form, not as representation. The representative 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.” The italics are our own: they mark the fundamental error. To us representation is essential, not irrelevant—as essential as form itself. Of the two, not of the one, art is compounded. Of this, for me, I am personally sure. This is to me a matter of experience, and though the whole school of Cambridge Rationalists might rise up to deny the validity of the experience, I abide unshaken.

A work of art that causes me aesthetic emotion has always about it something of a trance-like quality, for the artist is always a sleep-walker. It is real, but with the reality of a dream. It is reality, but reality caught—held somehow at a distance. The spectator is spell-bound. This emotion is, I think, just what Mr. Bell describes himself as feeling for significant form. But, when I come to analyze its cause, my conclusion is 1quite different from his. It seems to me that the very essence of this cause, my conclusion is quite different from his. It seems to me that the very essence of this cause is representation of reality; but that representation, when it becomes art, is caught and fettered by form. It is not the fetters, the form, the pattern, that holds me spell-bound, that catches my breath, that sends a cold shudder down my spine; it is the spectacle of reality fettered, it is formal representation. But to take away the representation element is to empty the wine from the chalice. I am sure of this, because this special ecstasy does not come over me when looking at a beautiful pattern. Here, I expect, I differ from Mr. Bell. But—and I freely expose the inconsistency—it does come over me, to some extent, when looking at fine Romanesque architecture. I cannot, I admit, explain this, for in Romanesque architecture there is no representation. I am here, I know, in a logical hole, which makes me feel that my theory, though I believe it to be true, is not the whole truth.

I want to go a little farther. This trance-like, spell-bound feeling comes over me when I look at many of the Primitives. There is in the Acropolis Museum at Athens an archaic woman’s figure, to look at which is to me all but unbearable. The reality behind her face—I am inclined to accept Mr. Bell’s metaphysic—seems just about to break loose, utter itself, and the tension is overmuch. But I feel it even more exquisitely, perhaps because more consciously, when I look at figures treated with almost brutal realism, figures that pus representation to the utmost, such as some of Dega’s dancers. They are caught and held by a spell, and thereby they hold me. They are things enchanted. Now, it is form, I am sure, that casts the spell—that is, the fetters. Then Mr. Bell is right, but Reality is the enchanted nymph, and she must be represented, and we must almost feel her struggle. Art to me is very like a dead face or a sudden halt in a dance, but the noise of life and its flutter must be there if you are to feel the silence and the binding spell.

Art, then, to me is not the creation of significant form, hollow of content, but the fettering of reality by form—a widely different thing. It may be possible to make my meaning clearer by the analogy—or is it more than reality?—of rhythm. To say that art is the creation of significant form, and that representation is irrelevant, is like saying that metre—abstract metre—is a poem. A poem is the shackling of live speech by the fetters of rhythm, and the sense of beauty arises when the fixed forms of the metre are broken, and we feel the words breaking up against the rhythm. It is so, of course, in music. There is a rude joy in the regular beat; but this is simple and soon palls. The sense of the beat is keenest when the measure is syncopated. This law that freedom is only felt through fetters, this relation of the gospel to the law, seems deep-seated. It probably holds in the moral world. A young generation that worshipped life, and thought to find joy in the utter freedom of every vital impulse, already hankers after law, and is returning disillusioned to old fetters of forging new ones. Life is doomed to make for itself moulds, break them, remake them.

“As works of art,” Mr. Bell justly says, the Futurist pictures are negligible. And why? Because, he explains, they are descriptive—that is, representative. They aim at presenting in line and colour the chaos of the mind at a particular moment; their forms are not intended to promote aesthetic emotion, but to convey information. That they are failures as art—those I have seen—I agree, but not because they are representative. The new field they open up is priceless as material, but it is not informed. There will come one day a Futurist, let us hope, who will cast the spell, and set the motors and aeroplanes sleep-walking. It is, perhaps, a not very hard thing to give form and silence to a rough-hewn figure. To throw the modern whirlpool into trance is another matter, and needs, perhaps, a bigger man.

I think I dimly discern two reasons why Mr. Bell will have none of representation: First he is fighting his friend, Mr. Roger Fry, and Mr. Fry holds (or did hold in 1909) that art, which is the utterance of the imaginative life, is closely bound up with actuality. Art is to him the vision of life when practical reactions are cut off. The artist is, as Mr. Bergson beautifully said, “le distrait.” It is always dangerous to argue even with the best of one’s friends. It crystallizes one’s errors. To Mr. Fry art is reality secluded, and so, reacting against Mr. Fry, Mr. Bell excludes reality.

But not only does he react against a friend’s theory, but Mr. Bell is also the champion of a movement of Post-Impressionism. In his instructive analysis of Post-Impressionism he shows us that one characteristic of the movement, and a sound one, is the resolution of artists to free their art from literary and scientific irrelevancies. To do this they make a cult of Simplification. In Mr. Bell we detect some of the fanaticism of the devout worshipper. He has not escaped altogether the dangers—of which he is well aware—involved in championing a movement. Post-Impressionists simplify; they love half a cheese and an apple and a bottle of water. It is only a step more to say, Let us have no subject at all, only pattern of lines and spaces reinforced by colour. This wholly logical step has been taken by the more ardent souls. This drives Mr. Bell to the desperate position that “all informatory matter is irrelevant, and should be eliminated.”

But see him partly conscious of his own plight. “Not every picture,” he pathetically observes, is as good seen upside down as upside up.” The artist is tempted to humour the weakness of the flesh in the spectator, and let Adam or Eve, for a change, stand upright on their feet. “Enter by the back-door Representation in the quality of a clue to the nature of design.” Could anything be more ingenious or more unconvincing? Subject is there, we are sure, not as a clue to design, but because, when the bird has flown, the empty cage is useless. It is not “information” that is reprehensible in art, but information uninformed. Form, as Mr. Bell himself says, is “the talisman.” But what use the talisman without the thing enchanted? Form without content is dead. It is the beat of the live bird’s wing within the cage that makes form “significant.”


MLA Citation

Harrison, Jane Ellen. “Art and Mr. Clive Bell.” 1915. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 7 Mar 2007. 23 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/harrison/art_and_mr_clive_bell/>.

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