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Clive Bell And The Formalist Theory

2064 words - 8 pages

Clive Bell and the Formalist Theory

“Art is a recurring form of human practice. Some have argued that all human societies have shown evidence of artistic activities.” (Carroll 5)

Man has long created art, this much is certain. However, man has never ultimately defined art. There are so many things which qualify as art and as many qualities to each piece that trying to find answers only seems result in more questions. The formalist theory of art, as present by Clive Bell, makes an attempt at defining art and answering many of these questions. Below is a discussion of the formalist theory; its definition, its strengths, and its weaknesses as evidenced by the work of Clive Bell.

Clive Bell theorizes art in terms of a theory known as Formalism. Formalism is based upon a relatively simple line of logic. All art produces in the viewer an emotion. This emotion is not different but the same for all people in that it is known as the Aesthetic Emotion. There must be a factor common to all works of art that produces in the viewer a state of Aesthetic Emotion thus defining the works as art. This common factor is form. Formalism defines artworks as that which has significant form. Significant form is a term used by Bell to describe forms that are arranged by some unknown and mysterious laws. Thus, all art must contain not merely form, but significant form. Under Formalism, art is appreciated not for its expression but instead for the forms of its components. Examples of these forms include lines, curves, shapes, and colors. Abstract art, twentieth century, or modern art such as color field painting or the works of Mondrian, are examples of art that are not representative and thus are most likely to be appreciated as art in terms of their forms rather than their content.

For the formalist, forms are the common denominator that differentiates between that which is art and that which is not art. This is based on the Common Denominator Argument, which is put forth by Noel Carroll. This is one of the same arguments that Bell puts forward, Carroll simply elucidates the matter.

…the “Common Denominator Argument”. This argument begins with the unexceptionable presupposition that if anything is to count as a necessary condition of art status, then it must be a property had by every artwork. (Carroll 111).

Carroll believes that some things are art, some things are not art, and their must be a factor common to all art which differentiates it from not art because the two things are clearly distinct.

Formalism is in some ways an advantageous theory of art. It has advantages over both representationalism and expressionism. Representationalism is the theory of art that in order for something to qualify as art, it must be representative of its content. Thus, a drawing of a tree is representative of a tree because it obviously resembles a tree. The matter goes beyond that...

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