Tuesday, February 24, 2009

(AP) Bell and Circularity

According to “formalist” Clive Bell, all and only those objects with significant form are art. But what makes some forms (combinations of lines, shapes, and colors) significant? Here. as I understand it, is Bell's answer:

1. We know significant form by its effect on us: it evokes (in the ideal observer), a “peculiar” aesthetic emotion. Yet,

2. We know these aesthetic emotions only as those triggered by our observation of significant form.

Unfortunately, Bell’s tight little circle brings us no closer to an appreciation of the difference between significant and insignificant (artless?) form. We might decide on Bellian grounds to leave significant form undefined (or defined only in terms of an equally ill-defined and “peculiar” aesthetic emotional reaction). But then his central thesis that all and only those objects with significant form are art reduces to one of two apparently insignificant claims:

All and only those objects with some unknown property are art. Or

All and only those objects that evoke some unknown aesthetic emotional reaction are art.


  1. I think there is a conflict of ideas presented in the article; two opposing views of what the phrase "improving the economy" means. For some it means preparing students for the way the world "is". For others the phrase means preparing students to change the way the world "is". The former seeks to infuse a new workforce into society-the latter seeks to infuse into society thoughful individuals. The former uses words like-job skill, financial security, room for advancement, coorporate ladder--the latter-ethics, ingenuity, passion, consideration, and a comprehensive world view. No one who is considering college should have to make a choice between pseudo-job security and a genuine passion for the wonder of exploration. Perhaps its time to focus on our existing work environment. Are there areas where we can eliminate mundane, ethically unsound, emotional- physical- and mentally unrewarding "job positions"? I think the way to an improved economy is preparing kids and early adults to recognize internal passion, aid in the development of inherent empathy and compassion for all life-then, armed with skills, tools, and genuine passion, we unleash these new minds on the world to fulfill dreams.

  2. Work as tedium is a necessary counterpart to rabid commercialism. See Ollman's "How to take an Exam, and Change the World" for some funny, yet poignant reflections on the world of work, school, and other drudgeries: