Significant Form

Clive Bell describes his theory of what makes certain artistic expressions be considered art as a shared quality that all objects that elicit an aesthetic reaction in the following way:

 “What quality is shared by all objects that 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? Only one answer seems possible — 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 aesthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art”

Clive Bell 1914

Let us unpack Bell’s definition so we can understand it better. Bell determined that the only qualities that could encompass and reconcile so many different artistic objects which often exist in diametric opposition to each other (Cubism and Pre-Raphaelites come to mind) under the umbrella of art were certain formal qualities such as the interaction between colours, lines, forms and their composition. This is a heavily subjective means of judgement, and Bell openly admits to this, and counters it arguing that any attempt to objectively measure aesthetic experience is a fool’s errand. This however is not a rebuttal as much as a dismissal of any arguments one might level against his theory. Obviously, with the help of Nigel Warburton, I will attempt to unpack Bell’s work and explain some of the gaps it leaves in his attempt at creating a unified theory of art.

The first argument we might level against this theory is derived from its very name. Significant Form implies that there exists a certain set of characteristics that are inherently valuable, however to whom they are significant is left unanswered. Bell makes an assumption that lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of formal elements are inherently and universally valuable. Can we comfortably make this assumption? Is the golden rectangle, or for that matter any of the other metrics he submits to us, truly universal? A study by psychologist D.E. Berlin, it was concluded that the golden rectangle is not a universal measure, but a culturally formed one with Japanese subjects for example preferring shapes closer to squares over rectangles. It is probable that color combinations and arrangements of lines are not as objective as measurements of aesthetic value, but further studies are required.


Our next question should be: can there be a pure aesthetic experience or emotion? While Bell attempts to convince us that a distinct emotional reaction to a work of art exists, it seems also imposible to say, for example, that The Guernica elicits the exact same emotional response in all viewers across generations and cultures.

Not only that but denying the context of a work greatly diminishes it. Continuing with the Guernica example, this work is not considered a great work only because of its form, but because of the historical significance it holds as a denunciation of the fascist government of General Franco and the destruction of the town of Guernica, an incredibly tragic event that would foreshadow the Nazi military buildup and World War II. Furthermore the exact oposite also complicates acceptance of the theory. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines art thus:

  • something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings

  • works created by artists : paintings, sculptures, etc., that are created to be beautiful or to express important ideas or feelings

  • the methods and skills used for painting, sculpting, drawing, etc.


Pierre Brassau and his oeuvre.

Should we accept this definition as accurate, Bell’s theory does not mention a human element as a requirement for a work of art to be considered as such. It is probable that he assumes human intervention as a de facto requirement for the creation of art, however as we have seen in the curious case of Pierre Brassau, both critics and curators can and will accept into the cannon the works of a Chimpanzee so long as the species of the artist is kept secret from them. Whether this highlights a lack of practical knowledge of the arts or an inherent value in the works of chimpanzee art is yet to be determined. Should we take at face value Bells idea that, “for the purposes of aesthetics we have no right, neither is there any necessity, to pry behind the object into the state of mind of him who made it,” then the species or even the existence of an author is irrelevant for the creation of an art object. This however opens the door to saying that anything and everything is art just as long as it creates an aesthetic feeling on the viewer. This problem in the theory highlights the fact that it allows too much into the cannons of art and lacks a true definition of the term.



Supremus No. 56 1916; Oil on canvas, 80.5 x 71 cm (31 3/4 x 28 in); State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

I do not wish to completely discredit Bell’s theory, as it posits an interpretation of art where one does not need to be immersed in art criticism and theory to be able to enjoy art.  It is also important for being one of the earlier forms of defense of abstract art against critics that saw in it a decadence and failure of artists. This more egalitarian approach to art appreciation as well as its defense of non-traditional art forms are parts of Bell’s legacy that cannot be dismissed as they opened the door to newer art forms, and styles. The legacy of formalism has gone through periods of popularity, with a recent resurgence in the last decade, where critics and artists have begun to embrace formal aspects again.

Personally I believe that there is some truth to a theory of significant form, however I also recognize that it is a highly subjective measure and would probably be better to complement it with a combination of the other theories I will explore in the next articles.


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