Art or ‘Art’?

We have entered February and it seems like the rains never ends. Our newly purchased Toyota Celica already died on us once, which resulted in it having to be carted off to get the battery replaced. I have been inside the house mostly, next to a cozy little fire burning in the living room, looking for work. (Please do share if you know of any cool part-time jobs going in the Cambridge area!)

Apart from that, I’ve taken to actually reading some of my books! One of my newest additions was ‘Art’  by Clive Bell. This little gem from 1923 (6th printing) tells us all about ‘Art’ and what makes it ‘Art’ in the boisterous and somewhat  arrogant tones of Mr. Bell. It’s fairly light and even a little humorous at times and I thought I’d share some of the ideas set out in the book and my view on them.

Art, he says, should be about significant form – and significant form, it turns out, is mostly found in primitive art. In periods of turmoil, man seems to have a preoccupation with the spiritual whereas periods of comfort dull the minds with materialism. Art is about feeling and good design (colour, forms) and does not need to represent reality as we see it all around us or even be beautiful.

Most of us have been brought up with a certain idea of what art is and what art should look like and it’s immensely hard to shake those thoughts. (I too used to believe art should be beautiful, then I believed it should be meaningful.) Bell goes even further to state that all art should be freed from religious, mythological, literary, scientific and intellectual connections and references. A reference might stir an emotion – which is intellectually and culturally dictated and therefore not genuine. And that’s where I really start to struggle. I, like everyone else, have learned to look at art and think about it in a certain way – and despite my academic years (or maybe due to!) – I fail to envision how an image might look that is completely without reference.

Glancing back mostly to the Victorian period (dull grey and drab, without passion) and the Impressionists out of whom he favors Cézanne, the book is clearly written in the early part of the 20th century.  He is overly avert of salon painters or the royal academy and he despises ‘pretty pictures’ that especially the working classes seem to value.

The question is: can his theories be applied to the early 21st century where every person can express their own creativity is so many different ways? The ‘pretty picture’ which he despises, is everywhere. I’m not even talking about pictures of kittens or puppies per se. Some images are going viral over the world, on Twitter and Facebook and ripped off by a sheer mind-boggling number of blogs. Does the creator of that image consider him/ herself an artist? Or a photographer? Or……? Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing fantastic landscapes or creative model shots – and images of kittens – but is it art? There is some amazing sculptural and digital art out there – but since it is referencing to allegory, stories, politics, literature, science, etc – is it art? Is there a real difference between art and fine art? Does the difference only matter for galleries and dollar signs? I recon the line can be drawn but it will be a fine one centering around hefty discussions filled with personal tastes.

It almost seems to me that galleries and museums have not even changed that much over the years, still showing the classic masters whenever they can, making space for but a few newcomers. And who are the newcomers? Bell speaks of plush positions being opened up by the government – artists that would be hired by the government to create art for the nation. Does it still work this way? Does not every person want a plush, well-payed position, even though it means having to create art? The ones with the biggest mouths and the best art-babble-BS will be the first in. How many of these hired artists would be ‘true’ artists, who would pursue the arts even if it meant living like a beggar?

So even though this book is a very interesting read, I find it hard to agree with mr. Bell on all aspects of this theory. From an aesthetic and theoretical point of view he may well be correct, but I find it a tad short-sighted as it very nearly dismisses all modern artworks. The theory is mainly revolved around paintings and antique forms of art such as pottery and tapestry and I found it a great short-coming that photography (even though it was not considered a ‘proper’ form of art yet around this time) is not mentioned in any significant way.

Should you be interested in reading this book for yourself, you can buy it on Amazon as they’re still re-printing it:





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