In 1913 Clive Bell published a little treatise called ‘Art’ in which he argued that all works of art must have a common denominator – what he goes on to define as ‘significant form’. This idea has meant a lot to me, in the main because it offers a way of looking at art that sees form and its relationships as a kind of ‘language’ that we offer, as artists to the world. As a result of this there is a kind of ‘logic’ to the art work (the logic that any language must have) that should be intelligible and open to understanding and even analysis, by all.
For me, however, significant form had a universal dimension that Clive Bell did not seem to recognise. He argued that significant form only existed in an art context, and that it did not apply to Nature (to say, beautiful butterfly wings, or to any other aesthetically pleasing set of forms thrown up by Nature). He also seemed to dislike the idea that the significant forms could be analysed (proposing that this was outside aesthetics and therefore not the concern of the artist). My own position has been that the term ‘significant form’ is still meaningful and important for us today because all form that we ‘appreciate’, for whatever reason, has a foundation that is both psychological and evolutionary. For instance: the human form in nature and art. In nature we all ‘appreciate’ the human form. Our evolution seems to dictate this, as part of desire and procreation. So, when we propose that the human form is beautiful, and use it in our art objects, we are finding the form (and the complex of forms that make up the human body) ‘significant’ because there are profound evolutionary, and hence psychological, reasons for doing so. My proposal would be that our psyches are made up of our evolutionary development and function to that end. So, when I work in the abstract I would also propose that the forms I exploit are made meaningful, at least in substantial part, by the inherent demands of my biology.
When I design an abstract piece of work it interests me how I get to some of the forms I then make, and I would propose that, insofar as the forms are meaningful, they are so because of the ‘demands’ of that part of the brain that art ‘digs’ down to. In a short story called ‘A Simple Melody’, Virginia Woolf (a friend of Clive Bell’s) refers to how “all the time ideas were rising from this pool (beneath) and bubbling up into one’s brain”. The melody of the title of the story takes its power from its roots deep inside our beings. This is a kind of ‘depth psychology’ that can help explain the power of art, in all its forms.
Attached: two pieces. Both emerged from doodling and were made to see what might be there.