Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Significant Form"

WHAT DISTINGUISHES a work of art from a "mere" artifact? (…) To reply, "Its beauty," is simply to beg the question, since artistic value is beauty in the broadest sense. (…) In the words of a well-known critic, Mr. Clive Bell, " 'Significant Form' is the one quality common to all works of visual art." Professor L. A. Reid, a philosopher well versed in the problems of aesthetics, extends the scope of this characteristic to all art whatsoever. For him, "Beauty is just expressiveness," and "the true aesthetic form ... is expressive form." Another art critic, Mr. Roger Fry, accepts the term "Significant Form," though he frankly cannot define its meaning. From the contemplation of (say) a beautiful pot, and as an effect of its harmony of line and texture and color, "there comes to us," he says, "a feeling of purpose; we feel that all these sensually logical conformities are the outcome of a particular feeling, or of what, for want of a better word, we call an idea; and we may even say that the pot is the expression of an idea in the artist's mind." After many efforts to define the notion of artistic expressiveness, he concludes: "I seem to be unable at present to get beyond this vague adumbration of significant form. Flaubert's 'expression of the idea' seems to me to correspond exactly to what I mean, but alas! he never explained, and probably could not, what he meant by the 'idea.' "

There is a strong tendency today to treat art as a significant phenomenon rather than as a pleasurable experience, a gratification of the senses. This is probably due to the free use of dissonance and so-called "ugliness" by our leading artists in all fields - in literature, music, and the plastic arts. It may also be due in some measure to the striking indifference of the uneducated masses to artistic values. In past ages these masses had no access to great works of art; music and painting and even books were the pleasures of the wealthy; it could be assumed that the poor and vulgar would enjoy art if they could have it. But now, since everybody can read, visit museums, and hear great music at least over the radio, the judgment of the masses on these things has become a reality, and has made it quite obvious that great art is not a direct sensuous pleasure. If it were, it would appeal - like cake or cocktails - to the untutored as well as to the cultured taste. This fact, together with the intrinsic "unpleasantness" of much contemporary art, would naturally weaken any theory that treated art as pure pleasure. Add to this the current logical and psychological interest in symbolism, in expressive media and the articulation of ideas, and we need not look far ahead for a new philosophy of art, based upon the concept of "significant form."

Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, A Mentor
Book, Published by the New American Library, New York
and Toronto, 1942, 1951


"The Engineer' s Æsthetic and architecture-two things that march together and follow one from the other-the one at its full height, the other in an unhappy state of retrogression.
The Engineer, inspired by the law of Economy and governed by mathematical calculation, puts us in accord with the universal law. He achieves harmony.
The architect, by his arrangement of forms, realises an order which is a pure creation of his spirit ; by forms and shapes he affects our senses to an accute degree, and provokes plastic emotions ; by the relationships which he creates he wakes in us profound echoes, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding ; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty."

Le Corbusier

(sent to me by Stéphane, my preferred architect...)

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