Initial thoughts on the ‘aesthetic hypothesis’

I’m a relativist when it comes to the arts. I’ll argue artistic merits based on my personal preferences, and I think it’s reasonable to logically analyse people’s likes and dislikes, but at base it’s all subjective. I’ve had heated disagreements with friends on this topic, but in my opinion all counterpoints eventually boil down to arguments from authority. These supposed authorities are regular targets of my ire, mainly those who set themselves up as ‘official’ critics, as I think they demean people for no good reason. However, my arty degree means I’ve been reading plenty of critical analyses over the last few months, and it’s interesting to get into the details of how these people approach their subject. I think there’s a lot of snobbery and building upon dodgy foundations, but occasionally somebody tries to justify the entire endeavour.

I’ve recently read a few essays by art critic Clive Bell, and found his writing refreshingly clear and direct. He meets the issue of subjectivity and the nature of ‘art’ head-on with his ‘aesthetic hypothesis’ – essentially an attempt to quantify artistic appreciation. Here’s the rough idea as I understand it: he posits an ‘aesthetic’ emotion. This emotion is felt by capable people1 when looking at ‘good’ art, and is distinct from intellectual appreciation. Clive Bell doesn’t claim this emotion is the same in everybody, but thinks it’s invoked by a particular concept: significant form; this is essentially the arrangement of shapes on a surface. He uses this as a basis for differentiating between standards of art, as well as art and non-art.

I haven’t read around this topic yet, but I’m not immediately convinced.

  1. I don’t think it’s scientifically plausible. What use is an aesthetic emotion? Obviously there are evolutionary by-products – we didn’t need to play the piano on the savannah – but emotions have well-understood, evolutionarily-necessary purposes. An aesthetic emotion would seem to have a different nature than love, fear etc.. Sure, the brain has plenty of matter devoted to processing shapes and lines – face-recognition is a massive brain module – but this is universal, and it’s dubious that only some people would have this ‘leak over’ into some kind of aesthetic response.
  2. I think modern psychology would have plenty of explanations for Mr Bell’s emotions in front of a work of art. Analysing your own emotions is ridiculously difficult as we’re all subject to massive psychological pressures. The power of suggestion, for example. Ever tried to make yourself feel something you don’t? Weird things happen. I’m obviously not denying that people find particular arrangements of shapes pleasing, but to elevate this above an individual’s neural network of associations seems dubious. I’m not sure how ‘significant form’ relates to non-visual arts, either.
  3. It’s a conveniently untestable hypothesis, and reminds me of the religious tactic of ‘I just feel God’s presence’, as if this is meant to be convincing.
  4. It’s a bit magical. You can link it to science, or you can link it to some Artistic Otherworld where objective standards exist. Bit spiritual for me.
  5. Even if you grant the premise, the supposed artistic merits are a non sequitur. That some people feel an emotion when looking at certain things means nothing at all. Why should it? It’s a naturalistic fallacy, as if ‘the emotions’ override the intellect, or indeed anything else. The person who feels nothing while looking at Cézanne is no less qualified to judge ‘quality’2 than the aesthetically capable critic.

All of which could have been addressed and/or straw men – as I said, I’m just starting with this topic. I wanted to get my thoughts in order, though. I very much appreciate that this guy writes so clearly – I might disagree, but at least there’s a Clive Bell-shaped hole in the wall.

  1. if you don’t feel it there’s nothing you can do – you’re just a philistine []
  2. which I don’t think is possible outside of arbitrary frameworks []