Art and Form 

This is an outline of Carroll, Philosophy of Art, Chapter 3

My personal comments are in red, like this, and you can see that they have a different style of lettering.. They elaborate on Carroll or react to Carroll


Modern art arose when photography reduced the value of using tradition media to represent things. Representation theory no longer captured what artists were doing.

One solution was formalism, famously defended by Clive Bell. Art is of interest for its significant form (e.g., visual art is an organized visual arrangement/structure). Even when it does represent something, the fact that it represents something is irrelevant to its status as art. 

On this theory, abstract art has no problem in counting as art.

Furthermore, it provides us with a way to recognize the art status of non-Western cultural artifacts. (Clive Bell makes a great deal of this point.)

Form is the "common denominator" among all things classified as art. (We have already seen why representation and expression do not have this status.) 

Problem: almost everything of human origin has formal dimensions (this page, for instance!), but we don't' want every artifact to count as art. And many natural objects have significant form.
Solution: when something is made primarily to display form, it is an artwork.

Summary of Clive Bell's formalism: x is a work of art if and only if x  (1) is an artifact that (2) possesses and exhibits significant form (3) without reference to the object's function (e.g., its function as a representation).

Summary of formalism provided by Carroll: x is a work of art if and only if x is designed primarily in order to possess and to exhibit significant form.

Adding human intention (even by saying that it must be an artifact) is important because it rules out times where we find significant form in nature. But natural examples are not art.

Carroll's summary deviates from Bell's proposal. For example, Bell explicitly says that we do not need to consider the intentions behind the artifact. Bell is a jumping-off point for Carroll. Why does Carroll do this? Carroll's emphasis on intention allows something to be art even if it fails to have significant form -- Carroll doesn't think that failed art should be excluded by the definition.

Objections to formalism 

The HISTORY OF ART problem: Unfortunately, adding intention to the account causes a problem. Very little of PAST art was created PRIMARILY to possess and exhibit significant form. We know that most past art was created primarily to advance a broader social agenda (e.g. cathedrals built to promote Christianity)

REPLY: things can have multiple primary functions, and a representation or expression could be art if ONE of its primary intended functions is formal. OR we could simply drop "primarily" from the definition: x is a work of art if and only if x is designed in order to possess and to exhibit significant form, among its other purposes.

Revised version of formalism provided by Carroll: x is a work of art if and only if one of x's primarily intended functions is to possess and to exhibit significant form.

The DEMON FIGURE problem:
Some cultures create sculpted figures meant to scare away people and/or spirits. That is their ONLY function. They have NO intended purpose of displaying form. Aren't these sculptures works of art?

But to drop the "intention" requirement takes us back to the position that only GOOD form is art, which rules out the possibility of bad art. [But look at Carroll's premise that the demon sculptures ARE works of art. He isn't interested in their form. He's interested in the kind of thing they are -- his actual criterion seems to be that they are objects rendered in a medium that is recognized as an artistic medium.]

The DEFINITION problem: How do we define the "significant" of significant form?

Either we don't define it, and the theory is USELESS, or we define it in terms of the "peculiar state of mind" it creates in observers (but this leads to circularity), or we define it in a way that excludes art with "weak" form.


Furthermore, the "representation is irrelevant" thesis is false. In many cases, you must know what is being represented in order to grasp the form that the artist intends you to notice. Example: Bruegel's Fall of Icarus requires a grasp of the narrative. And what would most literature be reduced to without its representational dimension?


x is a work of art if and only if (1) x has content (2) x has form (3) form & content of x are related to each other in a satisfyingly appropriate manner.

As Carroll observes, A.C. Bradley is a prime example of a neoformalist. But Kant's theory of fine art is another example. For Bradley and Kant, the "satisfyingly appropriate manner" is basically the same: the form must interact with the content in a manner that encourages imaginative association to a degree that prevents adequate paraphrase of the resulting complex meaning.

Here, form is understood as the MODE OF PRESENTATION of some content or meaning. The form is satisfyingly appropriate when it contributes to the content, helping to get the message across. EXPRESSIVE FEATURES can also be regarded as content.

Problem: what if there's no content? Abstract art, some orchestral music, etc.
Solution: in the case of abstract art, artists are exploring human perceptual sensibility, and that is their meaning/content.

RESTATEMENT of problem: But some art is merely absorbing because it is pleasurable. We don't want to say that giving pleasure is its content. [Kant has a response: merely "agreeable" exploitations of form aren't FINE art, which is what we're really trying to define.]

Another problem (bad art revisited): Neoformalism has to put some standard of success in its 3rd condition, but this again tends to exclude bad art from being art.

Another problem: Almost every cultural artifact has a design that would make it count as art for a neo-formalist. But a bottle of mouthwash is not art. [Not a serious problem for the neoformalist. As Carroll observed early in the chapter, one of the inspirations for formalism is the idea that "art" is a broader, more universal category than our recent Western perspective allows. Neo-formalism is generally welcoming of such objects!


For the neoformalist, FORM is the WAY that meaning is embodied. However, since Carroll rejects that theory he needs to offer a better analysis of artistic form.

The "common thread" in all cases seems to be PARTS and their RELATIONS.

But do ALL relations count equally? This (1) generates too many relations if there is no principle of selection and (2) this is not consistent with art criticism, which normally focuses on some relations more than others.

"Form follows function" offered as a better approach -- relevant form is whatever form advanced the AIMS of the artwork. "Form follows function" appears to be a phrase coined by Louis H. Sullivan, the influential architect. [Sullivan was rejecting the principle that form should follow precedent. One of his employees was a young Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan's analysis is, explicitly, a theory of  organic form: "All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other. — Unfailingly in nature these shapes express the inner life, the native quality, of the animal, tree, bird, fish, that they present to us; they are so characteristic, so recognizable, that we say, simply, it is ‘natural’ it should be so." Wright changed Sullivan's idea to "Form is function."

Carroll proposes that FORM is "the ensemble of choices intended to realize the point or purpose of the artwork." A work can have purposes other than presenting content, so this analysis captures whatever neoformalism captures, plus what it does not.

Carroll is recommending a FUNCTIONALIST account of artistic form.

What about works that seem to have no point EXCEPT to display form? In that case, the form consists in the "elements and relations ... designed to arrest us."

To APPRECIATE art is to "size up" art (it doesn't always imply ENJOYING it). In all cases, appreciation has a formal element (an awareness of the choices intended to achieve the work's purpose). We want to notice how the design "work" in the artwork. But design appreciation is not always sufficient for appreciation. We should not ignore content, especially when it has emotional impact.

Lingering question: are there any artworks that lack form? Does Carroll expect us to "appreciate" the demon figure by being frightened by it, and without concern for the design intended to make it frightening? 


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