Art and Form
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
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
Summary of Clive
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.
THERE DOES NOT SEEM TO BE ANY NOTION OF
"FORM" ACCORDING TO WHICH FORM IS THE COMMON DENOMINATOR OF
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
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
II ~ WHAT IS ARTISTIC FORM?
the neoformalist, FORM is the WAY that meaning is embodied. However,
since Carroll rejects that theory he needs to offer a better analysis of
thread" in all cases seems to be PARTS and their RELATIONS.
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
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
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.
is recommending a FUNCTIONALIST account of artistic form.
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."
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.
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?