Arthur Clive Heward Bell (September 16, 1881 – September 18, 1964) was an English Art critic, associated with the Bloomsbury Group, an English group of artists and scholars (associated with the French Bohemians movement) that existed from around 1905 until approximately the time of World War II. The members frequently gathered to discuss aesthetic and philosophical questions, and believed most importantly in the value of friendship and truth. In practice this meant open and shifting intimate relationships among the members, which included Vanessa Bell, Clive's wife, and her sister, the famous novelist, Virginia Woolf. Others include Duncan Grant, Roger Fry and the Stracey brothers, Lytton and James. The Bloomsbury Group consisted of leading figures in the rise of Modernism in art and culture.
Bell grew up in a wealthy family, and continued in a lavish lifestyle until his death. He is best known for his art criticism, and involvement with the pacifist movements during World War I and World War II. He fathered two children from his wife, Vanessa Bell.
Clive Bell was born on September 16, 1881, in East Shefford, Bedfordshire, England. He grew up in the country, at Cleeve House in Wiltshire, with his family, as the third of four children. His family was wealthy, as his father had found fortune in his coal-mining business. During his childhood, Bell was educated first at Marlborough, in England, and later attended Trinity College at Cambridge.
In 1907, he returned home to London, where he met Vanessa Stephen, the sister of Virginia Woolf. He became fast friends with the Stephen family, forming a life-long bond with them, and their other friends, who would later go on to form the Bloomsbury group. After a short romance and engagement, Bell married Vanessa, in 1907. The couple had two sons, Julian (1908-1937) and Quentin (1910-1996), who both became writers. Much to his parents' chagrin, who were both adamant pacifists, Julian fought in the Spanish Civil War, which resulted in his death in 1937.
By World War I, the Bells' marriage was over. Vanessa had begun a lifelong relationship with Duncan Grant, with whom she resided in Charlestown, and Clive had a number of liaisons with other women, such as Mary Hutchinson. However, Clive and Vanessa never officially separated or divorced. Not only did they keep visiting each other regularly, they also sometimes spent holidays together and paid "family" visits to Clive's parents. Clive lived in London but often spent long stretches of time at the idyllic farmhouse of Charleston, where Vanessa lived with Duncan Grant. During this time, Vanessa allowed Bell to bring his mistresses into the house as well, as the couple had come to an open arrangement in their marriage.
On Christmas day in 1918, Vanessa gave birth to Angelica Garnett, who was the biological daughter of Duncan Grant but was raised with Clive's surname, Bell, and under the pretense of being Bell's child. Although Clive fully supported her wish to have a child by Duncan and allowed this daughter to bear his last name, Angelica was embittered with this lie, as she had always been taught to truth and love reigned free in their household. She was informed, by her mother Vanessa, just prior to her own marriage and shortly after her brother Julian's death, that in fact Duncan Grant was her biological father. This deception forms the central message of her memoir, Deceived with Kindness, in which, she states of the man she believed to be her father, Clive Bell:
"There were in Clive two men, and both were at least a century out of date: one was the man about town, the dilettante, and the writer; the other, the squire, the countryman, and the sportsman. In the latter role he was, I think, more genuinely at ease, since his knowledge, skill and love of country life dated from childhood. In neither character did he quite fit into the world as it was, and one of the things that one loved him for was his refusal to recognize this, his ability to transform his surroundings either into the haunt of a sybarite or into the property of a landed gentleman."
In his later years, Bell continued to write art criticism and lecture on the importance of art. Along with fellow Bloomsbury Group members, he led pacifist campaigns against wars and injustice towards people. He traveled extensively, spending time in Japan studying shakuhachi, a Japanese form of art, for two years, under legendary Kohachiro Miyata. He incorporated these experiences into many of his own works as well. He remained popular, and was well-known in England throughout his life time. Clive Bell died on September 17, 1964 in his London home.
Particularly evident in his work Art, Bell was a key proponent of the claim that the value of art lies in its ability to produce a distinctive aesthetic experience in the viewer. He claimed that representation and emotion in themselves do not contribute to the aesthetic experience of a painting. Bell called this experience "aesthetic emotion." He defined it as that experience which is aroused by significant form. He defines Significant Form for painting as "relations and combinations of lines and colors" and considered it to be common to all works of visual art. His theory relies on treating "aesthetic experience" as an emotion distinct from other emotions, and one that is triggered by significant form—the common quality of any work of art. He went on to use significant form as a definition of all art in his later works and criticisms. Bell argued that the reason we experience aesthetic emotion in response to the significant form of a work of art was that we perceive that form as an expression of an experience the artist has. The artist's experience in turn, he suggested, was the experience of seeing ordinary objects in the world as pure form: the experience one has when one sees something not as a means to something else, but as an end in itself.
Bell was one of the most prominent proponents of formalism in aesthetics. In general formalism (which can be traced back at least to Immanuel Kant) is the view that it is an object's formal properties which make it a work of art, or which defines aesthetic experiences. Bell proposed a very strong version of formalism: he claimed that nothing else about an object is in any way relevant to assessing whether it is a work of art, or aesthetically valuable. What a painting represents, for example, is completely irrelevant to evaluating it aesthetically. Consequently, he believed that knowledge of the historical context of a painting, or the intention of the painter is unnecessary for the appreciation of visual art. He wrote: "to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions."
Formalist theories differ according to how the notion of 'form' is understood. For Kant, it meant roughly the shape of an object—color was not an element in the form of an object. For Bell, by contrast, "the distinction between form and color is an unreal one; you cannot conceive of a colorless space; neither can you conceive a formless relation of colors." Bell famously coined the term 'significant form' to describe the distinctive type of "combination of lines and colors" which makes an object a work of art.
Bell believed that ultimately the value of anything whatever lies only in its being a means to "good states of mind" (Bell 83). Since he also believed that "there is no state of mind more excellent or more intense than the state of aesthetic contemplation" he believed that works of visual art were among the most valuable things there could be. Like many in the Bloomsbury group, Bell was heavily influenced in his account of value by the philosopher G.E. Moore.
Clive Bell was an early champion of modern art and an important art critic as a result of his objective style. Through his knowledge of various art forms, he was able to criticize a broad range of artists, and wrote numerous books and articles on such. His most popular book, Art, still remains popular and taught throughout the art world today. His pioneering in style and thought about the meaning of art and its effects on others has ensured him a place in art history that will continue, not only in England, where he was most influential, but around the world for many years to come.
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