Friday, March 21, 2014

Significant Form or Imaginary Relevance

John Terwilliger, "Splayed Treetop", Pastel and Charcoal on paper, 22T"x30W", 2014/03/19
I had a second generation abstract expressionist professor in college named Herman Somberg who used to talk passionately about significant form as all you need in a painting.  I took color theory and beginning painting from him before he retired but never got an answer or even a concrete idea about what significant form in a work of art was.  Significant form was an idea used as the basis for the formalist art theory which was put forward in support of the abstract expressionists.  It was first put forward by Clive Bell  who was an art critic writing in support of abstract art and cubism in his book "Art" from 1914.  If interested his book is available for free from project Gutenberg

The theory states simply that the interrelations of components within the artwork are what matters and it is art if they are "significant" in construction, and content, such as the tree in the picture above, are non-relevant overall as to determining is as art.  Art philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, have discounted this theory based on it's inability to count for bad art, as well as art that requires the content to even exist, such as conceptual art, where frequently there is only content, or thought, and no form.

But the art theories before formalism could not account for abstract art and discounted it is non-art.  It is easy to see why Clive Bell felt the need to put forward a new understanding of art if you have ever stood in front of an early cubist work from Braque and Picasso or paintings by Kandinsky.  These works were not really about the subject matter contained in the painting if you could even determine the subject.  So the critics put forward the new theory as to why what they were doing was not only Art but good and great Art.

If I say the above pictured painting I just finished is indeed not just Art, but Fine Art, what is the significant form?  Is it heavy black charcoal lines smeared around the surface with an eraser?  Is it the tree, the sky, the paper itself?  The theory, and all of the writing around it, offers no real answer.  Significant form could be any of what I listed or something else.  I lean to something else, something imaginary, which is why I could never get an answer, as an artist, to what it is.  In his art philosophy introductory book "Philosophy of Art" Noel Carroll lays out the basics of the formalist theory in a straightforward and positive manner and then refutes it with objections.  He proceeds with this format, posit and refute, with all the current/popular philosophical theories of art.

I imagine my artwork is good, therefore it is significant.  If I need significant form or forms I can always go to go to all they have are significant forms of the very real, non-imaginary kinds.

Thanks to Wikipedia for most links contained herein though they did not have a listing for Herman Somberg.  Herman passed away in 1991 with very little internet exposure.

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