Roger Fry’s Formalism

Of all the critics who have helped to mould our present standards of appreciation none can equal the influence of Roger Fry, the founder of British post-impressionism. What did he teach concerning the nature of art and its relation to life?

The first systematic account of Fry’s attitude to these questions is the important ‘Essay in Aesthetics’ of 1909. He himself later summarized its main conclusions as follows:

‘I conceived the form of a work of art to be its most essential quality, but I believed this form to be the direct outcome of an apprehension of some emotion of actual life by the artist, although, no doubt, that apprehension was of a special and peculiar kind and implied a certain detachment. I also conceived that the spectator in contemplating the form must inevitably travel in the opposite direction along the same road which the artist had taken, and himself feel the original emotion. I conceived the form and the emotion which it conveyed as being inextricably bound together in the aesthetic whole.’ [1]
Although by 1909 Fry had already abandoned the ‘idea of likeness to Nature, of correctness or incorrectness as a test’ – he had just discovered Cézanne – he was, as he himself says, ‘still obsessed by ideas about the content of a work of art’, for he still felt that the ‘aesthetic whole’ somehow reflected ‘the emotions of life’. To rid himself of that ‘obsession’ was the main preoccupation of his later thought.
‘I want to find out what the function of content is,’ he wrote in 1913 to G. L. Dickinson, ‘and am developing a theory... that it is merely directive of form and that all the essential aesthetic quality has to do with pure form. It’s horribly difficult to analyse out of all the complex feelings just this one peculiar feeling, but I think that in proportion as poetry becomes more intense the content is entirely remade by the form and has no separate value at all. You see the sense of poetry is analogous to the things represented in painting. I admit that there is also a queer hybrid art of sense and illustration, but it can only arouse particular and definitely conditioned emotions, whereas the emotions of music and pure painting and poetry when it approaches purity are really free abstract and universal.’ [2]
Consequently, when Fry restated his theory in 1920 (essay ‘Retrospect’ in Vision and Design), he discarded the emotions of life and confined aesthetic feeling to what Clive Bell had meanwhile called ‘significant form’. His final views are expressed in a letter which he wrote in 1924 to the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges:
‘I very early became convinced that our emotions before works of art were of many kinds and that we failed as a rule to distinguish the nature of the mixture and I set to work by introspection to discover what the different elements of these compound emotions might be and to try to get at the most constant, unchanging, and therefore I suppose fundamental emotion. I found that this “constant” had to do always with the contemplation of form... It also seemed to me that the emotions resulting from the contemplation of form were more universal (less particularized and coloured by the individual history), more profound and more significant spiritually than any of the emotions which had to do with life... I therefore assume that the contemplation of form is a peculiarly important spiritual exercise...’ [3]
This passage is particularly revealing, first, because it emphasizes the goal to which Fry’s aesthetic development was inevitably leading him – he himself admitted that any attempt he might make to explain ‘significant’ form would land him ‘in the depths of mysticism’ – and secondly because it illustrates his peculiar method of analysis. Conscious that works of art inspire different kinds of emotion, he attempts, by introspection, to isolate one specific emotion which is common to all these various compounds, on the assumption that this ‘constant’ factor would reveal the ‘substance’, the irreducible atom, so to speak, of aesthetic experience. In adopting this method of analysis Fry necessarily assumes that a given factor will have aesthetic significance in proportion as it is generalized, lacking in individuality, and constant. It will be necessary at a later stage to enquire whether this assumption is valid in so individual, so richly varied and so constantly changing a sphere as art. For the moment let us note that it entails a great impoverishment: by restricting aesthetic feeling to ‘pure’ form, i.e. to form divorced and abstracted from that which it forms, Fry excluded everything which art was ever intended to convey to mankind. The same applies to the theories put forward by Fry’s successors: those who regard art as an emanation of the ‘sub-conscious’ exclude the whole vast realm of human consciousness; while the advocates of a biological ‘sense of form’ reduce art to the level of a pre-human, because pre-social, reflex.

These theories are not, however, the products of perverse reasoning – they merely reflect what has actually been happening in English art since about 1910. To quote Fry’s own account, the discussion stimulated by the appearance of ‘post-impressionism’ revealed ‘that some artists who were peculiarly sensitive to the formal relations of works of art... had almost no sense of the emotions’ of life which he had supposed them to convey. Hence his attempt, after say 1912, to disentangle the ‘purely aesthetic’ elements from their accompanying ‘accessories’ was in fact an attempt to explain the indifference of certain artists to the problems of life and the growing isolation of art from all other spheres of existence.

Though greatly accentuated since the beginning of the twentieth century, this isolation of the artists was not new, and in Fry’s case, too, the tendency of divorcing art from life was already implicit in his theory of 1909. It is one of the main points of the Essay in Aesthetics that art has nothing whatever to do with morals. Fry admits that art is communication, i.e. essentially social. Nevertheless, he bases his analysis exclusively on what he takes to be the psychology of the individual, or rather of ‘man’ in the abstract. Whereas in ordinary life perception is followed by responsive action – the sight of a bull rushing towards us makes us turn to instant flight – Fry claims that artistic perception is of the kind we experience when we see the bull, not in the flesh, but on the screen of a cinema: we enjoy the emotion of fear because we need not act upon it. Action implies moral responsibility. Artistic contemplation, being removed from action, is thereby released from all moral ties. To quote his own words:
‘Art, then, is an expression and a stimulus of the imaginative life, which is separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action. Now this responsive action implies in actual life moral responsibility. In art we have no such moral responsibility – it presents a life freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence ... Morality appreciates emotion by the standard of resultant action, art appreciates emotion in and for itself.’ [4]
Though brilliant and plausible, this argument will not bear examination. In the first place, moral responsibility only begins where the type of action Fry calls instinctive – i.e. the reflex behaviour inherited from the pre-human stage of our evolution – ends. Indeed, moral behaviour not infrequently implies the suppression of inherited responses: to act morally, when faced by a bull, I must curb my impulse of self-preservation sufficiently to help my less agile companion. In other words, the interval of reflection which Fry claims as the distinguishing feature of artistic perception, is just as essential in any behaviour that can be subjected to a moral test. [5] It is essential also in scientific perception. But who would claim that science does not lead to responsive action or that it is ‘freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence’?

Secondly, moreover, it is untrue that artistic perception itself is never followed by responsive action. If this were true, there could be no art: what else is the work of art but the creative reproduction of the artist’s perception? And in so far as he communicates the image of his perception to his fellow men, the artist is morally responsible for it. This does not mean that a work of art can always be justly valued in terms of the moral standards ruling at the time – on the contrary, one need only think of Goya’s Caprichos or of a book like The Grapes of Wrath to realize how often art has been an indictment of those standards. But it does mean that society cannot be indifferent whether a given work of art inspires by its profound insight, whether it stirs to action, whether it soothes and refreshes, or whether, on the other hand, it opiates and disrupts. And it also means that the aesthetic value of a work of art must in some way be related to the effect it produces, not merely in its own time, but as long as it survives.

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