Marxism and Modern Art: An approach to social realism by F. D. Klingender 1943

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 CÚzanne – 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.

In 1909 Fry still seems to have felt this, for he was prepared to accept the idealist point of view that life, far from being the touchstone of aesthetic value, should, on the contrary, itself be judged by the standards of art:

‘It might even be’, he wrote, ‘that from this point of view we should rather justify actual life by its relation to the imaginative, justify nature by its likeness to art. I mean this, that since the imaginative life comes in the course of time to represent more or less what mankind feels to be the completest expression of its own nature, the freest use of its innate capacities, the actual life may be explained and justified by its approximation here and there, however partially and inadequately, to that freer and fuller life.’ [6]

It is interesting to note that Fry was by no means critical of the moral standards of his own age, when he wrote this passage. He even compared them favourably with those of the thirteenth century, although he regarded the latter period as more artistic. But he was rudely shaken out of his complacency in social matters by the events of 1914-18. To Fry, as to most other intellectuals of his generation, the first world war came as a shattering bolt from the blue. Unable to comprehend the causes of the collapse, he was glad to escape into what now appeared to him as a ‘revolutionary advance’ in art – i.e. the tame still-lives and the harmless holiday scenes of the post-impressionists (not, it is significant to note, what was really new in English art, the war paintings of 1914-18). In order to fortify his own retreat he was now anxious to minimise what connection he had hitherto still assumed to exist between art and life. ‘The usual assumption of a direct and decisive connection between life and art is by no means correct’, he told the Fabian Society in 1917, ‘if we consider this special spiritual activity of art we find it no doubt open at times to influences from life, but in the main self-contained – we find the rhythmic sequences of change determined more by its own internal forces – and by the readjustment within it of its own elements – than by external forces. I admit, of course, that it is always conditioned more or less by economic changes, but these are rather conditions of its existence at all than directive influences. I also admit that under certain conditions the rhythms of life and of art may coincide with great effect on both; but in the main the two rhythms are distinct, and as often as not play against each other. [7]

Lest any Fabian should be crude enough to suspect that the lecturer was referring to ordinary human beings, when he spoke of ‘life’, he hastened to explain:

‘And here let me try to say what I mean by life as contrasted with art. I mean the general intellectual and instinctive reaction to their surroundings of those men of any period whose lives rise to complete self-consciousness, their view of the universe as a whole and their conception of their relations to their kind.’ [8]

From this there was but a small step to the position Fry maintained in his post-war essays and letters, where he defines art as a ‘spiritual exercise’, as remote from actual life as ‘the most useless mathematical theory’, but of ‘infinite importance’ to those who experience it. Those capable of doing so are, he admits, but few: ‘in proportion as art becomes purer, the number of people to whom it appeals gets less’, [9] he had already told the Fabians in 1917.

In 1920 he added: ‘true art is becoming more and more esoteric and hidden, like an heretical sect – or rather like science in the middle ages’. [10] About the same time he also confessed: ‘what a rarity the individual is... more and more I understand nothing of humanity in the mass and au fond I only believe in the value of some individuals... I know that I have no right to detach myself so completely from the fate of my kind, but I have never been able to believe in political values.’ [11] In the light of this confession it is not difficult to understand the curious phrase which Fry used in a letter to D. S. MacColl (1912) to define his own aim as a practising artist: ‘I’ve always been searching for a style to express my petite sensation in.’ [12] Estranged from life and indifferent to the fate of mankind, art, as here defined, has no other function but to cultivate the sensibility of the few elect.