Here is my paper that I just wrote for my philosophy of aesthetics class. It’s basically trying to prove/disprove certain points regarding Clive Bell’s Theory of Significant Form, using Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. So without further adieu…

~The Significant form of The Passion of Joan of Arc~

For the purpose of this paper I will describe the ways in which Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) relates to Clive Bell’s theories of significant form as outlined in his piece “Art as Significant Form: From Art” (Dickie 73-83). Through this paper I will outline Bell’s theories, the work, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the ways in which Dreyer’s film works within Bell’s theory as well as putting forth ways in which the film defies Bell’s exclusionary theory. Through this paper I will attempt to ratify Bell’s theory on significant form, while presenting evidence to the fact that significant form is, in direct opposition to Bell’s piece, not the only important aspect of aesthetic philosophy.
In his piece Clive Bell begins by stating that “The starting-point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a peculiar emotion.” (Dickie 74) This statement leads quickly to his decision that there is one “quality without which a work of art cannot exist” (Dickie 74), significant form. He furthers this theory by defining significant form as “lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions.” (Dickie 74-75) Through the rest of the writing it becomes clear that Bell’s idea of significant form is an almost intangible feature within a work, which few are apt to search for and find, yet it also becomes clear that when speaking of significant form he is referring to a specific use of line, space, and the careful ways in which these are utilized within a work to extricate a certain emotion within the viewer. While Bell mentions that in his opinion the greatest form of art is primitive art that lacks all representation, he also states that while representation is in general in defiance of significant form there are times in which representation doesn’t detract from significant form. As discussed in Class in regards to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) there are some examples of art where subjects represented become secondary to the significant form within the work. In hopper’s work, which directly represents a view into a late night dinner and the “melancholy” patrons, there is however a certain attention paid to significant form, the angles which Hopper utilizes as well as the expression of color create a certain undeniable aesthetic emotion within the viewer regardless of what is represented.
At this point I will introduce Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Carl Theodor Dreyer was a Dutch auteur who began making film in the silent era. Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc is a silent film, shot in black and white, which attempts to present the viewer with an account of the trial, conviction, and execution of one of the most intriguing “martyrs” of recent history, Joan of Arc. The film begins at onset of the trial, the viewer is then carried through the proceedings (of the trial), the different hardships that Joan is exposed to in order to test her, and finally her conviction and end. Dreyer’s film presents the viewer with a very passionate story, however he presents said story in a very sparse way. The film is comprised of mainly extreme close up shots, and settings with very little extravagance. Through the film the slightest difference in setting is extremely important and any variance from the extremely blank background proves to be extremely important to the plot. The film is also filled with intriguing symbolism, such as the use of shadows of imprisoning bars on the floor that seemingly form a cross.
The symbolism, however, is inconsequential for my purpose of relating this filmic work of art to Bell’s theory. The direct way in which this work plays into Bell’s theory is the way in which Dreyer utilizes human form in a seemingly abstract way, to convey a certain aesthetic emotion within the viewer. By showing the specific forms (in this case characters) the way that he does, Dreyer, whether intended or not gives very little value to the actual being and more importance to the way in which they are presented.

The image above is simply one example of the way in which Dreyer aesthetically frames each scene of this film. By presenting the viewer two seemingly disinterested, or distracted subjects, in the foreground of a seemingly white space, he places more importance upon the form, which the two characters take. In the above picture, regardless of the context of the scene or even what the two objects within the frame represent the viewer is presented with a use of space, line and slightly skewed angle which conveys a certain un-nerving aesthetic emotion.
Dreyer’s use of the human face is ever more interesting throughout the film. Dreyer’s characters are presented for the most part, sans make up or special effect (which is also irrelevant in regards to my argument), and in increasingly interesting composition. The composition of the shots is what I would like to focus on in relation to Bell’s significant form, this becomes ever more apparent in such shots as the one below, which begins to show (while presenting the viewer with the emotion within the actresses face) Dreyer’s disregard for the actuality of the object, which nearly fills the entire frame in a way in which every shadow and every angle becomes increasingly more important.

While one can look at this image and see a teary eyed woman, which in itself may bring forth certain emotion, it is when one abstracts the object of the composition that a certain attention to form becomes apparent. The focus and depth of the image as well as the stark contract of the lines breaths a certain indescribable aesthetically charged emotion to this frame (which is a mere still frame).
This effect is even further illustrated by the fact that throughout the film the subject of the frame is often presented in such a way that virtually nothing but the use of line, space and angle is important. This is illustrated well in frames, which are periodic throughout the work, where the subject of the frame for the most part off screen, which serves to further abstract the fact that the subject is a human being.

This is perfectly exemplified by the above still. In this still, which serves as an example, neither the face, nor the hands, nor the action presented is what the scene truly exemplifies; the frame perfectly exemplifies the ideals of significant form. Neither of the two ‘characters’ involved in this scene is shown in full they are both cut off in some way or another, which places the focus less on the actual object, and more focus on the form of the objects. Through the use of shadow as well as the angles at which the lines (which make up the characters) are presented once again provides a certain aesthetic emotion within the viewer. What’s truly important in this still as well as throughout the film is line, shadow (i.e. color) and the angles at which these are presented.
While looking at stills helps to express my point, there is also a certain significant form with which the objects move and are filmed. Throughout the film the viewer is presented with frames composed very similarly to the stills, which I have presented as reference. A fair amount of the film is presented in extreme close up shots, which often serve to abstract the actual character and exemplify a certain aesthetic emotion. When viewed as it was intended as a film, rather than looking at it in stills, the ways in which the scenes change and the ways in which the characters move also convey a certain significant form. By this I mean that the way in which the film is cut is extremely abstract, cutting from close up to close up (often abruptly), with very little for the viewer to pay attention to other than the object which the composition focuses upon. However, the way in which the objects are presented immediately abstracts them, and from that moment having the characters move in a rather deliberate way, and then having the rapidity of the sequence cutting follow the emotional tempo of the particular scene adds to the relation of significant form (linked to the way in which the series of images is presented/portrayed).
Nonetheless, when I started to write this paper on the significant form of a work which has give me, personally, an extreme aesthetic emotion, two problems within Bell’s statements came to mind. Firstly, was the problem of conveyance, this is a problem which Bell seems to fully understand. In his writing he states that aesthetic judgment of a certain work of “art” is completely subjective. As stated earlier, such judgments are based upon personal experience, while this piece may move me toward a particular aesthetic emotion, it may mot effect another viewer in the same way. This point also broaches another roadblock involved in trying to convey a personal reaction regarding the significant form and aesthetic emotion involved in a certain work, and that is the fact that without actually experiencing the work yourself, the statements that I present you with are of very little consequence since you may or may not have actually experienced the work for yourself.
The second and more intriguing problem which The Passion of Joan of Arc perfectly illustrates is the fact that, while significant form is an extremely interesting and important aspect to a work of art there are many other different aspects of the work, which when coalesced give a work of art its power. Bell specifically states, that “In pure aesthetics we have only to consider our emotion and its object.” (Dickie 75) With this statement as well as a fair amount of Bell’s argument he intends for the art critic to separate meaning and representation from the work and focus purely on the significant form and the consequential aesthetic emotion. This is however flawed, when thinking of a work of art such as Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc there are so many things to take into account, for example the morality of the work. In Bell’s opinion art is above morality, however with regard to many artwork, I tend to lean toward the idea that Dickie presented in his article “The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude” that “a work’s moral vision is a part of the work.” (Dickie 353) The Passion of Joan of Arc is a fine example of this, since it is brilliantly aesthetic artwork within which there are multiple levels of moral commentary. The film is in fact recounting the moral persecution of one of the most fascinating martyrs of modern history, so not only is it remarkable to investigate the morality behind the trial itself, but what the film says about the time in which it was made (what environment called for this dramatic aesthetic interpretation of a moral persecution?).
So, in conclusion, when Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film is examined within the context of Bell’s ideals of significant form it proves that significant form is indeed an aspect of a piece which can have a definite impact on the effectiveness of the work. Through the significant form presented in this work, the viewer is struck with a certain peculiar aesthetic emotion regardless of the representational aspects of the piece. However, Bell’s conclusion that significant form should be the only aspect of a work of art which is critiqued in relation to aesthetics is however presumptuous and proven, through this and many other works, to be a fallacy.

A rather pixilated version of the film can be watched with French intertitles on youtube at the following link: