New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism

A Study in Semantics and Evaluation

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standard is determined not by the subject matter of the work of art, but primarily by the content; thus a dull, insipid portrait of a great man would be less significant artistically than an inspired interpretation of a nonentity: paintings of known aristocrats by Sargent are inferior in artistic significance to unknown beggars by Velasquez, (ii) The standard is not to be wholly associated with content, since significance of form,149 though a difficult concept to elucidate, is a noteworthy artistic idea: thus the formal or plastic form of Seurat or Cezanne their compositions, their use of colors, space, masses, texture, linear rhythms, and so forthseems richer, higher, or greater than that of Signac or Gauguin, (iii) The standard of significance should not be confused with that of "perfection," which usually refers to the degree of success with which the artist has achieved his several aims: accordingly the fourteenth century Virgin in the south aisle of Notre Dame is no less perfect, though she is less significant, than the Magdalen from the 1 'Entombment" at Solemes. (iv) Interpretations of the standard will inevitably vary since they depend partly upon the total outlook of the individual critic; that is to say, even if the standard is accepted as an artistically legitimate one, qualities in a work of art will vary in their degree of "significance," "greatness," or "profundity" according to differing philosophical and psychological attitudes: thus, to cite an exceptional view of artistic significance, an art historian friend who subscribes to this criterion claims that all landscape painting, by comparison with figure painting, is artistically uninteresting and unimportant. Relativity in the conception of artistic significance, however, seems an inadequate reason for maintaining that the standard is a useless or misleading one.
We may now specifically point to this quality of significance
149. Since I am uncertain about the exact meaning which Bell, Fry, Langer and others attach to the popular epithet "significant form," I do not know whether or not it is identical with the idea mentioned at this point in the text.