Formalism (art)  

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In art theory formalism is the concept that a work's artistic value is entirely determined by its form--the way it is made, its purely visual aspects and its medium. Formalism emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape and texture rather than realism, context, and content. In visual art, formalism is the concept that everything necessary in a work of art is contained within it. The context for the work, including the reason for its creation, the historical background, and the life of the artist, is considered to be of secondary importance. Formalism dominated modern art from the late 1800s through the 1960s.


History of formalism

The concept of formalism can be traced as far back as Plato, who argued that 'eidos' (or shape) of a thing included our perceptions of the thing, as well as those sensory aspects of a thing which the human mind can take in. Plato argued that eidos included elements of representation and imitation, since the thing itself could not be replicated. Subsequently, Plato believed that eidos inherently was deceptive.

In 1890, the Post-impressionist painter Maurice Denis wrote in his article 'Definition of Neo-Traditionism' that a painting was 'essentially a flat surface covered in colours arranged in a certain order.' Denis argued that the painting or sculpture or drawing itself, not the subject of the artistic work, gave pleasure to the mind.

Denis' emphasis on the form of a work led the Bloomsbury writer Clive Bell to write in his 1914 book, Art, that there was a distinction between a thing's actual form and its 'significant form.' For Bell, recognition of a work of art as representational of a thing was less important than capturing the 'significant form', or true inner nature, of a thing. Bell's work harkened back to the Aristotelian concept of general forms and 'species.' For Aristotle, that an animal was a dog was not important; that a dog was a Dalmatian or an Irish wolfhound was. Echoing this line of thought, Bell pushed for an art that used the techniques of an artistic medium to capture the essence of a thing (its 'significant form') rather than its mere outward appearance.

Throughout the rest of the early part of the 20th Century, European structuralists continued to argue that 'real' art was expressive only of a thing's ontological, metaphysical or essential nature. But European art critics soon began using the word 'structure' to indicate a new concept of art. By the 1930s and 1940s, structuralists reasoned that the mental processes and social preconceptions an individual brings to art are more important that the essential, or 'ideal', nature of the thing. Knowledge is created only through socialization and thought, they said, and a thing can only be known as it is filtered through these mental processes. Soon, the word 'form' was used interchangeably with the word 'structure'.

In 1940, the American art critic Clement Greenberg, in an influential piece in Partisan Review, argued that the value of art was located in its form. The representational aspects of a work of art are less important than those aspects which embody a thing's 'internal identity'. This led Greenberg to the conclusion that abstraction was the purest art of all.

Greenberg also perceived that impressionism had blurred the boundaries between various art forms. This led to a 'confusion of the arts', he wrote, and a lack of purity in artistic endeavor. Defining a work of art by its 'art form', or medium, limits a work's artistic possibilities to the nature of that medium. Yet, this also allows the work of art to stand alone on its own merits.

Formalism today

The concept of formalism in art continued to evolve through the 20th century. Some art critics argue for a return to the Platonic definition for form as a collection of elements which falsely represent the thing itself and which are mediated by art and mental processes. A second view argues that representational elements must be somewhat intelligible, but must still aim to capture the thing's 'form'. A third view argues for a dialectic between the internal and external form a thing, and places the value of art in how the artistic medium best captures the inner form.

Formalism gave rise to a variety of art movements. Abstract expressionism, Color Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction, Cubism, Conceptual art, Hard-edge painting, Minimalism and Op art all are derived from, reactions against or close cousins of formalism.

At a point, Pop art consumed the tactics of formalism, challenging abstraction's role as the sword bearer of modern art. Many saw this as an early manifestation of Pluralism as Pop art and Minimalism dominated the vanguard simultaneously.

Although formalism had its roots in structuralism, structuralism itself had moved on. Structural linguists such as Ludwig Wittgenstein had begun to argue for the importance of language as a means of developing personality. Borrowing from structural linguistics, art structuralists rejected what earlier movements took for granted--that art communicates non-discursive ontological knowledge. Instead, structuralists focused on how the creation of art communicate the idea behind the art. Whereas formalists manipulated elements within a medium, structuralists purposely mixed media and included context as an element of the artistic work. Whereas formalism's focus was the aesthetic experience, structuralists played down response in favor of communication.

Structuralism's focus on the 'grammar' of art reaches as far back as the Post-Impressionist work of Marcel Duchamp. In many ways, structuralism draws on the tools of formalism without adopting the theory behind them.

See also


  • Bell, Clive. Art. London: 1914.
  • Denis, Maurice. 'Definition of Neo-Traditionism.' Art and Criticism. August 1890.
  • Greenberg, Clement. 'Towards a Newer Laocoon.' Partisan Review. 1940.

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