Revising Formalism

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  • Edwin Landseer, ‘ Monarch of the Glen ’ , 1851 Chaldean/Assyrian petraglyph/statue, c. 6 th Century BC


  • 1. Revising Formalism
  • 2. Historical background  C18• Plato’s ‘Forms’: formal, abstract elements, enduring, eternal, studiedthrough disinterested contemplation• Aristotle: discusses the importance of form in tragic drama…• 18th century in Europe• Hume, ‘Essay on Taste’: experts have a key role to play,aesthetic appreciation is subjective.• Shaftesbury (England), Baumgarten, Kant (Germany) isolateaesthetic pleasure (as different to our moral and cognitive faculties)• Kant (1724-1804)•focuses on ‘free beauty’ of nature rather than art.•The Critique of Judgment: aesthetic experience = disinterest,contemplation, being open and receptive to the object.
  • 3. Hume on Aesthetic Judgement• Hume = mid C18 thinker• sentiment is at the root of our aesthetic judgements: ‘feelingconstitutes praise or admiration’ (‘A Treatise of Human Nature’)– rationales come only later– but not a subjectivist view, since there are ‘standards of taste’, or broadagreement about common human sentiments.• the ‘test of time’ is one way of examining the universal potential of awork of art: if it has intergenerational appeal, then this must bebecause of its quality.• the standard of taste is also established by the collective wisdom ofhighly competent critics, who have ‘delicacy of taste’, or an ability tomake refined judgements through experience.• critics must avoid prejudices and use reason to be calm and neutralabout the objects themselves.• But their response to art is really based in feeling.
  • 4. Kant on Aesthetic Judgement• Kant – later C18 thinker – seeking more rational analysis ofvalue in art.• His Critique of Judgement (1790) is where this is attempted.• It is still hugely influential in our thinking about beauty andsublimity.• Famously, Kant describes four stages or ‘moments’ in theaesthetic judgement of beauty. A beautiful object produces:– a feeling of disinterestedness not strong emotion– a feeling of universality – the object is beautiful to all without fixed rulessaying why this is so– the form of purposiveness – it seems purposive even though it isn’t.– a sense of necessity. We cannot but make them.
  • 5. Hume, Kant  Bell• C20 Formalists were influenced by Kant’s disinterestedcontemplation and by Hume’s emphasis on a communityof experts who set taste.• formalism = the theory that a works artistic value isentirely determined by its form: its compositionalelements such as colour, line, shape and texture ratherthan realism, context, and content.• [Syllabus] ‘We value art because of its particular artisticquality’• [Syllabus] Good art has balance, structure, proportion,harmony, wholeness  ‘Significant Form’  the peculiar‘aesthetic emotion’ of calm contemplation  sense ofbeing in touch with eternal
  • 6. Historical background: C19  C20• Hanslick (late C19) argues that music is pure form or pure sound – hearingmusic as expressive of emotion or representational is simply a distraction all vocal music is a failure!• Clive Bell (early C20) put forward a similar view of painting in order todefend the new style of Post-Impressionist painting (Cezanne, Matisse,early Cubism).• Bell argues that modern, ancient, primitive art (and key art works ofRenaissance) are best appreciated through notion of ‘significant form’• ‘Significant form’ is constituted by the shimmering arrangement of solids,planes, lines and colours that make up the structure of the artwork and isrecognizable by our experience of a distinctive ‘aesthetic emotion’.• This emotion is a non-possessive delight in the perceptual richness of theart object. A calm ecstasy (oxymoronic?)• Art may have representational content but only as a peg on which to hangSF.• If such content is the main focus, then the painting is merely ‘anecdotal’,having no more aesthetic interest than did vocal music for Hanslick.
  • 7. Clive Bell (1881-1964)• ‘Art’ (1914)– Nothing else about an object other than itsformal or aesthetic qualities matters.– Representation in art is simply irrelevant.– The worldly emotion that art provokes issimply irrelevant.– ‘Significant Form’ is the essential quality thatall art possesses.
  • 8. What does Bell think about:• The nature of the aesthete or art-lover?– ‘He who would establish a plausible theory ofaesthetics must possess two qualities – artisticsensibility and a turn for clear thinking …theoriesnot based on broad and deep aesthetic experienceare worthless…– ‘massive intellect and slight sensibility’ is possible, asis ‘immediate and sure response’ whilst ‘wanting thepower to draw correct inferences from true data’
  • 9. What does Bell think about:• The characteristics of the aestheticemotion?– ‘a peculiar…emotion is provoked by every kind ofvisual art… the aesthetic emotion [of calmnessand detachment]…if we can discover some qualitycommon and peculiar to all the objects that provokeit…the essential quality…we shall have solved thecentral problem of aesthetics.’– ‘A good work of visual art carries a person who iscapable of appreciating it out of life into ecstasy’…art is a ‘telescope’ directed at a world of ‘aestheticexaltation’
  • 10. What does Bell think about• The nature of ’Significant Form’?– the one quality common to all works of visual art.’– ‘lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain formsand relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions’… ‘concernedonly with lines and colours, their relations and quantitiesand qualities’– ‘Art translates us to a world of aesthetic exaltation’…’we areshut off from human interests…lifted above the stream of life’…maths comparison– ‘raised above the accidents of time and place’…’appeal isuniversal and eternal’ …‘carries [us] out of life into ecstasy’…‘intense and peculiar significance…unrelated to thesignificance of life’
  • 11. What does Bell think about:• What is wrong with some art?– ‘In descriptive painting form is not used as an objectof emotion, but as a means of suggesting falseemotion’ = manipulative.– ‘The emotion it suggests is false… complacent…sentimental.’– ‘Such works can be judged morally, historically,psychologically etc…they are not art’.– Some bad abstract art is ‘descriptive because it aimsat presenting in line and colour the chaos of the mind;their form is not intended to promote aestheticemotion but to convey information.’
  • 12. What does Bell think about:• The kind of art that is to be valued?– ‘As a rule primitive art is good’…’absence ofrepresentation, technical swagger’, has‘sublimely impressive form’, ‘moves usprofoundly’…‘They have created the finestworks of art we possess.’
  • 13. What does Bell think about:• The importance of other factors besidesform in understanding art?– ‘…we have neither right …nor necessity, topry behind the object into the state of mindof him who made it.’– ‘We need bring with us nothing from life, noknowledge of its ideas and affairs, nofamiliarity with its emotions’
  • 14. What does Bell think about:• The strengths of his view?– Defines essential quality of art which all art has: all art has form,including music, abstract art…– Explains why some visual art is rubbish – it is ‘descriptive’ (althoughsome narrative art can have SF…).– Allows Bell to defend non-representative art he likes e.g. Primitivism.– Develops idea of disinterested contemplation and of community ofexpert taste– Explains specific and peculiar artistic emotion.– Explains atemporal/universal appeal of great art: ‘what does it matterwhether the forms that move them were created in Paris the day beforeyesterday or in Babylon fifty centuries ago?’
  • 15. Art Bell HatesEdwin Landseer,‘Monarch of theGlen’, 1851Luke Fildes, ‘TheDoctor’, 1891William Powell Frith,‘The RailwayStation’, 1862
  • 16. Art Bell would loveAncient Art,Primitive /non-European ArtAbstract art
  • 17. Discussion topics• What is ‘significant form’?– Some commentators have characterised it as balance orproportion or structure or harmony or wholeness…do youagree?– Is the notion clear to you?– How might you go about defining it?• Can you make sense of the idea of ‘significant form’ across allgenres of art?– Where might the idea have purchase, where might it struggle?• Are there ‘formal universals’ which have qualities of timelessnessand universality?– Are these present in art from all cultures, and in all kinds of art?– Is the fact of art enduring across time explicable only throughformalist theories?– …or could it be explained in other ways?
  • 18. Discussion Topics• Is form important enough to be the essence of art?– Is it necessary to art?– Is it sufficient?– Does all art have ‘significant form’, or is the term justempty in that all it signifies is approval?• Does formalism make too little of the role of art insociety, or of other factors which influence ourunderstanding of art?– What would a Marxist say?– Can art really be separate from societal concerns?– Isn’t art valued for its emotional, mimetic qualities?
  • 19. Discussion Topics• How can Bell claim that art is known both onlysubjectively and that there is an objectively presentcommon quality underlying all art?– Do you accept his ideas about exceptional individualshaving a greater sensibility than others?– Or might sociological explanations of the impact ofthe critic be just as good?• What kind of art is well-explained by this theory, andwhat kind of art less successfully so?– Is the art that the theory discounts sufficientlyimportant to show that the theory does not haveadequate explanatory power?
  • 20. CritiquesForm is too inclusive a criterion– It collapses the art/aesthetic distinction.– Like Hanslick, Bell fails to distinguish between aesthetic interest(Kant pointed out that most features of our perceptualenvironment may stimulate this interest) and art (which typicallycombines aesthetic interest with interpreting the world).Form is not art’s essence– it is necessary but not sufficient.– Bell is right that aesthetic interest in surface appearance is afeature of all art and we do value formal or compositionalfeatures.– Yet art without reference to emotion or representation prettypatterns/ ‘wallpaper’…– A major role of art is to express emotion and offer usinterpretations of the world.
  • 21. CritiquesFormalism is simply ‘elitism’• Bell values the art of his avant-garde friends, and devises a theory(and a role for the elite critic) to account for it.• But art’s emotional and mimetic qualities have hugely importantsocial roles for all…‘Form’ makes the artwork unnecessary• ‘Significant Form’ is universal and atemporal.• The feeling of calmness, contemplation etc that SF produces is thething that matters.• So, just as for emotivism, perhaps the artwork is merely a vehicleand therefore can be discarded.
  • 22. CritiquesForm isn’t universal• Are there formal qualities that apply to all the arts?• How do compositional or formal features in different art forms relateto one another?• Each art form has its own range of techniques and its own scope ofpossibilities.• Do Bell’s ideas about shape and colour in visual art work morewidely?• (A reply: actual sensations produced by different arts differ, but theemotion of aesthetic appreciation is the same)Is the concept of ‘Significant Form’ clear?• Can we define it?• Can we ‘deflate’ it by suggesting that it is simply a term of (emotive)approval…• is the concept of ‘significant form’ simply a way of trying to explainthat we like something?
  • 23. Critique 7Form is reducible to skill.– Does form exist, or is it collapsible to simpler concepts?– Is form, for example, any more than ‘skill’?– Isn’t a great artist just a skilful one?‘Significant Form’ is culturally relative.– Is appreciation of form a subjective or culturally relative matter?– Clive Bell says that only some can appreciate ‘significant form’ inart but that this judgment is universal.– Isn’t this just empty subjectivism, or, alternatively, a refusal tosee that ‘universal’ just means ‘approved of by my culture’?
  • 24. Reasons to be a formalist• ‘Significant form’ = the relationship between the parts and a unifiedperceptual whole. Form is the necessary, intrinsic common feature of allart, abstract and representational e.g. in visual art, the patterning of lines,sheens, hues; in music, temporal patterns (melodies and rhythms); inwriting, word sounds/rhythms and quasi-perceptual mental imagery.• All great art has SF: tidy/balanced works (i.e. Vermeer portrait), precariousor sprawling works (Kandinsky, modern classical music, Dickens).• Considers specific aesthetic and formal qualities of art-works (balance,symmetry, coherence, order, structure, harmony and proportion) , sofocuses on the importance of the art-work itself:  ‘Art for art’s sake!’• Everything necessary to understand a work of art is contained within thework of art, so context, representation, rationale, artist biog., emotions - allare irrelevant  simple theory that allows appreciation of art for itself, evendecontextualised art such as ancient or transcultural art.• Form and beauty are connected, and beauty is the core feature of art.• Form is basic: it explains how art conveys information or emotion.• Our appreciation of form leads to the aesthetic emotion of reflective calmwhich we all feel.• The trained critic (lots of exposure to great art + a refined intellect +sensitivity) can identify Significant Form at a glance…
  • 25. Reasons not to be a formalist• Over-inclusive: just about everything has a form - even a screwedup piece of paper or a spilled drink- so what is so special aboutSignificant Form in art?• Under-specifies: Even if ‘form’ matters is, it the ‘essence’ of art?Actually, we value art because it represents or makes us feel, or isexpensive, or a part of the everyday.• Emotive/subjectivist: approving of an art-work by saying it has SF =merely a term of (emotive) approval given by a (self-appointed?)critic?• Cultural relativism: appreciation of ‘SF’ as ‘universal’ just means‘approved of by my culture’?  cultural subjectivism.• Form = skill. Does form exist, or is it collapsible to simpler conceptssuch as e.g ‘skill’? (Great art = skilful art?)• Notion unclear: Is the notion of ‘form’ clear? How can SF beidentified (by the critic?)
  • 26. Assessment and Evaluation:• For: Allows for an objectivity of aesthetic judgement. Formalism isthe only theory to take seriously the view that what we value in art isthe art work itself, rather than the more ‘utilitarian’ view presented inexpressivism and representationalism (in these theories the artworkis treated as ‘a means to an end’, an expendable vehicle ofcommunication).• Yes and No: Can we appreciate ‘significant form’ withoutentertaining at least some background understanding of what theartwork is about? Surely the author’s intention and the cognitivefeatures the artwork seeks to convey have to play some role here?• Against: Can we really listen to a piece of music and hear just‘sound’ or appreciate a painting for the perceptual richness of itscolour alone? Ignoring expressive and representational qualitiestrivialises our reasons for valuing an artwork. Aesthetic delight is animportant feature of art appreciation, but it should only ever beregarded as a secondary function and never the primary purpose ofsuch appreciation.