Art, Formalism in

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The term formalism refers to a number of theses and programs in the philosophy of art and art criticism, all of which assign a priority to the formal elements of works of art.

The doctrine of formalism exists in a number of versions, not all of them compatible with one another, but in general it is a thesis that insists on the importanceeither preeminent or exclusiveof the formal features of works of art in determining the value of those works. As such, it is both a topic for philosophical debate and a prescription for critical practice. This brief essay gives a description of the philosophical background of formalism, an indication of formalist commitments in criticism, and a statement of some logical problems besetting formalism.

Philosophical Background

The philosophical basis of formalism is often, and typically, traced to Kant, and indeed Kant is a kind of formalist; but a much earlier formalist doctrine is to be found in Aristotle. A central thesis of Aristotle's Poetics is that plot is the most important part of tragedy. Aristotle says a tragedy customarily has six parts (plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle, and melody), and, in declaring plot the most important, he seems to be asserting that excellence of its plot contributes more to the overall excellence of a tragedy than does the excellence of any of its other parts.

Aristotle offers a number of arguments in support of his claim of the preeminent importance of plot. Two are of special interest here. One is the assertion that of all the parts, only plot is necessary to something's being a tragedy. The other is the claim that plot has more of a bearing than the other parts of a tragedy on the work's special and proper effect, namely the production of catharsis. Thus, although Aristotle himself does not speak in these terms, his arguments are close to a claim that plot is both a necessary and a sufficient condition of tragedy, and his thesis is a kind of essentialism. What makes this essentialism a formalism is Aristotle's conception of plot: a plot, he says, is the "arrangement of incidents." Although Aristotle sometimes uses the term plot in something like the modern sense, meaning roughly the "story," the more abstract conception (arrangement of incidents) suggests a structurea formal entity. And indeed Aristotle identifies plot as the "formal cause" of a tragedy.

There have been attempts to generalize Aristotle's theory. The theory is offered by Aristotle specifically with reference to tragedy, and the obvious question is how to apply it to any other artistic form. Some interpreters have thought that Aristotle would regard the plot as the most important part of any artwork that has a plot, including, for example, an opera or ballet. But it might be a mistake to regard the plot as the most important element of, say, an opera. What an Aristotelian should be looking for is the necessary and sufficient condition of something's being an operaopera's formal causeand this may well be its music, as Joseph Kerman has argued in Opera As Drama. The incidents whose arrangement is vital will be musical incidents.

Whereas for Aristotle the centrality of form is a metaphysical or ontological matter, having to do with the nature of the objects themselves, for Kant the importance of form is grounded in a quasi-epistemological conviction. A Kantian judgment of taste requires exclusive attention to form because nothing else can underwrite such a judgment's claim to universality. Kant's reasons for thinking this are relatively clear, even if his argument is difficult to formulate.

According to Kant, a judgment of something's beauty is based on the judge's feeling of pleasure in the thing. It is distinguished from other so-called "aesthetic" judgments by its implicit claim to an intersubjective validity. The judgment is thus not parochial because it is in part to some extent a rational judgment, requiring the use of the faculty of concepts. In the exercise of such judgment, according to Kant, attention is restricted to the form of the object. The judge is entitled to suppose that any other judge would also experience pleasure in the object if he judged in the same waytaking pleasure in his contemplation of the mere form of the object. Why does Kant think that everyone judging in this way will experience pleasure? In answering this question, Kant seems to rely on what he claims to have proved in the Critique of Pure Reason namely that states of mind are communicable because unless they were, objective knowledge of the world would not be possible, and he thinks that he demonstrated that such knowledge is possible.

The definition of form is much less clear in Kant than in Aristotle. Kant seems to be thinking of what we might roughly think of as shape, and that seems a reasonable way to understand one of Kant's leading examples, namely the judgment of the beauty of a rose. But it leaves it utterly unclear why Kant has such a low opinion of music, given the entirely plausible conviction that music may well display abstract form more conspicuously and typically than does any other art.

Formalism in the Various Arts

In any art, formalism concentrates on the formal elements in the works it deals with. It is not always clear just which elements are formal, in these theories, and it is not uncommonly clearer which elements do not count as formal than it is how the formal elements are defined.

visual arts

In the visual arts, formalism has insisted on a concentration on line and shape. Its early proponents were Clive Bell and Roger Fry, and perhaps its most conspicuous twentieth-century advocate was Clement Greenberg. In its more extreme formulations, formalism in the visual arts has insisted that the value in, say, a painting, is unrelated to its representational features and is due entirely to the its form, where that form is understood entirely as a generally abstract structure constituted by the lines, shape, and, perhaps, color of the painting.


Formalist theory and criticism of music almost always explicitly refuses to give attention to any "program" associated with the music or even to the sung text in vocal music. Formalism does not always refuse attention to the emotions that may be evoked by music, but it insists that these feelings arise from "music alone" and not from any representational or narrative features, no matter how closely these may be associated with the music. An early statement of this view is given by Eduard Hanslick, and recently one of its most sophisticated exponents has been Peter Kivy.


Formalist literary theory is somewhat harder to describe than is formalism in the other arts. If formalism, in general, is thought to be a doctrine in which principal or exclusive attention is to be paid to the perceptual elements of a work and to the relations between these elements, then it would seem to require that literary formalists attend only to the shapes and sounds of words, and this requirement is surely incredible. Thus formalism in literature has to be understood more subtly. It is commonly taken to require attention exclusively to "the work itself," where this seems to mean eschewing references to considerations coming from "outside" the work. In particular, formalists have wished to deflect historical, biographical, and psychoanalytical interests, although, of course, even the most severe formalism may have to countenance some historical interests in so far as these are necessary to establish certain features of the workfor instance, the meanings of various words or the references of proper nouns. Furthermore, there have been different species of formalism because of different opinions about which formal features are most important.

Problems for Formalism

With it professed interest in works of art themselves, and not to any ancillary features, it is fair to say, with some qualification, that formalism does not want attention to representational or narrative features, or to any emotional evocations that result from those things. There are two main problems facing any advocate of formalism. One is to supply some argument in favor of the claim that a work's formal properties are either the only or the most important of its elements; but before that, there is a need to offer some criterion that distinguishes formal from nonformal elements. The latter problem may be more bothersome than it first appears, especially when one asks what formalists mean by formal. A useful way of doing this is to ask, "Formal as opposed to what?" When that question is raised, quite different answers are given for various arts. Thus, some procedure or routine must be given that will answer, for any true statement about a work of art A, with the form A is F, whether the property F ascribed to A is a formal property. This is very difficult to do, and that difficulty often leads to something of a reduced insistencenamely that it be determined, given that F is a property of A, whether F is an essential property of A. This formulation tends to be more or less agreeable depending upon how favorably one looks at philosophical essentialism.

Supposing it is settled how to tell whether a property is a formal property; the formalist now needs an argument for dealing with this issue: Given that A has the property F, and also the property N, and that F is a formal property, whereas N is not a formal property, why is F a more important property of A than N, more critical to assessing A 's value or importance? Even if it were true that F is an essential property, how does it follow that N is less important?

Whatever its defensibility as a philosophical thesis, and however vaguely it has to be stated, formalism retains one merit: it has recommended and insisted upon attention to those features of an art work that incontestably are features of the work itselffeatures often scanted in the assessments of antiformalists.

See also Aesthetic Qualities; Art, Definitions of; Pater, Walter Horatio; Wilde, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills.


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Ted Cohen (2005)