Art History Briefing: Formalism in Art

“What is Art?” and how does one determine a piece of artwork is a masterpiece? Formalism is a term to describe an approach by art critics to examine and evaluate works of art, and is perhaps one of the oldest methods to evaluate art. This approach is the basis of what we now call art criticism, and even could be considered one reason artists are driven to learn and improve upon their natural abilities.

Formalism Theory

The formalistic approach directs that art be analyzed by reviewing form and style. Elements like color, shapes, textures, and line are emphasized, while the context of the work is de-emphasized, and made a secondary characteristic—at times taken completely out of consequence. The assessment of a piece of artwork is based purely on the artist’s skill and not on the choice of subject matter, with the value based primarily on the use of elements with little regard for the viewer’s perception of the context.

History of Formalism

Much of the basis of formalism as an evaluation theory is founded on Plato’s Theory of Forms, developed on the idea that everything, whether tangible or not, has a form. Modeled after his “Allegory of the Cave,” in which characters viewed shadows as the reality instead of as outlines or doubles of the true forms. Plato explained that—to the characters in Allegory, those WERE the forms in their perception.

The growth of expressionistic, and later, surrealistic art, in the early 20th century, supported the line of thinking which indicated that a skilled artist could prove his or her artistic abilities in color, medium, and the combinations found in the work (namely, paintings) beyond whatever the subject matter was. Viewers would be drawn to the work no matter the context.

L ’art Pour L ‘art (Art for Art’s Sake)

This term truly epitomizes the formalist way of thinking, and Abstract artists defended their work, maintaining that they should be judged and valued based on their basic attributes. They asserted that, following the ideals of formalism, art should be valued outside of its’ ability to tell a story, recall an experience, provide a statement, or inspire feelings in the viewer. This allows for growth in Abstract art creation, where artists no longer felt the pressure to explain their works based on any set standards or sensibilities.

Clement Greenberg—Staunch Advocate of Formalism

One of the most well-known proponents of formalism in more modern times was American writer Clement Greenburg, supporter of Abstract Expressionism. He believed fully in the detachment of context and subject matter from the form of art, and disallowed the idea that there were other considerations (i.e., popular culture, political sentiment, or media influence). He firmly believed that Abstract Art was the truest expression of art, as the observer would not understand the subject matter of the art itself, and only the artist’s true use of color, medium, and space showed through.

Jackson Pollack—Abstract Expressionist

One artist who personified the theory of Formalism was Jackson Pollack, a popular Abstract Expressionist artist during the 1940’s – 1960’s. His famous work, Convergence (1952), exemplified the avant-garde and radical artwork of the time, where artists created freely, outside of established guidelines and emphases. His unusual methods, oversized canvases and use of non-traditional materials (using knives and sticks in place of brushes), was welcomed in a growing taste for abstract art.

Formalism in other Arts

Formalism was not confined to evaluating art; it was also used liberally in both music and literature. In music, the theory was used to explain that music is judged based on the basic composition of the notes, and only intellectual understanding is of value when assessing musical pieces. The listener’s emotional reaction provides no additional value to the music’s worth.

In literature, formalist view was more scientific (and perhaps, logical) in nature, putting emphasis on how writing could express language, and discounted how a reader would react to the subject of the writing. Further, a piece of literature would prove successful no matter the cultural context; it would stand the test of time in a changing world.

Post-Formalism Today–Driven Out by Context

Throughout the media-driven 1960’s, the one aspect which formalism strove to discount is one of the most striking considerations to usher in its demise. Much of the western world was riveted with the Vietnam War, and everywhere was evidence of the freedom American youth had to express their political and moral beliefs. This new era, along with the growth of commercialism, created a renewed interested in context, and the desire to share beliefs through artistic expression drove art enthusiasts toward artists like Andy Warhol, who embraced the idea of context as a deciding factor in critiquing (and appraising) art.

Abstract Expressionism did not die, nor did the theory of formalism. However, context and subject matter in art experienced a revival and today we find a balance of art types and theories woven throughout the art market.

When searching for your own style and determining how to evaluate art, let the experts at Sybaris Collection be your guide. Our years of experience and dedication to all types of art will provide you with support to discover, purchasing, and display artwork which defines your artistic spirit.