Fisher, Ch 10, Formalism


  1. Because formalism is concerned with art's autonomy, formalism rejects importance of representation in art
    1. Art as representation is not autonomous
    2. But subordinates art to truth and morality
  2. If art is rep, then art to be judged by accuracy and propriety by which it represents its external subject
    1. Because art imitates (reps) life, it is answerable to it:
    2. Art must tell the truth about life, contribute to it or make it better
    3. So a representational view of art, subordinates art to truth, morality and makes art dependent on something other than itself
  3. For formalist, representation does not add or subtract from merit of a picture or statue

  4. Art is an autonomous realm (a new idea in the 19th century)
  5. Art's autonomy means "Art for art's sake"
    1. Art intelligible and valuable as such
    2. It is art's own intrinsic properties that matter
      1. Art has an internal subject matter sufficient to itself
    3. Art's relation to other things (creator, perceiver, subject matter) not important
    4. Art is free from having to convey anything external to itself
    5. Art should be judged in own terms, by values inherent to artwork itself and not by external standards
      1. Not by its representing qualities
        1. Georgia O'Keeffe
      2. Not by moral values, or any concepts of what the art ought to be like
        1. Mushroom cloud
      3. Not by pleasure of audience

  6. How does art's autonomy get you to formalism?
  7. It is art's form that is independent of external considerations
    1. Thus concern with art's autonomy leads to formalism


  1. What is form in art?
    1. Organization of artwork
      1. Relation of parts/elements to each other to make valuable? beautiful? whole
      2. Harmonious proportions (Spear Bearer p. 242)
    2. E.g., formal elements of a painting include colors, shapes, patterns

  2. Form and Content: What is their relation?
  3. If form and content are independent,
    1. Same form could hold two different contents
      1. Analogy: Form as a bottle and content as what goes in it
        1. Wine/beer in same bottle
      2. Poem with same structure, about two different topics
    2. Same content could be contained by two different forms
      1. Same wine in two different shaped bottles
      2. Poem and novel and movie with same content: Make same points (meaning) about same thing (referent)
      3. Oedipus story in a tragedy, ballet, novel
  4. Fisher is skeptical about independence of form and content
    1. Contrast arrangement of letters with literature
      1. Two letter arrangement with same content:
        1. A kissed B, B was kissed by A
    2. Can't find two poems or novels that have same content (have same subject and say same thing about it)
      1. As many messages as there are artworks
    3. Perhaps because
      1. Each artwork has unique form
      2. And form generates content, not separate from it
      3. Form seems to determine/effect content
    4. Formal differences change the message
    5. Hard to separate the meaning of a poem from way it is expressed
    6. Artist can't do same (sort of) thing in different art media
  5. Objection: We do translate poetry into other languages, and this presupposed content can be translated from one linguistic vehicle to another
    1. Perhaps we shouldn't assume same poem?

  6. Fisher thinks Form/Elements (constituents, matter) better distinction and holds for all artworks
    1. Form is the way elements/constituents/matter is organized;
      1. Their internal relations
    2. Form of a poem
      1. Relation of the sounds (elements?)
      2. Visual structure of work on page
    3. Form of a novel
      1. Point of view author chooses
      2. Manner of transition from scene to scene
      3. Proportion of description to dialogue

  8. Is form important, primary, or solely relevant?
  9. Most people who care about art say that formal relations and properties are important in artwork
    1. Strong intriguing from is one of lst things critics look for
    2. Awareness and control of form is sign of mature artists
    3. Students learning about an art form lack this awareness/control
  10. Stronger claim is that formal properties are primary in artwork
    1. Other concerns, like subject matter or expressing emotions, are secondary
  11. Def of Formalism: Only formal properties are relevant considerations
    1. Representation and expression are irrelevant to work of art as art
    2. Formal properties and nothing else makes artifact a piece of art

    1. Art provokes emotions
    2. One kind is an "aesthetic emotion"
    3. It is "significant form" that provokes the aes emotions
    4. What allows us to know that something is art is that it has significant form that provokes aesthetic emotions
      1. All and only art does this
  13. Aes emotion distinction from emotions of life
    1. Aes emotion far more profound than those come from description of facts/ideas
    2. Aes emotions has form of artwork as object of emotions
    3. "A painter too feeble to elicit aes emotion will appeal to emotions of life-such as pity or fear-and so he uses representation and paints an execution"
      1. Fisher: Makes tragedy not art if it appeals to pity and fear
    4. "Good art takes people out of life into ecstacy"
      1. So must an aesthetic experience of real art always be intense?
    5. "To use art as a means to emotions of life is to use a telescope to read the news"
      1. Art is too powerful to be used to invoke ordinary emotions

  14. How to listen to music according to Formalists:
    1. Don't think about what it is about
    2. Don't feel emotions like sadness, joy, whatever
    3. Just be moved by the music's formal structure?

  1. Bell's formalism (unlike rep theory or expressionism) explains transcultural appeal of great art
    1. Great art appeals to viewers in widely divergent cultural situations
    2. Art has great appeal to many who don't understand it (don't understand the represented subject matter)
    3. For both rep theory and expressionism, represented subject needs to be understood
    4. But meanings and emotional response depend on cultural circumstance
    5. And since we are not in same circumstance, we don't understand the meaning (or if we do, it is not significant for us) nor do we get the emotional response
    6. So what we are responding to is the formal properties of the art which cross culturally gives us this powerful aesthetic emotion
  2. Bell: Best observers don't understand artworks, for their responses are purer and once understand subject matter/content it is hard to ignore it
  3. "Primitive art" is more sophisticated as no representational content, but only significant form
    1. Focus on rep, characteristic of European art, is distraction to artist and viewer
  4. Why can't we explain the cross culture power of great art by claiming it represents a universal message or conveys a human emotion that all humans can feel?

  5. Fisher's use of Francesca's Flagellation of Christ (p. 254) to question Bell's views
    1. Formal power of this painting depends partly on what it represents
    2. Formal power here not just a function of geometrical shapes
    3. Can't see right hand objects as closer without knowing that they represent people
    4. Distance between two parts of picture a function of what picture represents
    5. Visual relations sometimes gain significance form object being represented
    6. Without knowing objects represented, viewer can't perceive certain visual relations (which are formal properties)
    7. So representation infuses form