Why Formalism is a Valid Art Historical Methodology

November 15, 2015

Before I start this article, I must confess a personal bias; I am a Formalist by nature and see it as the most valid art historical methodology. I shall however, for the purposes of fairness, restrain myself to the best of my ability in using superlatives. I don’t wish to write a polemic. What I will attempt to do in this small allocation of words is to justify Formalism as a methodology that still holds as true today as it did in the time of Semper, Goller, Riegl, and Wolfflin and shouldn’t be discarded as antediluvian or redundant as was done by the generation who came after it.

 

Firstly, though, let us distinguish between valuable Formalism and Greenberg. Clement Greenberg was a didactic man who was extremely fond of his own opinion. Riegl’s pupil Max Dvorak once said of his former teacher that the best Art Historian [Riegl coming under this bracket] was one who had no personal taste at all. So, one could stand back and be able to objectively think about art without any value judgements getting in the way of actual academic thought. Greenberg was a critic, so was employed to flex his opinionated muscles. When he tried to ascend to the heights of being an art historian he was always bound to fail, as his bullish taste would block his objective analysis. This is why Greenberg reached the conclusions he did about modern art, as he retroactively constructed a history of art that neatly lead up to his own preferred contemporary art.

 

Wolfflin once admitted that Formalism doesn’t particularly work on modern art as it is, as Hegel would have put it, post-History. The reflexivity of modern art as it turned its gaze upon itself to analyse its own means of representation, meant that the mystery had been removed from the nature of stylistic development. As we can see in the history of Modernism, styles changed as deliberate reactions to one another. Different groups sought to forge new identities and new means of expressing reality. Art History was no longer passive to an unknown force which made styles change. Art changed because artists had started to become self-critical and actively seek innovation.

 

Greenberg aside, then, we can see that the main concern of Formalism is a grandiose one: if the style of a work of art is the concretisation of that culture or period’s way of seeing, what happens within societies and art in order to make that change occur? A simple enough question but one that still has yet to be conclusively answered. This is an eternal question to do with the fundamentals of perception.

 

If we look at the historiography of Art History itself, we can see that it stemmed from the aesthetic philosophy of Kant, Hegel, Herder, Schiller, Ruhmour et al. in the beginning of the nineteenth-century. This is Formalism’s genesis. It seeks to answer the philosophical concerns of perception and the exactitudes of its subsequent concretisation in art forms and styles. While other methodologies such as Post-Structuralism or Marxism seek to re-write history through art, Formalism is wholly concerned with art itself, not history per se. This is why it is still valid because it asks the fundamental questions about seeing itself. It queries what, why and, how does seeing take place and how do we communicate it.

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