Mutterings about something called “formalism” have casually cropped up on this blog upon occasion, so I feel it’s only right to take this occasion to very briefly hash out what it is, why it works, how it falls short. Formalism might sound posh, but has much less to do with black-tie attire, Savile Row tailoring and avant-garde millinery than one might suspect.
It’s really just another lens through which critics like to peer at and pick apart art, and perhaps one of the more straightforward ones at that, on the exterior. Formalism pulls worth from paintings, sculptures and anything that passes for art these days by honing in on its basic foundations.
By focusing on the elements of colour, line, shape, texture, form, space and value, a formalist looks past loftier interpretations to glare at the raw building blocks of creativity. Vertical, horizontal and diagonal designations of structure, positive and negative space, depth, height, dimensionality, the hue, value and intensity of pigment — all supply fodder to a formalist’s composition-centric ways of questioning.
And since the resonance and dissonance of an artist’s technical choices remain paramount to the formalist mindset, what an artwork represents, whether it is hyper-realistically figurative or abstracted beyond all recognition, matters little. Formalists seek aesthetic balance, not much else. The value of a work is comparable to its creator’s ability to achieve a stimulating cohesion within the picture plane. Thus a lack of elemental equilibrium results in a simply deficient objet d’art.
Formalism can be a useful starting point for artistic examinations. Its sole focus on what (and how) has been visibly rendered lends some common ground to tussle around on; for a green foreground, chiaroscuro effects and multiple horizon lines should be viewed much the same by anyone with viable eyesight. The power and behaviour of certain media may also become evident through an artist’s knack to capitalise on simplicity or create rapport with tricks of brush handling.
However, we all seek and find harmony in different places. Formalism’s dream of “balance” is awfully subjective. One man’s masterpiece is easily construed as another’s mucky puddle of paint, and such delineations will never be universal or perfectly black and white.
If we’ll never all agree on what looks right and what looks terribly off, what about what an artist’s brain was thinking while their hands were toiling? Shouldn’t a grasp of art theory, conceptual breakthroughs, making allegories and nodding to the triumphs of art history count for something?
Know your elements of art, notice how they play together and get combative within your favourite pieces. Though don’t just stick with what the formalist’s all-hallowed surface has to offer, for your understanding and scope will remain shallower than it ought to be.
Emily Catrice

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