Deep Formalism and the Emergence of Modernist Aesthetics

by Michalle Gal (Author)
©2015 Thesis 168 Pages


This book offers, for the first time in aesthetics, a comprehensive account of aestheticism of the 19th century as a philosophical theory of its own right. Taking philosophical and art-historical viewpoints, this cross-disciplinary book presents aestheticism as the foundational movement of modernist aesthetics of the 20th century. Emerging in the writings of the foremost aestheticists – Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, James Whistler, and their formalist successors such as Clive Bell, Roger Fry, and Clement Greenberg – aestheticism offers a uniquely synthetic definition of art. It captures the artwork’s relations between form and content, art’s independent ontology and autonomy, art’s internal completeness, criticism, immunity to recruitment, the uniqueness of each medium, and musicality, as well as the logical-theoretical affiliation of art for art’s sake to epistemology, ethics and philosophy of language.
Those are used by Michalle Gal to formulate a definition of art in terms of a theory of Deep Formalism, setting aestheticism, which aspires to preserve the artistic medium, as a critique of the current linguistic-conceptual aesthetics that developed after the linguistic turn of aesthetics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Opening: Deep Form
  • Aestheticism and Formalism
  • Chapter 1: A New Notion of Painting
  • 1.1 The Introduction of Abstract Painting: Opaque Symbol
  • 1.2 The Separation between the Arts, and the Merger between Content and Form
  • 1.3 Four Means of Artistic Anti-Realism
  • 1.4 The Dissolution of the Subject Matter
  • Chapter 2: Artistic Freedom
  • 2.1 Two Concepts of Mimesis: Visual and Conceptual
  • 2.2 Two Models of Artistic Freedom: Introversive and Expansionist
  • 2.3 Internal Necessity
  • 2.4 Immunity to Recruitment
  • 2.5 Realistic Effect
  • 2.6 The Detachment of Art from Life
  • Chapter 3: Syntacticity and Musicality
  • 3.1 Aesthetic Attitude
  • 3.2 Two Concepts of Mimesis Again: Visual vs. Descriptive
  • 3.3 Suppression of the Subject Matter, and the Physiognomy of Word
  • 3.4 Oscar Wilde’s Example
  • Chapter 4: Influential Detachment: Art and Life
  • 4.1 What Gives Form its Depth
  • 4.2 Artwork and Human Spirit
  • 4.3 Rebellion against Authority
  • Chapter 5: Completeness of the Artwork: Order, Beauty, Autonomy
  • 5.1 Order, Autonomy, and Beauty: A Combination in Two Steps
  • 5.2 Are Whistler’s Nocturnes Complete?
  • Chapter 6: Criticism versus Interpretation
  • 6.1 Silencing the Critics
  • 6.2 Criticism as Art: Form Born from Form
  • Chapter 7: Conceptual Mimesis
  • 7.1 The Internal/External Inversion
  • Closing: The Demise of Deep Form?
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Opening: Deep Form

Counsel for the plaintiff, Petheram: Will you tell us the meaning of the word “nocturne” as applied to your pictures?

Whistler: By using the word “nocturne” I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and color first. The picture is throughout a problem that I attempt to solve. I make use of any means, any incident or object in nature, that will bring about this symmetrical result.1

This extract is drawn from Whistler’s examination in his libel suit against John Ruskin in 1878. It encapsulates the then novel aestheticist view of painting. Painting assumes a particular character: non-mimetic, opaque, fully solved, well arranged, complete in itself, evocative, and most of all – free. Many critics who followed the trial with curiosity and devotion noted that one of Whistler’s motivations for undergoing this long and perilous process of suing the foremost art critic and theoretician of the period was the exceptional opportunity it gave him to voice his rebellious theory of art and its outstanding practice. The court was an atypical stage for exposing the tenets of the aestheticist movement. The case literally staged the aestheticist commitment to the artwork conceived in terms of what I will call ‘deep form.’

In this book I propose to defend a conception of the artwork in terms of deep form. I will draw on the literature of the British aestheticists and closely associated early-formalists. I will attempt to show that the theories of both movements are symbolic in character, and that the concept of deep form applies to the central unique symbolic elements in these theories. The theories of Aestheticism and early-Formalism are not always explicitly symbolic, and are not commonly analyzed as such. To show that they are nevertheless symbolic, I shall introduce a new and broad concept of the symbol. I shall call it an opaque-productive symbol. The general, or narrow, definition of symbol that is used here is a rudimentary one: a thing that stands for another thing, where “standing for” implies reference. An opaque-productive symbol is one that is not transparent to preconceived or pre-determined referents and meanings, but rather produces new ones. The core elements in British Aestheticism might be well represented by the concepts of deep form and the opaque-productive symbol. Presenting British ← 11 | 12 → Aestheticism as a symbolic theory might allow it into the discussion of the current symbolic-linguistic age in aesthetics. This symbolic-linguistic age began in the middle of the 20th century, when aesthetics was introduced to the philosophy of language and consequently went through a “linguistic turn.” Art is accordingly characterized as comparable to ordinary language, and the artwork as symbolic and referential. ← 12 | 13 →

1Quoted from a partial but the most complete in existence transcript of Whistler vs. Ruskin, in Merill, Linda. 1992. Pot of Paint. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press: 144.

Aestheticism and Formalism

The second half of the 19th century faced an artistic-aesthetic campaign for emancipation, brought about by figures who were jointly aestheticians, artists, and critics. Support for a traditional aesthetic model of mimesis and morality was reduced, in favour of a new aestheticist model. The new model supported a conception of art as autonomous; it offered not only new aesthetics principles, but also a new form of criticism. This historical-philosophical change in theory naturally brought changes to our conception of the artistic medium. In what follows, I shall show how aestheticist theory and practice are materially infused into each other and develop a kind of symbolic aesthetics, which I shall call deep formalism or sometimes symbolic formalism.

For this purpose, I will use and transfigure terms used in the philosophy of language. The terminology of the philosophy of language was used by British-American aesthetics in the second half of the 20th century, and into the 21st century, to describe the artwork as necessarily symbolic. This aesthetics, which I call linguistic aesthetics or symbolic aesthetics, offers a conception of the artwork as a conceptual, transparent, and reflective symbol. It is a symbol whose core essence lies in its content. However, I will be using the terminology of the philosophy of language to offer this new symbolic-aestheticist theory, which defines the artwork as an opposite kind of symbol, unique in kind. My attempt is to offer a conception of an opaque, introversive, non-reflective yet productive symbol, whose essence lies in its internal arrangement.

The most significant difference between the two kinds of symbol is that the essence of the former lies in its referential transparency, namely, it sustains relationships to pre-conceived or pre-existing referents and meanings. Contrarily, the essence of the artistic symbol, according to my interpretation of Aestheticism, is its own structure, syntax or order, and its ability to produce new referents as a result of its own “material” or compositional qualities. I call this quality productive opacity.

The British aestheticist philosophy of art in the second half of the 19th century, argued for by Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and James Whistler, was the source and inspiration for both modernist types of Formalism: early British and late American. Early British Formalism in the beginning of the 20th century – argued for by Roger Fry and Clive Bell – is a moderate and rich type of Formalism, though less sophisticated than Aestheticism. Although it presents the form as the essence of the artwork, it includes the role of content and its contribution to the form in a complete description of the artwork. Late American Formalism was thriving in the mid-20th century. Presented by Clement Greenberg and Michael ← 13 | 14 → Fried, it is an extreme Formalism, and excludes any reference to content in the characterisation of the artwork.

Both Formalisms resemble both each other as well as Aestheticism, in exhibiting internal relationships and mutual influence between the philosophical theories and their artistic implementation. ‘Early Formalism’ accompanied Post-Impressionist painting both theoretically and practically (by curating exhibitions). It was, in fact, responsible for the rise of Post-Impressionist painting and the latter’s acceptance as a legitimate art. ‘Late Formalism’, in turn, embraced Abstract Expressionism in both theory and practice. In accordance with their accompanying aestheticians, Post-Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism renounced the mimetic model and tried to constitute art as an independent sphere with an internal order of its own. These artistic movements attempted to endow artworks with an independent ontological status. Fry describes this attempt as follows: “they [the Post-Impressionists] do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life […] In fact, they aim not at illusion, but at reality.”2 Thus, the aestheticist philosophy of art (deep formalism), ‘early Formalism’, and ‘late Formalism’, all stand in reciprocal relationships with their associated arts. Art that aspires to freedom is both the resource and embodiment of these aesthetic theories. The theories themselves seem to penetrate the artistic forms, in every brush-stroke and in every sentence, rendering art free.

How can a theory make art free? The deep formalist theory tries to make art free by defining, allowing, and guarding an artistic practice that does not represent a theory. Rather, the practice should to be opaque to ideas, and exist for its own sake. I will soon examine the way in which the aestheticist theory of Whistler, Wilde, and Pater was absorbed into Whistler’s paintings, rendering the paintings opaque to concepts and ideas, and free from any extra-artistic obligations.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Philosophy Art history Ontology Criticism Conceptual aesthetics
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 168 pp., 6 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Michalle Gal (Author)

Michalle Gal is a senior lecturer, the head of the Cultural Studies Program at Shenkar College, and a lecturer in the Philosophy Department at Tel Aviv University. She publishes in the fields of aesthetics and the philosophy of art, the philosophy of language, and visual culture.


Title: Aestheticism
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168 pages