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Deep Formalism and the Emergence of Modernist Aesthetics


Michalle Gal

This book offers, for the first time in aesthetics, a comprehensive account of aestheticism of the 19 th 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 20 th 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.
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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...

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