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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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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...

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