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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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Chapter 1: A New Notion of Painting


The trial Whistler versus Ruskin was a peak in the philosophical and artistic battle that would release art from external obligations for the next eighty years – throughout the modernist period in visual art and the formalist period in the philosophy of art. It would free art locally and generally from any particular sort of Victorian obligation, and from the general commitment to nature, meaning, morality, and religion. The trial was a part of the radical aestheticist attempt to discharge art from the magisterial ancient burden – mimesis, or its 19th century version, realism – and to impart to art an autonomous and free beauty. This aestheticist attempt was the beginning of a modernist journey that aesthetics and painting took together, embodying each other in a mutual manifestation. The relationship between Whistler’s Nocturnes and the aestheticist philosophy of art was, as this chapter will show, a paradigmatic instance of this mutual manifestation.

The trial itself was a rare worldly event, with lawyers, artists, and theoreticians debating over Whistler’s Nocturnes, which were exhibited as evidence to the judge and the jury. The participants of the trial represented the schism between the old and new models of art. The old art model was that of Ruskin, who was “the first British writer to make beauty the central focus of his thought,” but “would do so in the name of either Christian concerns or secular social ideas.”3 One of Ruskin’s main claims in his celebrated book Modern Painters was that “we are guided,...

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