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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 2: Artistic Freedom


The short era in which British-American art was autonomous and free, at least in its own eyes, ended in the 1960s. I believe that in the sixties art returned to its old obligation, to the magisterial long-lived model of mimesis. However, this time it assumed a new version of that model – a linguistic-conceptual model. This was a new counterpart to the pre-modern traditional model of art-alongside-nature. The source of the theoretical influence – this time around – was the philosophy of language that supports what I will be calling conceptual mimesis in art and in aesthetics, namely in practice and in theory. This idea will be developed in more detail in the final chapter, but it is pertinent here to examine two points that are relevant to the concept of artistic freedom, the subject of this chapter. At the end of modernism art re-assumed its previous role within the symbol-symbolized scheme. Art re-located itself within the representative scheme, which believed that a representation holds between symbol and object. However, in conceptual mimesis the visual copying of nature was superseded by linguistic representation. Accordingly, iconic similarity of the work to its referents was replaced by conceptual similarity.

The influence of the philosophy of language on the institution of the new mimetic model at the end of modernism has one more implication: it is useful to the inversion of the modernist distinction between external and internal properties of the artwork. Composition, materials, elements of appearance, and form, which were regarded by Formalism...

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