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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 3: Syntacticity and Musicality


The Aestheticists had their unique and practical ways of transmuting the preexisting referents and subordinating different uses of language to stylistic and formal devices. Their aim was to prevent the work from referring to, or reflecting, pre-existing referents. The work was supposed to produce its own new referents – to communicate a “new and otherwise unattainable experience,”128 as Fry would say. Thus they wished to construct the painting as an opaque-productive symbol. Flatness (as opposed to meaningfulness, or to having a meaning “behind” the artwork), opacity, syntacticity and introversion, are all necessary conditions, according to Aestheticism, for the production of new referents. The musicality of Whistler’s Nocturnes is a remarkable example of the aestheticist attempt to embody these conditions.

Aspiration to musicality characterizes modernist theories, from the early age of Aestheticism and into late-Formalism, and all classify music as the highest possible art. A specific aesthetic power over the soul has always been attributed to music, and this power is symptomatic of artistic freedom as defined by deep formalism: it is the power of grammar, of syntax, of form, of composition, and of order. Deep formalism believes this power to be utterly different from the power of the conveyance of information, which is possessed by the cognitive symbol. Gilbert describes the power of music in The Critic as Artist:

After playing Chopin [who is, needless to say, famous for his nocturnes], I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed,...

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