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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 4: Influential Detachment: Art and Life


The motivation and structure of art, according to deep formalism, are complex and, in a sense, contradictory – a powerful or influential detachment of art from the external. Studying the great revolutions in history against great revolutions in art, Fry claims that this desired detachment between life and art was not uncommon. In his essay ‘Art and Life’ he writes:

The usual assumption of a direct and decisive connection between life and art is by no means correct. If we consider this special spiritual activity of art we find it open at times to influences from life, but in the main self-contained – we find the rhythmic sequences of change determined much more by its own internal forces – and by the readjustment within it, of its own elements – than by external forces.176

Yet, beyond this descriptive analysis, the aim of deep formalism (Fry’s included) is broader and more regulative. Fry claims that in 1870 the art of Whistler and the Impressionists began to uphold “more categorically than before, the complete detachment of the artistic vision from the values imposed on vision by everyday life.”177 An active renouncement of facts, life, and nature is required for this goal. This renouncement is practically manifested in a forced anti-realism, which aims at productive opacity, and should generate an intense effect on the soul and on society. Following the aestheticists, Fry claims that “the fundamental assumption that art aimed at representation […] has no logical foundation.” He adds that the practice of...

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