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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 5: Completeness of the Artwork: Order, Beauty, Autonomy


Although Wilde thinks of art as universal, he follows Pater in taking the introversion of the medium to apply to each medium individually. Like Pater, who calls the mental faculty of engaging with art “imaginative reason” or “imaginative intellect,” Wilde associates artistic deep appearance with an epistemological apparatus. Presenting his modernist stance, Wilde argues that “the various spiritual forms of the imagination have a natural affinity with certain sensuous forms of art, and to discern the qualities of each art, to intensify as well its limitations as its powers of expression, is one of the aims that culture sets before us.”215 The power of expression and the ability to produce referents is a derivative of the essential constraints of every artistic medium.

In his essay ‘Style’ Pater defines art as the science of the rejections of the medium. Pater sets art up against natural science and assigns the artistic medium a parallel status to nature. “The exclusion, or rejections, which nature demands,” he writes, “we know how large a part these play, according to Bacon, in the science of nature in a somewhat changed sense. We might say that the art of the scholar is summed up in the observance of those rejections demanded by the nature of his medium, the material he must use.”216 This claim might be helpful in explaining the weakness – or, alternatively, the only provisionally effective power – of expansionist conceptual works, as posited by the linguistic or representational aesthetics of the 20th...

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