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Aestheticism

Deep Formalism and the Emergence of Modernist Aesthetics

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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 6: Criticism versus Interpretation

Extract

In his 1912 Notes of a Painter Matisse confronted a public who “likes to think of painting as an appendage of literature and therefore wants it to express not general ideas suited to pictorial means, but specifically literary ideas.”258 This was twenty-four years after Whistler’s Art and Art Critics: Pamphlet on Art Critics was published, challenging the concept of criticism as literary completion of the work of art. Matisse, whose oeuvre was philosophically supported by the early formalists Fry and Bell, went along with the aestheticist and early formalist portrayal of the relationship between the thought and the work, claiming that:

The painter’s best spokesman is his work, because the thought, the idea, must not be considered as separate from the painter’s pictorial means, for the thought is worth no more than its expression by the means. I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and my way of translating it.259

This claim obviously puts into question mark the meaning of the concepts of artistic “content” and artistic “translation.” Instead of content and translation we find non-material and material elements taking part in the internal order of the work. Perception cannot tell these elements apart; the distinction between nonmaterial and material elements in the artwork is merely a product of a superfluous speculation. This scheme has a direct bearing on Wilde’s theory of art criticism. My understanding of the artwork as a productive-opaque symbol, as deep-form, will make sense of this...

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