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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 7: Conceptual Mimesis


“In Art, it is criminal to go beyond the means used in its exercise. The picture ends where the frame begins”291 – I am returning to Whistler’s words, since they stand strong in both junctures in the history of aesthetics that we are discussing. These are:

1. The deep formalist turn, namely, the shift from the visual-mimetic model of art to the aestheticist one. This philosophical turn was accompanied by aestheticist and then Post-Impressionist art, theoretically supported by early-Formalism.

2. What I will call the linguistic turn in aesthetics – namely, the shift from the deep formalist model to the conceptual-mimetic one, which took place after aesthetics assimilated the terminology of the philosophy of language. The adoption of this vocabulary enabled a theoretical support of Pop-Art and Conceptual-Art, which accompanied the linguistic turn. “Theoretical support” supplied a philosophical confirmation that the pop piece was a real work of art. It was a redefinition of art so that the definition applies to these kinds of works. “The picture ends where the frame begins” – we encountered this claim in an essay written during the theoretical debate regarding the completeness of Whistler’s Nocturnes. It represents the question that instigated both shifts in models: which properties are internal to the artwork? In other words, which properties belong to the artwork? This is an ontological question about the ontological boundaries of the artwork – about what kind of object the artwork actually is.

Both turns in the history of aesthetics, I...

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