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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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Closing: The Demise of Deep Form?


Why did modernism in aesthetics collapse? Why this shift from an aesthetic definition of the artwork as an introversive, beautiful object, whose essence is its independent composition, with its influence on world and soul emanating from its detachment from the world, to a model that presents the cognitive turn to the world as the main trait of the artwork? This juncture in the history of aesthetics is philosophically significant and revealing. Besides having a direct bearing on art, it touches on our perception of both human nature and the nature of philosophy. Did modernism collapse because of human nature? Is our essence really artificiality, housed in our imaginative life? Is it, as Wilde and Fry claim, expressed by the epistemological faculty that operates and realizes itself when we allow ourselves to be detached from the world negating it? Or are we, after all, as Goodman and Danto have it, symbolic-linguistic creatures who build our worlds as symbolic systems: “We are systems of representations, ways of seeing the world, representation incarnate”?321 Perhaps the collapse is due to the real nature of art, which might not be syntactic, compositional, musical, otherworldly, and introversively free, but rather representational and reflective after all.

Or, perhaps modernism collapsed because of the nature of philosophy, which has difficulties standing straight and facing an opaque form, which resists meaning and interpretative completion with unextractable content. It is certain that the philosophy of language contributed to this collapse – by helping aesthetics to redefine art as...

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