Whose Formalism?

Article excerpt

Having recently been called a "crypto-formalist," a "new kind of Greenberg, one with hindsight," and a "nihilistic formalist," I feel it my duty, at this juncture of our discipline, to address the issue of formalism--of its uses and abuses.(1) I shall first take my cue from these various pronouncements on my work, for all appear to be based on a similar notion of formalism, never actually defined but whose standard seems to be, in this part of the world, the art criticism of Clement Greenberg. For the first author, I am a Greenberger who does not dare say his name (yet does "business as usual"); for the second, I am just short of a criminal (dishonestly repeating Greenberg's "mistakes" while I had all the tools at my disposal to avoid doing so); for the third, who does not share such a distaste for Greenberg, I deliberately perverted the enterprise of formalism by tainting it with ideology. The first purports to have courageously brought me out of the closet (while I never denied my debts toward formalism, though not so much that of Greenberg as that of Alois Riegl, Russian formalism, and Structuralism); the second misestimates his adversary (Greenberg had hindsights, even if, more often than not, I feel compelled to challenge them); the third, if I understand him correctly, believes that one can discuss works of art formally, without having any claims on their signification. All agree that this is precisely what Greenberg wanted to do. The first adds that it is what I do myself while I should know better; the second that it is what I do while I know better; the third, that it is what I should do.

Since it seems obvious that I'll have once again to try to free "formalism" from the life-insured mortgage Greenberg has been granted on its very premises,(2) I'll first take his work as an example in order to assert that, notwithstanding what he had to say on the matter (he and several Bloomsbury writers such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell who shared such a silly dream), it is impossible to keep meaning at bay. Then I'll use his work to show that if "formalist criticism" currently has a bad name, it may be because it was not practiced well enough. This will lead me to respond to the charge that formalism equals a-or antihistory (a charge common since the days of Stalin's cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov and carried to the present: it is the main argument of the "business-as-usual" critic quoted above). All along, I shall try to define the tasks of the type of formalism I have in mind with regard to the practice of its most vociferous enemies.

A word on these enemies, in passing: although they come from different factions, they share an idealist conception of meaning as an a priori construct existing before its embodiment in a form. They all speak, as Roland Barthes would say, "in the name of the Cause." Their idealist conception of meaning combines with an idealist conception of form (as existing prior to its embodiment in matter) in order to insure the apotheosis of the concept of image--an apotheosis whose current symptom is the rise of what is called Visual Studies. It is not by chance that the image was precisely what abstract art struggled against, or that it has been the main target of the Russian formalists in their literary criticism, or that Riegl's groundwork concerned essentially nonmimetic decorative arts, for in the absence of the image one is, or should be, forced to abandon the idealist concept of meaning I just mentioned. The enemies of formalism usually keep away from abstract art for that very reason--but when they occasionally approach it, it is most often in a desperate attempt to retrieve the absent image (business as usual) and thus to negate the historical specificity of abstraction.

Let me first grant Greenberg the benefit of the doubt: I am not so sure that provocation on his part did not play a major role in his ostensible lack of interest in meaning (I sometimes even wonder, in the darkest of scenarios, if such a provocation was not mounted as a screen to mask the deliberate bias of his interpretation). …