Formalist Art Criticism and the Politics of Meaning

By Tekiner, Deniz | Social Justice, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Formalist Art Criticism and the Politics of Meaning


Tekiner, Deniz, Social Justice


FROM THE 1940s UNTIL THE LATE 1960s, FORMALIST CRITICISM FUNCTIONED TO appropriate modernist art to the market interests and conventional sensibilities of the art world. By its judgments of taste, it certified the worthiness of art objects for markets, facilitating processes of the reception of artworks as commodities. It thus functioned symbiotically with art marketers. By its support of the market apparatus and its invalidation of social concerns as they are expressed through art, formalism upheld conservative agendas. Limiting its attentions to form alone, it obscured the relationships of art to social contexts and the socially critical implications of art.

Formalism dominated art criticism in the United States during the postwar period, a time in which the center of gravity of the Western art world shifted from Paris to New York, the U.S. experienced an economic boom, complacency characterized political life, and dissent was scarcely tolerated. The North American art critic Clement Greenberg was the leading prolocutor of formalism during this time. Many less prominent critics followed his lead. Greenberg's criticism, which was published mainly in Partisan Review, The Nation, and Commentary, carried on a European formalist tradition that was led in the early 20th century by Roger Fry and Clive Bell. Greenberg believed that the subjects of the visual arts should be their respective media. Painting should be about paint, and sculpture about the materials of sculpture. It follows that politics and narrative, as extraneous to the art media, debase the purity of visual art. Formalists evaluate art according to physical qualities such as color, size, shape, line, texture, and so on, and treat the ideational content of works as irrelevant. They view themselves as being mainly protectors and upholders of high aesthetic standards.

Many art critics now favor "contextual" approaches. As nicely summarized by art historian Howard Risatti (1988:31), such approaches seek "to understand how art functions socially, economically, and politically in relation to status and power and the construction of worldviews," Contextual approaches may be more capable of evading the collusions with market forces and conservative interests that marked formalism during the period of its hegemony. As Risatti points out, "because object validation is not something contextualist art history primarily does, it presents a threat to this whole apparatus of culture as object worship and to the status and power that this apparatus supports" (Ibid.).

In The Function of Criticism, Terry Eagleton (1984) shows that contemporary literary criticism, though it is ensconced in academic domains, tends to be complicit with market forces and the ideologies that support them. He shows that contemporary literary theory, even while it is supposedly anti-authoritarian, is complicit with established structures of power by its epistemological nihilism, its social insulation, its intellectual abstraction from the affairs of everyday life, and its consequent impotence as an effectual form of social criticism. Eagleton's critique of literary theory is comparable to the Frankfurt School's critiques of scientism and positivism that charge that much of scientific inquiry is complicit with systems of domination. These critiques suggest that systems of ideas that attain prominence in intellectual or scientific worlds often tend not to unsettle, if they are not directly complicit with, established structures of power. The compliance of intellectuals with these structures is thus secured without direct coercion.

Formalist art criticism is also subject to this charge. By excluding considerations of idea content and social context, it obscured the substantive concerns that artists frequently sought to express in their works. Thus, while Piet Mondrian wrote extensively on art's role in a dialectical revelation of harmonized oppositions, for example, by reading Clement Greenberg on Mondrian we could learn no more about this than that the artist "has theories" (Greenberg, 1986: 64).

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