“Formalism” is one of those words that
arises frequently in a number of fields, though rarely with a clear or
agreed-upon sense of what it means. Even so, formalism remains a negatively
charged word in the visual arts, while in literary studies there have recently
been tentative efforts to rehabilitate it. In this book I try to give a more
precise definition of formalism, in an effort to assess its continuing
relevance to the visual arts.
As I see it, formalism is best defined in
terms of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, where it is closely linked with the
term “autonomy.” Kant employs the term “autonomy” in his ethical philosophy by
contrast with the term “heteronomy.” Autonomy in ethics means, above all, that
an ethical action must be undertaken for its own sake, not for some ulterior
motive, for the sake of a reward, or with a view to the consequences of the
action. The ethical act is motivated only by itself, through consideration of
pure duty. This is why Kant refers to his own ethical philosophy as “formalist”
in character: it is not primarily a matter of the good or bad “content” of an
action, but of whether it was motivated by ethical consideration alone.
While “formalism” and “autonomy” are not
mentioned by Kant in his theory of art, they lie implicitly at the heart of
that theory. Kant’s aesthetics are formalist insofar as beauty is distinguished
both from what is personally agreeable and from the useful (as in Kant’s own
low estimation of architecture as an art form). The beautiful is what is
beautiful in its own right, and given sufficiently developed taste, everyone
ought to agree as to what is beautiful. In this way, the beauty of an artwork
or anything else is autonomous from the various impure human motives that often
taint our pure aesthetic judgment. And insofar as such judgment comes from the
transcendental faculty that belongs universally to all humans, it pertains to
us rather than to the beautiful work. Thus, there is an autonomy of the work
and the human spectator from each other.
Given that Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO)
is interested in the non-relational character of all entities, it can only
salute Kant’s concern with the autonomy of beauty from non-aesthetic
consideration such as socio-political, historical, or psychological factors. To
this extent, OOO greatly prefers Kant’s formalist aesthetics to others of a
Hegelian, Marxist, or Frankfurt School inspiration, in which art belongs to a
dynamic interplay of the entire realm of spirit, so that the artwork reflects
numerous historical factors rather than being cleanly separated from them.
Nonetheless, Kant tacitly reads autonomy as being one particular type of
autonomy in particular: that of human thought from the world. It is no problem
for different chemical elements to combine in a single compound, or for birds
to mass in a flock: but to treat the human being and the artwork as joined in a
single unit looks like ontological disaster from a Kantian standpoint.
This book argues that both the good and bad
side of Kantian formalism are adopted by the modernist formalism represented
brilliantly by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried; their rejection of the term
“formalism” is based on a different definition of the term from the one adopted
in this book. Whereas Kant created a split between an artwork and its observer
in favor of the latter, Greenberg and Fried reverse this standpoint while
leaving its basic dualism intact: for Fried, for instance, the artwork should
not be subverted through any sort of theatrical
relation to its beholder. Nonetheless, Fried’s own art-historical writing tends
to undercut this premise of his art criticism. While Fried is quick to form
alliance with the Diderotian tradition of anti-theatrical art in the
eighteenth-century, his studies of Courbet and Manet concede that this
tradition is eventually abandoned in favor of an “absorptive continuum
(Courbet) and radical “facingness” (Manet) that lead us in a different
The conclusion drawn from this argument is that, contra Fried, we must maintain a non-relational conception of art even while affirming a theatrical conception of it. The theatrical is in fact the non-relational, and this puts us in a position to adopt a more positive standpoint on post-1960s art than is found in either Fried and Greenberg. This also has implications for the ontology of OOO itself.
Graham Harman is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. His new book Art and Objects is available now in the UK, coming out in the US in mid-November.