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Formalism in Art and Design

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2167 words Published: 16th Aug 2018

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When thinking about formalism there is a larger perceived concept in society about this movement; there are many different types of formalism present in civilization which includes formalism in law, science, and art and design etc. This essay will focus on formalism in art and design specifically and certain questions will be answered to make the subject clear; what is formalism? How does formalism differ from other processes in art making? Why is this art movement so important to design? What era and movement in art do we specifically ascribe formalism to? This essay will also include three pictures that subscribe notions of formalism and will be briefly discussed. Each of these questions will be examined and answered to clarify the concept of formalism to a person who is not familiar with this movement.

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What is formalism?

Many people believe that formalism only focuses on the form of an artwork or design which is not necessarily accurate because according to Wolf; formalism is the balance of certain elements in a design or painting. Formalism has a specific approach of art criticism and hypothesis to which all visual art has a fundamental importance. This importance is determined by the artist’s ability to accomplish a visual order and the balance of certain elements’ reality within a painting or image. These elements reality are the painting or image use of colour, line, composition and texture. No matter how much artistic technique and taste may transform over a period of time, formalism holds that these realities are constant (Wolf, 2009:[sp]). There is a theory developed of formalism that the object can stand on its own based on its construction significance according to Nelingburg; that formalism is “art for the sake of art” (Nelingburg, 2011: [sp]).

Plato’s Theory of form

When looking at Plato’s “Theory of Form”, it is a theory that can be used to assist with the understanding of formalism. The philosopher, Plato developed a “Theory of Forms” based on the proposal of eidos, which basically means “stature” or “appearance”. Plato applied the phrase generally in his diverse dialogues to propose a rudimentary general language. Every earthly object; a tangible object (like a chair) or abstract object (like human asset), has a mutual characteristic; all of the objects have form. Plato’s hypothesis is better understood when looking at his “Allegory of the Cave”; he visualises a cave which held captive prisoners who had never left the cave, all the prisoners could see were workers shadows cast on the cave walls, and all they could hear were the voices echoing in the cave. This is all that the prisoners knew about the “outside world”, so they perceived the voices and shadows as actual forms of real objects and were absolutely unaware that the forms were just mimicries of the genuine things. Plato stated that the prisoners perception of objects was not false; because of their understanding of the world; “by their understanding of the world, the shadows and echoes were the actual forms, just as a painting of a woman is as real, if not more real, than the actual woman who is depicted on the canvas”. (Wolf, 2009:[sp]). The people imagined to be trapped in the cave have no idea of what the world looks like, so by just seeing the shadows and hearing the noises, this is all they will ever experience from the outside world, this is what is “real to them because they have not been exposed to anything else”.

How does formalism differ from other processes in art making?

The starting point of formalism is deeply ingrained in ancient thought, for they believed that the cosmos is ruled by numerical association, or in the concept of form as inelegant quality of things, imposed upon or intrinsic and these ideas were applied to art (Williams, 2009: [sp]). Formalists only concentrated on formal assets of works of art and assume that these forms follow their own development (Hatt, Klonk, 2006: 66). This shows the different believes that the formalist had about the art and how they applied this to the art process. One of the characteristics of formalism is that the artist was concerned with the manner of perception of the forms in the absence of any connotation. Kant proposes it that formalism refers to assets of seeing of objects (Crysler & Cairns & Heynen, 2012: [sp]). Where as in other movements is art such as Art Nuevo form was not that important, artists were more concerned with the decoration of the design and this was where mass production first occurred. It is said that this era was the first time that modern civilisation used mechanism to construct designs (Wolf, 2009:[sp]).

Why is formalism important to design?

As stated above (What is formalism) that formalism focus on the importance of balancing elements in a design, (Wolf, 2009: [sp]); this aspect is applicable when looking at the design process of today, the use of elements will determine the principles which if the design achieves balance, it represents formalist characteristic. The theory of formalism states that it places emphasis on the design value; this theory implies that the most essential aspect of a work of art or design is the successful arrangement of the elements through the principles of design (Kjeria, 2008: [sp]). According to these points, if a design does not use the balance of elements, the design will not be successful and this is where formalism influenced the designing method of today.

What era and movement is formalism ascribed to?

It is claimed that within the early decades of 20th century there was an apprehension for formal qualities known as the formalism movement, it has been seen as the characteristic of art criticism (Schechter, [sa]: 261). The movement that formalism can be recognized to is modernism since much of the research done on formalism is connected with the modernism movement. The implement of artistic freedom became essential to progressive modernism; artists began to search for freedom not just from the rules of scholastic art, but from the demands of the community. Quickly it was claimed that art should not be made for the public’s sake but for art’s sake. The term “art for art sake” is also used (mentioned in previous paragraph) to describe modernism, this states that a call for discharge from the oppression of meaning and intention. Witcombe declared it a developing modernist’s point of view, that the meaning of the creation was an additional implement of freedom. It is also said to be a plot, another intentional disrespect towards the middle class responsiveness which demanded art with meaning or it had some reason such as instruct or pleasure and usually to reflect in some way their own focused and purpose-full world (Witcombe, 1997: [sp]). This quote; “art for art sake” is mention by Witcombe and Nelingburg, thus it may imply that there are subtle similarities between formalism and modernism.

Modernism vs. Formalism

The 20th century has focused its artistic awareness on progressive modernism to the extent that conformist modernism has been abandoned and derides as an art form. It is speculated that modernism art is practised completely within a closed formalist speciality, essentially detached from, not to be infected by the real world. In particular, abstraction, formalism could adopt the advantages of the progressives, who used it in justification of modernism, which has been particularly open to criticism. In the early 20th century, formalism was also efficiently united with other objectives of progressive modernism, universalism (Witcombe, 1997: [sp]). It can be assumed that the formalist and modernist movements were infused with each other in order to be seen as an art movement; they both needed each other to have subsisted.

Formalist artworks

Dare two


In this artwork the artist used several elements to create a balance in the composition, which is what formalism portrays; the artist commemorates the new direction in geometrical abstraction and spiritual associations. The other element used in this piece was colour, it has reflection towards movements such as Neo Geo and formalism gives way to underlining perceptive progression and the enjoyment of art making (2012: [sp]). Repetition is also seen in the art; by repeating the colours, line and forms, this principle creates a unifying feature to the art as whole. By using some of the elements and principles in a balancing method the viewer can distinguish that it has a formalistic value. According to Dictionary.com, the definition of abstract is: “thought of apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances”, this artwork also has these qualities of abstract art which can also be classified as abstract formalism.



For Joel Shapiro (the artist) form is the most important characteristic of this untitled sculpture, according to Nelingburg, form was essential to the artist because emphasise of the sculpture is based on its physical structure and form, the sculpture relies on abstraction. There is a lot of awareness brought on the figures based on the materials that were used and the colours that make them, but the main focus is the shape and what they symbolize since it portrays the human body (Nelingburg, 2011:[sp]). By looking at the characteristics of the figure, it can be assumed that the artist successfully used the elements that are present in the model in an equal way, but in this case the form was the most important element present because it is a sculpture. As stated above (what is formalism), according to Nelingburg, there is a presumption developed that an artwork can stand on its own foundation based on aesthetic values, when specifically looking at formalistic sculptures (2011: [sp]).

Friendly Formalism


S. Stratton and J. M. Ward, art critics express that “Ps & Qs” as “friendly formalism”, the artwork flirts with the rigidity of the 20th century formalism, but gives it a current 21th century twist. This artwork is described as playful, which is definitely far more cherished and “forthcoming” than the canonical mid-century artworks that are connected with the formalist philosopher Clement Greenberg’s theories: works of art are colourful, relish their acquisitiveness, and opposed to the hard-edged perfectionism have a propensity to be associated with Piet Mondrian and Le Corbusier’s designs (Pittman, 2010:[sp]). By looking at these aspects mentioned by Stratton and Ward, it is clear that this painting unquestionably has formalism virtues, because of the elements used such as colour, line, forms which creates the principles that are associated with the painting. The main element used there was the forms that are presented and the cold colours, all of these characteristics declared that this artwork represents formalism. This artwork can also be classified as abstract formalism because the main idea of the piece is left to the imagination.

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Formalism was a movement that wanted to create artworks just because of art’s sake; it was about the artistic skill of how the artists balance certain elements in the art to accomplish balance. The movement can also be redefined by Plato’s theory, so that it can be understood when not grasping the concept of formalism as a movement. Formalism has its own characteristics and so does many other art movements, which is why formalism is unique and uses its own art development when creating a design or artwork by using certain elements and using them equally to accomplish balance. By knowing what the characteristics of formalism are, it is easy to see why formalism had such a great impact on current designs and artworks. Although formalism was present in the early 20th century and was mostly connected with modernism, these aspects of formalism and even modernism is still seen in designs and artworks of the modern day. Especially the artworks mentioned in this essay, all three of these paintings and the sculpture are works of art that were created in the 21th century, all of the pieces have formalist qualities and characteristics even though they were not produced too long ago. Formalism is a delicate movement since it is complicated generates an artwork by balancing the elements equally and producing a piece that stands for “art for the sake of art”. Each question that was mentioned in the introduction was acknowledged and discussed in this essay, the questions of formalism became obvious to the reader; therefore knowing what formalism entails.


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