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Welcome back, it's been a catastrophically long break, but this time I'm back to stay. In the time that I've been AWOL much and more has happened, but that's for my personal blog on WordPress. One thing I can share is that I've been holding Socrates Cafe style discussions in London through meetup.com (it's a great site, check it out), and they've been a great success if I may say so myself. Unfortunately some things went wrong and it is for the time being put on hold. However I would still like to hear from other people and engage in meaningful discussion. You can imagine how happy I was to discover that Dissecting Apollo is still here, and hasn't been spammed into oblivion.

To restart a great community, I'd like to pour some Formalism all over this page. Formalism is one of the ways to engage with art, possibly the earliest, and maybe the most fundamental, although definitely not the most popular in its basic form. There are as many philosophies as there are philosophers, but I prefer to think of it in terms of what Maurice Denis wrote in 1890
                               "Remember that a picture, before being a cavalry charger, a nude woman , or some genre anecdote, is essentially a                                   flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order."
In that sense formalism is categorically easy to understand, but difficult to grasp in its simplicity. How can we possibly look at art as simply paint on a canvas, if the artist doesn't make it as such, and we don't see it as such upon first contact? Another quote from Clive Bell in 1914 becomes even more complicated
                                "The representational element in a work of art may or may not be harmful, always it is                                               irrelevant … to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no                                                                   knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions"
What kind of fun is art if we can't look at it using our knowledge? And I don't mean our indepth knowledge of textiles and dress, of history, or botany, or theology. Bell says even more  we look at art as newborn babes without knowledge of emotions, basic knowledge of human psychology (not the type you learn in school, but what we learn through living). So when you encounter a painting like the one just below, you are supposed to ignore the fact that you know this is Marie Antoinette in her last attempt to gain public support by commissioning a portrait of herself as a mother. The fact that Elisabeth VIgee LeBrun, probably the most famous female artist of the 18th century, who was given the honourable position of court painter to Marie Antoinette. Or when looking at a painting of the crucifiction, we are to see a man, who appears to be in pain, with random figures of both men and women mourning around him, without engaging our knowledge of scriptures and traditional representation. The approach seems ludicrous, but as we can see from all the dates so far, this is a late 19th, early 20th century view that I believe has already seen its heyday. Formalism is good to know, and useful to occasionally reference, but definitely not the dominant way of thinking nowadays.

In his Principles of Art History Henirich Wolfflin uses the formalist approach to trace the changes between Renaissance and Baroque art. A seminal work which stands at the gate of academic Art Historical study. He poses a list of binaries between Renaissance and Baroque art.
Renaissance                                              Baroque
Linear                                                           Painterly
Plane                                                            Recession
Closed Form (self contained)                       Open Form (reach beyond the composition)
Multiplicty                                                      Unity
Absolute Clarity of subject                            Relative Clarity

In the next post I will talk about the formal analysis of art, which is not necessairly Formalist in philosophy, but deals with formal composition and colour rather than the social content of art. It will probably shine some more light on Wolfflin's binaries.

Such is the Formalist approach to art. How do you feel about it, is it still valid in the modern world? Can formalism offer us new ways of looking at contemporary art? Did I get it completely and totally wrong?

The dissector.

From the SEP

Adorno's claims about art in general stem from his reconstruction of the modern art movement. So a summary of his philosophy of art sometimes needs to signal this by putting "modern" in parentheses. The book begins and ends with reflections on the social character of (modern) art. Two themes stand out in these reflections. One is an updated Hegelian question whether art can survive in a late capitalist world. The other is an updated Marxian question whether art can contribute to the transformation of this world. When addressing both questions, Adorno retains from Kant the notion that art proper ("fine art" or "beautiful art"—schöne Kunst—in Kant's vocabulary) is characterized by formal autonomy. But Adorno combines this Kantian emphasis on form with Hegel's emphasis on intellectual import (geistiger Gehalt) and Marx's emphasis on art's embeddedness in society as a whole. The result is a complex account of the simultaneous necessity and illusoriness of the artwork's autonomy. The artwork's necessary and illusory autonomy, in turn, is the key to (modern) art's social character, namely, to be "the social antithesis of society" (AT 8).

With this in mind I think we can find only an eternal conflict between this demand for "formal autonomy" and that all art must have some form. This makes an interesting dilemma for criticism which focuses on demands of form. And at any point that the artist reflects as their own critic we see the dilemma most profoundly as the artist will have necessarily to struggle between autonomy, form, and what judgements and memories they and society carry along from history with art being among artifacts. Autonomy, at its end, is an isolation that presents itself as incoherence. The extreme of formalism is a lack of anything new in its message presented against a backdrop where the being has a life that rises from the new itself - All things to a baby are new. In this the struggle of the artist is always to present something new, autonomous, but which for the sake of coherence must be related to form, and therefore history, that thing which criticism must have in mind, but which art may, in fact, forget.

It seems that all artworks aim for the creation of a tense moment that then resolves in some release. A traditional joke has a setup that builds tension which is released by some sign, usually the punchline. When you view or listen there is always a build to some tension and then some striking moment as with an epiphany which releases the buildup of tension or energy. In the case of a joke the release is laughter. The tension is generally grounded in the emotive, but generally reached by some action usually found to be grounded in the realms of abstract thought. The moment is thought of or imagined and then reached by action or activity producing signs. Acting as an art form is the activity of rendering emotion by using abstract thought to cross the bridged between the emotive state and its active signals. Thus an actor may display rage or dispair, but they are not reflecting a real situation but one built from and though reason and imagination. Games then may be the most immersive of the art forms for us going forward as they engage a virtual copy of practical reason in a space as they build situational tension*. In this I think Ebert may be quite wrong**...

My son bought a copy of Left 4 Dead and its an interesting game in the context of this essay in that the episodes are set up as movies and you play as the movie characters. But there is little to the game in the way of plot but for surviving the onslaught of zombies. There is a tremendous amount of tension built into this simple formula in accord with the settings used. The game is just creepy in setting tone and then throws a ton of zombies at you. It continually asks in drastic high emotive tension, "Can you survive this world of imagination?" Often you're left to mashing the fire button, groaning at the necessity of a reload, and left shocked and frustrated as a bunch of horrid faced ghouls claw at "you". Then "you" get hit with a "special" and your vision is blurred, or you're pinned or bludgeoned. The interesting thing is that the replay value is high because in every return to the game the timing and location of these tense moments among the setting have changed. The numbers, hiding places, and specials all "move" about the landscape for each play which give rise to a tougher time for the player in relying on a combination of memory and practical reason to navigate the scene. Yes, there is going to be a witch ahead and there is going to be ammo reloads and so forth but if you go looking for them in the place they were last time, well, you'll be disappointed, in itself another set up emotional moment. This is a whole new tension in gaming...

And in art...

*This is focused primarily on the current crop of "immersive" games.
**Roger Ebert has made comment that games are not equivelent of the art form of film lagging to the degree that they are basically not art or could not ever be considered as "high art". He also responds to responses to these statement including some from Clive Barker


Welcome to the Art community!
Feel free to post questions, musings, pictures of paintings (or other media), your own paintings etc
I promise to keep this a  nice, flame-free community of people with a common interest in art.

To start out our discussions, I have two topics for you:

1. Madame X
The painting at the top is a detail from Madame X (1883-1884), John Singer Sargent. He was greatly criticized for the original work, which featured the woman with the right strap of her dress slipped off. Here is a picture of what the original painting looked like:

Even after changing it, the painting remain controversial.
Why do you think it caused such an critical storm? After all, by 1883 nudes were nothing new in painting.
Should he have changed it under the pressure of his contemporaries? Does it change that value of the work knowing that the artist intended it to look differently?

2. Cave Art

Why do you think the hunter-gatherer decided to go into a cave to create art?
How did he feel, how did his tribe feel?
Was there a religious purpose, or was it an attempt to create order in the chaos that the primitive man was experiencing?
Why are people inherently drawn to creating art?

Deviations from these questions are encouraged, I just put the questions here to get you started.

Have Fun!
Your friendly, neighbourhood moderator.