From the Print Journal

Art and Form: From Roger Fry to Global Modernism by Sam Rose

Art and Form cover
Art and Form: From Roger Fry to Global Modernism. Sam Rose. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019. Pp. 224. $89.95 (cloth); $34.95 (paper).

© 2020 Johns Hopkins University Press

Sam Rose’s compelling new book Art and Form begins with the observation that modernist formalism has suffered severe blows to its reputation since its heyday in Clement Greenberg’s aesthetics, but argues that many of its critics have been attacking straw men. The supposed doxa of formalist aesthetics—that there is an autonomous realm of aesthetic experience, that this realm is radically separated from the world and available only to the sophisticated, and that a work of art is independent of its creator—have been long-standing targets of attack, and have often seemed like important and significant mistakes whose failures require significantly different accounts of the nature of art. But, Rose contends, when one looks back at key sources for modernist formalism, what one finds is that many of these issues were energetically present at the moment of its inception. Returning with this in mind to the central writers for the theory of artistic form in the years between 1910 and 1939, then, restores a sense of the real complexity of the history. But it does something more. In the book’s most ambitious (and most tentative) claim, Rose contends that this restored history points towards a more plausible theory of the artwork: a modest or post-formalism, which “acknowledges at once both the end of grand modernist self-confidence and universality and the fact that the desire to do anything historical with objects will always require some . . . appeal to form” (152).

Five pleasantly concise chapters present this revisionist history of formalism topically. The first chapter emphasizes Clive Bell and Roger Fry, and points out, in particular, the importance of connoisseurship for making sense of what Fry thought the formalist response to the work of art involved. Contrary to the assumption that modernist aesthetics ignored artistic intention, Rose contends that Fry’s formalism depended on an extensive analysis of just that: interpretation required an imaginative grasp of the process of artistic creation. Chapter two addresses the question of what knowledge, exactly, is produced by formalist art criticism and how this knowledge compares to scientific investigation; the chapter concludes provocatively by arguing that the postwar revival of aesthetics in analytic philosophy by writers like Nelson Goodman involved forgetting the complexity of earlier formalisms. Chapter three turns to the ethics and politics of formalism, observing the irony by which the informed and active kind of perception championed by Fry became the seed of the experience of mass consumer culture by later writers, and contends that the fusion of social criticism and formalist aesthetics in writers like Richard Wollheim should be understood not “as a move beyond early formalism so much as a development and exemplification of its ethical ideal” (97). Chapter four takes a slightly different tack, narrating formalism’s encounter with “mass culture,” which Rose portrays as a tension between the mechanized production inherent in “design” on the one hand and Marxist attempts to imagine a truly popular art on the other. The iterations of formalism in this chapter are uncertain, seemingly abandoned by Marxists but surprisingly maintained when such critics hesitated to affirm “mass taste under modern industrialized capitalism” (122). Finally, chapter five turns to the question of global modernism, discussing several artists from Nigeria and India as a way of developing a humbler formalism that neither privileges the artistic tradition of the West nor assumes the universality of artistic experience but preserves the sense that formalism is a necessary part of historical interpretation.

Rose’s correction is a welcome one, restoring a fuller picture to an approach that is often easily caricatured, while keeping in mind a sense of its limitations. It is particularly sharp in pulling out the limitations of British conceptions of aesthetic education and their emphasis on individual and cultural authenticity when they were imported to the Empire, noting of Gerard Sekoto’s use of postimpressionism in imperial South Africa that “[t]here could be no stronger indication of how arbitrary and culturally restrictive the allegedly liberatory aims of formalist aesthetic education—telling artists what they should do in order to become themselves—turned out to be” (138). And his suggestion of a “modest formalism” as the outcome of such an argument parallels recent theoretical developments elsewhere.

In particular, Rose’s view resembles the defense of a “feasible formalism” by Nick Zangwill, who has also returned to Fry and Bell to rescue a humbler version of their philosophy of art.[1] As Zangwill explains it, formalism is first and foremost a theory about the nature of aesthetic properties—a work’s beauty and/or ugliness, most obviously, but also its “elegance, daintiness, dumpiness, power, balance and delicacy” (“Feasible Aesthetic Formalism,” 612). To the formalist, such properties arise always and only from a work’s form—the arrangement of “lines, shapes and colors” on its surface; in contradistinction, the antiformalist holds that no aesthetic properties have this feature (610). That dichotomy leads to a second: the formalist believes that a work’s aesthetic properties are all “narrowly determined,” arising only from the physical properties of the work and produced only via the dispositions of such properties to provoke sensory responses; the antiformalist holds that all aesthetic properties are “broadly determined,” that the presence or absence of an aesthetic reaction to a work is a result of the various contexts in which the work is produced and experienced (612). “Moderate formalism” strikes for the reasonable middle ground, holding that it is possible to concede to the antiformalist that there are some non–formal aesthetic properties, and thus that some of what makes a work of art artistic is broadly determined, but that some works of art have only formal aesthetic properties and that many works have both formal and non-formal aesthetic properties (612). 

Zangwill develops his account through Immanuel Kant’s notion of “dependent beauty,” which occurs when a judgment of beauty cannot be separated from a judgment of the evaluated thing under a concept of an end or function (613). In other words, the work is not beautiful and also a thing with a function: it is rather beautiful as the functioning thing. Multiplication, not addition, in Zangwill’s phrase (618). So, dependent beauty occurs when an object’s formal properties enhance and complement its non-formal properties. Probably the clearest example here is architecture; as Zangwill explains, a mosque might be beautiful as a mosque, and not just both beautiful and a mosque, but because it “aesthetically expresses or articulates the religious function of a mosque” (619). Of course, though, what makes a mosque a mosque is not something discernible from the building itself, and so the aesthetic properties of the building depend on its history. A similar response holds for representational painting: a beautiful painting is beautiful as a painting of a tree, not both beautiful and representational. And what makes a representation successful in representing something changes over time and from place to place, and so again a work’s aesthetic properties are dependent on its history of production and reception. But, Zangwill stresses, there is no need for the formalist to concede too much here: if the aesthetic properties of representational art are context dependent in this way, this is not true of nonrepresentational art, the beauty of which stems only from its form. 

How does this compare to Rose’s modest formalism? What Rose seems to want to maintain from Fry and Bell is a recovery of the reactions of individual artists to the traditions that preceded them via a close encounter with the work. As he puts it, the “grain of truth” in the formalist account that “needs to be preserved” is “the connection between form and an imaginative historical psychology” (Art and Form, 156). What he means in calling this modest is that such accounts will try to “suspend” evaluative judgment, which must wait until critics’ “acquaintance with new shapes and worlds can have reworked their capacity for judgment accordingly” (158). So, formalism because it thinks of art as formed by specific historical individuals; modest because it is openly nonevaluative. 

These two modest formalisms might seem to align well, but they are, in fact, in deep tension with each other. Zangwill’s idea that some aspect of a work’s aesthetic effect might be purely dependent on its physical properties is on Rose’s account simply confused; one gets the impression he would call Zangwill a poor reader of Fry, insofar as Zangwill does not seem to think a reenactment of the process of the work’s creation is a necessary part of aesthetic experience. Conversely, Rose’s emphasis on form as the grasp of a historical tradition would seem on Zangwill’s account to have started by conceding everything to the antiformalist; what Rose thinks of as the essence of formalism is for Zangwill just “contextual dependent beauty,” the aesthetic effect works have insofar as they respond to other artworks (“Moderate Aesthetic Formalism,” 482).   

Rose ends by calling critics to consider a variety of artistic traditions without first evaluating them, but what the comparison to Zangwill reveals is how developing “modest formalism” requires a further consideration of what exactly the experience of art involves. Not least is there a question about what exactly Fry meant—whether his account sees a recovery of the artist’s creative activity as an essential part of aesthetic experience or not—but also whether anyone, Fry or not, can give an explanation of the nature of beauty that does not introduce context surreptitiously in this way. Rose suggests that the answer is no, but his is not the only modest formalism on the block, and I hope his future work responds to his rivals.


[1] See, in particular, “In Defense of Moderate Aesthetic Formalism,” The Philosophical Quarterly 50, no. 201 (2000): 476–93; “Feasible Aesthetic Formalism,” NOÛS 33, no. 4 (1990): 610–29; and “Defusing Anti-Formalist Arguments,” British Journal of Aesthetics 40, no. 3 (2000): 376–83.