Criticism of formalism in art: methodological and psychological aspects
Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №11 - 2019
Mareev Sergei, Modern Academy for Humanities, Moscow, Russia
Mareeva Elena, Moscow International Higher Business School MIRBIS (Institute), Russia
In the early period of his
creativity, the outstanding Soviet psychologist L.S. Vygotsky criticized formalism in art, as it was presented in the theory and artistic practice of the early XX
century. Formalists, he wrote in the work 'The Psychology of Art' of 1925,
assigned the decisive role in the work of art to the form. 'Depending on this
change of view,' he clarifies, 'formalists should have abandoned the usual
categories of the form and the substance and replace them with two new concepts
- the form and the matter'.
Dialectics knows two categorical
pairs: form - matter and form - substance. The essence of the difference
between them was described by Hegel in 'The Science of Logic'. It is difficult
to say whether Vygotsky read Hegel. But dialectical instinct allows him to
formulate this distinction as follows: 'Whereas previously the science
understood form as something close to the philistine use of the word, that is,
the exclusively external, sensually perceived appearance of the work, its
external shell, attributing to the form purely sound elements of poetry,
colorful combinations of painting, etc., - a new understanding expands
this word to the universal principle of the artistic creativity'.
In other words, in formalism we deal
with a common idea of a form as something external in relation to the
material that is confused with substance. This is an external form in relation to which substance is just an innage. When the water in
the vessel takes the form of this vessel, then it is only the innage of this
If we consider from the point of
view of the form and the substance of a work of art the notorious 'Black Square', then
the form here is precisely the external square form. And the substance is the
black color, the blackness. But the square in this case can be of any color,
and therefore the color here is indifferent to the shape of the square, unless,
of course, it carries a semantic load, say, indicates the emptiness of the
artist's soul. And in its indifference to the form, the color again turns out
to be only matter inside this form, and not its substance.
The color can be so indifferent to
the shape that the Negro can be sculpted from white marble. Vygotsky writes
about such an opportunity in his 'Psychology of Art'. In this case we are
talking about the peculiarity of sculpting in art. But color is of particular
importance in painting. Therefore, if the Greeks painted their statues, it was
a mixture of genres, with all due respect to the ancient Greeks - our teachers
in art and philosophy.
So, the form of the black square in
this work of formalistic art is external to the color, which therefore
only acts as matter here. A rougher analogy of the relation of the
substance and the static form, as Vygotsky also calls it, is the relation of a
glass to wine. But if, in addition to the external form, there is an internal form, then how is it related to its substance? In Hegel's 'Science of Logic',
it is said that the internal form is not a form of the substance, but a form
that pervades the substance, organizing it from the inside. And thanks
to this, matter is dialectically removed, turning into the substance
that is impossible without its internal organization, which is called the
internal form in dialectics. But Vygotsky in his work 'The Psychology of
Art' does not speak Hegelian categories freely, and when it comes to the
substitution of the matter with the form (German: Aufheben), he
speaks about the 'destruction' of matter by the form, and sometimes about the
'overcoming' of the matter by the form, which expresses the essence of the
matter more adequately.
We must say that even Aristotle
defined the form as the principle of difference: all things differ in
their form. His example with a copper ball and a copper statue is widely known.
Their form is different, but the matter is identical. However, copper as the
matter is different from other matter - iron, clay, etc., which means
that the matter itself can vary in its form. But now we are talking not
about the external form, but about the form as the internal structure of
the matter, which in relation to copper and iron means their different
atomic-molecular structure. The same can be said about water in its liquid
state of aggregation. Water does not have its own external form, and therefore
takes the form of a vessel into which it is poured. But the internal form of
water is the physical and chemical structure of this substance, which is
denoted by the structural formula H2O for liquid, vapor, and ice. And
only in the latter state of aggregation does the water acquire a static
external form. Thus, we can speak of three variants of the form with respect to
water - the actual external geometric form, the form as an aggregate state, and
the internal form as the physical and chemical structure of this substance.
But let us go back to the question
of the nature of the art form. 'The external side or the foundation of beauty,'
according to F.V.Y. Schelling's work 'On the Relation of Fine Arts to Nature' -
is the beauty of the form. But since there is no form without substance,
wherever there is a form, there is also its visible or only tangible
characteristic. Therefore, characteristic beauty is the beauty at its root,
from which beauty can only rise as a fruit; the substance, though, outgrows the
form, but even then the characteristic remains the effective foundation of the
interprets the same question differently. 'We consider as the central idea of
the psychology of art,' he writes, 'the recognition of overcoming the
material with the art form or, which is the same, recognition of the art as
a social technique of feeling'.
So what is the essence of the art: in pre-eminence of the essence of the
depicted above the art form of the or in overcoming the matter by the same art
In fact, there is no contradiction,
but to justify this, let us turn again to the duality of the form, but in
relation to the ideal essence of a work of art. So Hegel writes that the
duality of the formal 'finds recognition already in our everyday consciousness:
we speak, for example, of a book or of a speech, that they are full of content
when we find thoughts, universal conclusions, etc.; and, on the
contrary, we will not say that a book, or a novel, is informative, has content
because there are a lot of disparate events, situations, etc., piled up in it'.
We can say this not only about a
novel, but also about a philosophical and scientific book, although some
believe that a simple set of facts already makes the work meaningful and full
of content. But a man with a taste does not find great joy in this. 'This,'
writes Hegel, 'therefore, is the proof that the ordinary consciousness also
definitely recognizes that in order to have content, there should be more than just sensory material, and this more is nothing other but thoughts
When Schelling emphasizes that the
essence, the truth in art outgrows the form, he speaks exactly about the ideal
content of art. And the artist is looking for a suitable artistic form of
expression for him. You may know what you want to say, but finding the right
words is not so simple. The art critic V. Weidle writes that poets, and here he
means poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, 'first of all
want craftsmanship and perfection of the form', but at the same time he remarks
in brackets: 'as if the perfect form is not the one whose every bend is filled
with the content'. Therefore, the
ideal content of art is always looking for organic unity with it. What is most
difficult to understand is the dialectical unity and identity of the art
form and the ideal content in art, while they retain their difference.
This difference can reveal itself, however, in such a way that the form appears
on its own, and the content on its own. But then we have an imperfect work,
which under certain circumstances can turn its one-sidedness into an artistic
direction. 'The destruction of the general style', writes Weidle about the art
that began dominating in Russia in the Silver Age, 'everywhere became a threat
of destroying the artistic unity of each individual work. After all, style does
not only relate to the form, it also concerns the content - not the content in
the sense of the plot, theme, ideological material, but the spiritual content,
spiritual essence, which cannot be expressed in an abstract language; more
precisely, style is a certain predestination of their connection and, in this
sense, a guarantee of artistic integrity. In its absence, the form gradually turns
into a formula, and the content into a dead material, and this transformation
does not occur somewhere in the outside world, it penetrates into the very idea
of the work of art and from there into the creative soul that intended it'.
The principle of animality is the
matter. The principle of humanity is the form. A man gives birth to the world
of culture, transforming the external and internal form of a natural matter. An
animal, on the contrary, is 'indifferent' to the form and it is 'interested'
mostly in the substance, the contents of things. Even a simple heat treatment
of food by humans is a change of the form. But one thing is changing the
structure of the matter and another thing is the aesthetic design of this food.
The transformation of a shapeless silicon nodule into a stone ax is also a
change in its shape. The transformation of a block of marble into Nika of
Samothrace is also a change of the form. But it is one thing to change the
material form, the form of the material, and it is another thing to give birth
to the spiritual form that organizes the ideal content of the work.
Both Vygotsky and Schelling are
right, because in one case it is about removing or changing the material in an
art form, and in the other - about finding the ideal content in the form, which
turns it into an ideal image of the truth of life. The artistic work combines
the vectors of removal of the material and finding the ideal. The Matter and
the spirit in creating a work of art meet each other, coinciding in the
In the material sense, the form of a
copper ball and that of a copper statue is an external form with respect
to copper, and no more. But if we say that the form of the statue is purely
external in relation to us, who admire this statue, then this will be wrong. It
is the movement of the eye along this form that turns out to be the basis -
material and physical, like the sight itself - physiological, for our aesthetic
experience. Then the material itself is not so important. The Romans copied
bronze Greek statues in marble, which did not reduce their artistic value. The
material in art can be an absolutely indifferent 'carrier' of the content. This
is what Vygotsky called the 'annihilation' of the matter by the form. But for a
geometer studying a spherical shape, a spherical surface, it also constitutes
an ideal subject and the content of his science. And he can tell us a lot about
this thing, which seems quite commonplace.
It is worth noting that even Kant,
in the spirit of formalism, understands content as a kind of external
objectivity reflected in a work of art. Although the nature of the substance,
from which the work of art is formed, has a subordinate technical significance;
so do the formal technical techniques of the artistic activity. The material
retains its meaning in art, but precisely as a means of expressing the
spiritual content. It is not in the same way in the nature, where the internal
form and the content organized by it are always material, although not
tangible. Here, one cannot agree with A.F. Lossev, who argued that the
immateriality of the laws of nature means their ideality.
The very difference between the material and spiritual form, content and
material is a product of the world of culture.
A man stylizes nature with
his work. This alone can cause a poetic feeling: 'When a yellowing cornfield
breathes...'. And along with the exciting breathing of the 'yellowing
cornfield' our soul gets excited too. Style in the art - this is the art form.
When a person processes nature, this 'style' inevitably gets filled with
adequate spiritual content. This is not the place to talk about the separation
of the form and the content in practice caused by the development of industrial
society. As for the art, here stylization can metamorphose into mannerism.
'Every element of style,' according to V. Weidle, 'can metamorphose into an
effect, into a method,' this is what in the theory of literature formalism, i.e. poetics of the method is responsible for, The choice of words, their
combination, rhythm - everything can turn into a rational formula. Moreover:
ease and sincerity itself can become a manner; even inarticulate cry and a
death moan can become a manner. There is only one step from hysteria to
schematism (and, perhaps, from schematism to hysteria), as can be seen in the
example of the rhythmic prose of Andrei Bely'.
Andrei Bely, the author of the
so-called "rhythmology", tried in this way to bridge the gap between
the form and the content of the work of art. Contemporary art and philosophy,
he believed, split the integrity of the human 'Self' into a perceptible
sensualist and methodological rationalist. But Bely is trying to reconcile
feelings and reason, again on the basis of a formal means. A pagan ritual is
impossible without rhythm. Rhythm, as it is believed, once gave birth to art -
a dance, a song, a verse. But the rhythm in itself is able to bring a person to
hysteria, and thereby again bring us back to the animal state.
Thus, formalism in art decomposes
the organic identity of the artistic form that organizes the spiritual content
of a work of art. And then from the disintegrated whole only its carrier,
means, 'sensory material' remains, and, on the other hand, its form, which in
this case turns out to be an external form, a form on the content. In
relation to this, Vygotsky quotes V.B. Shklovsky: 'A literary work is a pure
form, it is not a thing, but a relation of materials, and like any relation,
this is a relation of zero dimension. Therefore, the scale of the work, the
arithmetic values of its numerator and denominator are indifferent; what is
important is their relation. Joking, tragic, worldly, local works of arts,
contrasting the world to a world or a cat to a stone - are equal to one
The formalists decided that they put
an end to naturalism and psychologism in art, declaring that the art depicts
not a feeling, but an 'attitude'. As if the human feeling, the humanity of the
feeling, manifests itself in a different way than in the relation of one person
to another. The feeling, according to Vygotsky, 'is only a part of the art
machine, a drive belt of the art form'. But depicting an ideal attitude, the
artist portrays an ideal feeling. As for the mathematical relations, since a
specific numerical value does not really matter here, they are expressed using,
say, variables, x, y, z, etc. But if we say that x loves y,
then this attitude is not the same as when Romeo loves Juliet and when Pierre
Bezukhov loves Natasha Rostova. It is the special character of the
relationship in each case that is the content of the works 'about love'. And
such is the content of a good half, if not more, of the works of world art. But
this spiritual content of art is clothed each time in the corresponding art
form. Take away the special poetic form of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet',
and you will get just a 'material' remains, the plot about how an Italian young
man Romeo fell in love with young Juliet.
The artist really deals with the
material. But this is the material for subsequent artistic processing.
According to Vygotsky, 'everything that the artist finds ready, whether it be
words, sounds, walking fables, ordinary images, etc., all these compose
the material of the work of art including the thoughts that are contained in
the work'. The method of arrangement and structuring of this material is
designated as the form of this work, again, regardless of whether this concept
is applied to the arrangement of sounds in a verse or to the arrangement of
events in a story or remarks in a monologue. Thus, 'from the psychological
point of view, the usual concept of the form was substantially expanded'.
The theorists of formalism,
according to Vygotsky, do not look for its ideal content in an art form, but
consider it only as a formal device. The formalists' formula 'art as a
technique', he writes, naturally raises the question: 'what kind of a
technique?', since the technique for the sake of the technique, the technique,
taken for just for itself, not directed at anything, is not a technique, but a
focus. At the same time, Vygotsky notes that the theoreticians of formalism
fall into a surprising contradiction with themselves, when they first assert
that in art it is not things, not the material or content that matter, and then
say that the goal of the art form is to 'feel the thing', 'make a stone stony',
that is, to live through the very material with the negation of which they
began. Thereby, the principle of 'exclusion' they found loses its meaning.
As a result, in formalistic art, the
spiritual content is reduced to the material that the form opposes to. The
paradox of formalistic art is that, relying on the form, it comes down to
experimenting precisely with the external form of the material (color, line,
sound, word, etc.). Formalist art of the early XX century had its peaks.
But this was an attempt to carve new meanings from the very form of the
material, and they turned out to be a substitute for the ideal content of art.
The practice of Russian futurism, Vygotsky notes, became a 'natural experiment'
for formalistic principles, which showed how, having initially relied on a
'transcendentalism' that does not offend us in any special way, and purely
formal exercises with the language, the futurists eventually brought a semantic
element in art to his unprecedented dominance. And here Vygotsky cites Vladimir
Mayakovsky as an example with his poetic advertising for Mosselprom. We should note the elite art of
the second half of the XX century did the same trick, giving rise to pop art.
So, formalists were right in the
primacy of form in art, which Vygotsky agreed with. However, Vygotsky calls
this, as already mentioned, the 'annihilation' of the matter by the form. The
expression of formalists 'estrangement' is even more appropriate here. But an adequate
definition of this essential connection in a work of art is the dialectical
removal of the material in an artistic form, the ideal content of which is the
truth of life and human relations. The matter in a work of art in fact
undergoes a kind of annihilation, ceases to be heavy and becomes so light and
airy that it ceases to be perceived as something material, and turns into
something ideal. Tatyana's love for Onegin is no longer just a feeling,
but an ideal of a feeling. This is the Platonism that is characteristic
of every true work of art.
Vygotsky, L.S. (2001). The Analysis of the Aesthetic
Reaction (Collection of Works). M. Labirint. p. 209.
 Shelling, F.V.Y.
(1989). Collection of Works in 2 Volumes. '.: Mysl.V.2, p. 66.
 Vygotsky, L.S. (2001) Analysis of the Aesthetic
Reaction (Collection of works). '.: Labirint. p.
 Hegel, G.W.F. (1974). Encyclopedia of Philosophy in 3
volumes. '.: Mysl, V.1. p. 119.
 Hegel, G.W.F. Ibid.
Weidle, V. (2001). Dying
of Arts. '.: Respublika, p. 29.
 Ibid. p. 43.
Lossev A.F., Takho-Godi A.A. (1993) Plato. Aristotle. '.: Molodaya Gvardiya, p. 89.
 Weidle, V. (2001).
Dying of Arts. '.: Respublika, p. 37.
 Vygotsky, L.S. (2001). Analysis of the Aesthetic
Reaction (Collection of Works). '.: Labirint. P. 209.
ibid. P. 213
Ibid. P. 218.
Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №11 - 2019