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'[1].

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'[2].

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 vessel.

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 beautiful'[3]. Vygotsky 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'[4]. 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 form?

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'[5].

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 <...>'[6].

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'.[7] 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'[8].

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 artistic form.

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[9]. 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'[10].

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 another'[11].

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'[12].

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[13].

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[14]. 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.

[1]Vygotsky, L.S. (2001). The Analysis of the Aesthetic Reaction (Collection of Works). M. Labirint. p. 209.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shelling, F.V.Y. (1989). Collection of Works in 2 Volumes. '.: Mysl.V.2, p. 66.

[4] Vygotsky, L.S. (2001) Analysis of the Aesthetic Reaction (Collection of works). '.: Labirint. p. 166.

[5] Hegel, G.W.F. (1974). Encyclopedia of Philosophy in 3 volumes. '.: Mysl, V.1. p. 119.

[6] Hegel, G.W.F. Ibid.

[7]Weidle, V. (2001). Dying of Arts. '.: Respublika, p. 29.

[8] Ibid. p. 43.

[9]Lossev A.F., Takho-Godi A.A. (1993) Plato. Aristotle. '.: Molodaya Gvardiya, p. 89.

[10] Weidle, V. (2001). Dying of Arts. '.: Respublika, p. 37.

[11] Vygotsky, L.S. (2001). Analysis of the Aesthetic Reaction (Collection of Works). '.: Labirint. P. 209.

[12] Ibid.

[13]ibid. P. 213

[14]Ibid. P. 218.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №11 - 2019

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