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a predominant attention to form over content in various areas of human activity. In human relations, formalism is manifested in a rigorous adherence to etiquette, ceremonies, and rituals, even when in a given situation they are meaningless, absurd, laughable, or overly dramatic. In such cases the observance of formal rules takes precedence over genuine human communication. In the areas of management and government, formalism is manifested in bureaucratism and in outwardly observing the letter of the law while completely disregarding its sense and spirit.
In the history of art, formalism has been manifested in a separation of form from content, in the assertion that form is the only valuable element in art, and accordingly, in a view that the artist’s perception of the world amounts solely to the abstract creation of form. Formalism emerged at a time when social conditions engendered among various social groups an attitude that favored the opposing of art to life, to practical activity, and to people’s true interests.
Formalist trends were apparent in 19th-century academicism, but formalism was manifested most consistently in such trends of 20th-century bourgeois art as cubism, cubo-futurism, dadaism, lettrisme, abstract art, pop art and op art, anti-theater, and the theater of the absurd. Formalism has thus proved to be one of the manifestations of the crisis in the bourgeois consciousness.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, numerous attempts were made to give formalism a theoretical foundation by the theorists of neo-Kantian aesthetics and by K. Fiedler (Germany), E. Hanslick (Austria), and R. Fry and H. Read (Great Britain). These scholars and thinkers viewed art as a superficial diversion involving only form, and as a means of creating allegedly pure aesthetic values that are free of any relation to moral, political, or practical content. Formalism has also been reflected in the methodology of art studies; an example is the formal method of literary theory and scholarship.
Marxist-Leninist aesthetics and literary and art criticism place a high value on the importance of form in art but at the same time have always waged a struggle against all manifestations of formalism, including aestheticism and the theory and practice of art for art’s sake. Marxist-Leninist aesthetics has shown that the formalist neglect of content undermines the social usefulness of art and art’s ability to participate in the social struggle and in education. Marxist-Leninist aesthetics has also emphasized that formalism has a destructive effect on the aesthetic values of art itself.
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Kagan, M. S. Lektsii po marksistsko-leninskoi estetike, 2nd ed. Leningrad, 1971.
Medvedev, P. N. “Formalizm v zapadnoevropeiskom iskusstvovedenii.” In V laboratorii pisatelia. Leningrad, 1971.
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M. S. KAGAN