Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Legal, Wikipedia.
Related to formalism: structuralism, new criticism


1. Arts scrupulous or excessive adherence to outward form at the expense of inner reality or content
a. the mathematical or logical structure of a scientific argument as distinguished from its subject matter
b. the notation, and its structure, in which information is expressed
3. Theatre a stylized mode of production
4. (in Marxist criticism) excessive concern with artistic technique at the expense of social values, etc.
5. the philosophical theory that a mathematical statement has no meaning but that its symbols, regarded as physical objects, exhibit a structure that has useful applications
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


A style representing a new classicism in American architecture (1950–1965), manifested in buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, Paul Rudolph and Minuro Yamasaki.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



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.


V. I. Lenin o literature i iskusstve, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1967.
Plekhanov, G. V. Iskusstvo i literatura. Moscow, 1948.
Modernizm: Sb. st. Moscow, 1973.
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.
Ohff, H. Anti-Kunst. Düsseldorf, 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Formalism requires parties to use explicit language, but on the other
Several DEVS-based platforms are available such as VLE (Virtual Laboratory Environment)[24] [25], DEVSJAVA [26] developed in Java, Cell-DEVS (Cellular DEVS) which is based on the formalism of cellular automata [27].
Subsequently, a formalism is shown that involves one uniqueness constraint on the role connected to object type X and two total role constraints.
So to the degree to which art theory should follow art, formalism, at least as a critical approach, gives way in the twentieth century to what for my purposes I call "contextualism." "Contextualism" is the view that some non-formal properties, specifically, properties that provide an appropriate context (or contexts) within which an object or event may be considered, are relevant to the constitution of that object's or event's aesthetic features (and so to its aesthetic merits).
Physics arrived at the Minkowski-Einstein formalism because of two very significant accidents of history, first that Maxwell's unification of electric and magnetic phenomena failed to build in the possibility of an actual 3-space, for which the speed of light is only c relative to that space, and not relative to observers in general, and 2nd that the first critical test of the Maxwell EM unification by Michelson using interferometry actually suffered a fundamental design flaw, causing the instrument to be almost 2000 times less sensitive than Michelson had assumed.
The collection closes with Mary Janell Metzger's reflections on problems encountered when bringing New Historicism into the classroom and the use of formalism to address these issues.
As Hirsch shows, this belief in formalism leads to dull practice in summarizing, predicting, clarifying, and other mindless and unnecessary activities in the teaching of reading, but it does not lead to a knowledgeable person who reads widely and with deep comprehension.
THE SOURCE: "Formalism and Its Discontents" by Jed Perl, in The New Republic, Sept.
In "The Fortunes of Formalism" (April 2005), David Yezzi claims that Columbia recently cut the prosody course.
In my effort to retain what my students found valuable in Watt and to distance it from what they found problematic, I took a cue from Watt's reflections on The Rise of the Novel in "Flat-Footed and Fly-Blown: The Realities of Realism." Watt suggests that his study was informed by a confluence of theoretical elements, "formalism and phenomenology in a minor way, and Marxism, Freud, and the Frankfurt School in somewhat larger part" (153).
To the extent that a restorative justice practice or practitioner sets into procedure expectations of shaming the abuser, requiring an apology or some other outcome, the risk of colonizing the process and the outcomes with formalism are increased.