Post-Adolescent Idealism (Formalist Art)

Formalism – what is it? Why does it matter?

Formalism is a philosophy of art.

Let’s consider what formalism espouses then – It is centred around the idea that art should be judged and also created so that value can be derived solely from technical elements. Composition, symmetry, line, colour, and depth are all taken into consideration and then used to understand the work. This of course means that the artists personal pedagogy, beliefs, cultural background, and even technique are not relevant to evaluating the work.

Which is odd, because technique is the application of technical elements, but an argument could be made against theatricality then, so I can see why technique would be omitted.

And if you were to ask one of my professors from the University of Alberta, he would tell you that formalist art is the only TRUE way to look at and enjoy art.

His rationale for this belief is that feelings and emotions about art are difficult to assess, while technical aspects of a work can be very easily addressed and help to identify the strengths of a work against other works as well as determine if said artist/art is worthy of a place in art history.

Or if I were to put it another way, he was very quotable and one of his favourite sayings in response to the statement, “but I don’t like that kind of art”, was always the exact same one – “it’s not about what you like, [insert student’s name].”

For a twenty-something going through his post-adolescent idealistic phase, that statement bothered me very deeply at the time. W teh F.


I mean, how could I possibly deal with that? Liking things had proved to be useful in other areas of life, and when it came to what was popular in culture as it related to music, movies, and comic books, what I liked (or rather what youth liked) did matter, because it led to new and significant ideas and interests. Also, I was told that formalist was an aspect of modernism, and we were well into post-modernist thought. It was stupid, to put it bluntly, and seemed regressive.

At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

But like anything in life, looking at a subject with black and white ideals, is a non-answer.

On the other side of the coin was post-modernism, and while I don’t want to get into details of post-modern thought versus modernist thought, I was fortunate to be at a university where there were effectively two tenured heads of the fine art program. One a formalist, and the other a conceptualist.

So what does that have to do with defining formalism? Well, I am getting to the point dear readers.

The idea that art should be purely formal is an absurd notion in an age when we have ease of access to both images and video. And interestingly enough, art that is purely conceptual is also impractical because as the playing field levels in a globalist economy, we are all responsible for our share of entertainment, politics, and environment.

Conveniently for us, that means that a moderate approach is likely the best solution for the time being. A transition from aesthetics or ideology to moderate formalism or as I prefer to call it modern craft is definitely the sandbox we should be playing in right now.

According to Nick Zangwill, who wrote a book called The Metaphysics of Beauty in favour of moderate formalism, all art has aesthetic properties, but not all art is defined by its context.

I can buy that for 5 bucks. There is inflation after all.

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What that means for artists is simply this, you should create art that is well made and which you dedicate considerable time in constructing, whether for volume, quality or a combination of both. Ultimately, it will provide you with expertise and ability. If you choose to seek formal education or not, your art will improve over time, and supply you with the aesthetic needed. As to the contextual claims of personal or cultural narrative, you can decide how important that is to your work.

No one has to be defined by their environment. That is the beauty of modern craft. A theory to support the current generation of artists, but not one to define them with. Though it is only a theory at the moment.

But what do you think? Would you rather your work be purely formalist in nature, purely conceptual? Share this with your peers and join the conversation. Otherwise, I’m out of theories for now. I’ll see you tomorrow with a music review about a band of brothers.



  1. The Smiling Pilgrim · June 19, 2016

    That is the kind of frame I sleep on lol only thank the lord I have a decent mattress 🙂


    • Tim Kuefler · June 20, 2016

      I like to think of it as a rite passage! We all need to experience the fundamentals of sleep/life/art before we consider other options. Maybe we move on, or maybe not. haha.


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