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Sorin Sabou

Letter to the Romans, Nicomachean Ethics, and more

Formalism In The Philosophy of Art

Formalism in the philosophy of art says that ‘the properties in virtue of which an artwork is an artwork […] are formal in the sense of being a accessible by direct sensation alone’ (Dowling). We can go deeper in the area of aesthetics if we have two qualities: artistic sensibility and clear thinking (Bell, 261); the personal experience is central to this endeavor. Is there some quality common and peculiar to all objects that are able to provoke the ‘aesthetic emotion’? (Bell, 262) The existence of an artwork depends on this quality. Bell understands this quality as ‘significant form’ (Bell, 262). The variety of relations and combinations of lines and colors is called ‘significant form.’
Our only means of recognizing a work of art are our feeling for it. This emotional reaction entitles me to consider if an object is a work of art. When we appreciate a work of art, Bell says, there is no need for us to bring anything from life, because art ‘transports us from the world of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation’ (Bell, 266); it is a travel ‘out of life into ecstasy. The things we need are the senses of form, color, and knowledge of three-dimensional space. This independence of time and space will make the great art stable and unobscure (Bell, 269).
Langer sees art as the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling (Langer, 325). This type of formalism sees the concept of ‘significant form’ in terms of articulate expression of feeling, reflecting the verbally ineffable and therefore unknown forms of sentience (Langer, 324). The creative process focuses on the making of expressive form; this is more than arrangement of some things (tones, colors, etc), it is something that was not there, and this is the ’symbol of sentience’ (Langer, 325).
This theory in the philosophy of art has some challenges. It has the ability to identify good art, but what about the bad art? Does it exists? This ‘aesthetic emotion’ is experienced in circumstances where there is no work of art present,such as breathtaking landscapes, or powerful waves splashing on the shore. How do we account for these phenomena? The ‘significant form’ remains some kind of mystery; there is no clear account about it (Grant).

Christopher Dowling, Aesthetic Formalism, www.iep.utm.edu/aes-form/
Bell, Clive. “Art.” In Aesthetics, a Comprehensive Anthology, edited by Steven M. Cahn, and Aaron Meskin, 261-269. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
Stephen Grant, Formalism In The Philosophy of Art. http://www.richmond-philosophy.net/rjp/rjp19_grant.php
Langer, Susanne. “Feeling and Form.” In Aesthetics, a Comprehensive Antology, edited by Steven M. Cahn, and Aaron Meskin, 317-326. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
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