Formalist Art Criticism and the Politics of Meaning
This article describes processes by which twentieth century modernist art became appropriated to the conventional sensibilities and the market interests of the art world by systematic obscurations of ideational content. From the 1940s until the mid 1960s, despite the published social and existential concerns of artists, the arts of the North American Abstract Expressionists and other modernists were subjected to formalist interpretations that ignored content and only considered form. Despite their roots in Romantic concerns, these arts were generally understood according to the concepts of aestheticism and art for art’s sake. The discussion traces the process by which a contextual art critical approach, or an approach that considers art according to its social and ideational contexts, emerged and resisted the formalism that was in vogue at the time. By the late 1960s, contextual analyses overcame the former hegemony of formalism and art publics were offered more exposure to the meanings intended by artists. The discussion considers implications of formalist criticism in light of concepts of use and exchange value, Terry Eagleton’s views on the functions of criticism, and Howard Becker’s analysis of art worlds.
formalism, Clement Greenberg, abstract expressionism, Piet Mondrian, Romanticism, mass culture, commodification, art world, counterculture movements
Citation: Social Justice Vol. 33, No. 2 (2006): 31-44