Figure 12.09.04
Frank Stella, installation shot of Aluminum Paintings, at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, 1960.

From Daniel Scott Snelson’s “Simultaneously Agitated in All Directions:”
[…] Importantly, for Brecht, Barthes, and many writers and artists to follow, the anti-neutrality of language led to an emphasis of artifice (for Brecht, the lights, set, and material of the theatre, for later Barthes, the Text) always charged with political significations (against the woozy seamless instrumentality of Nazi rhetoric, for example). From this Brechtian formalism, we can derive Barthes’s famous dictum: “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot brings one back to it.” Bois correctly points out that this distinction of the two “formalisms”—Lukacs's “restricted” morphological formalism, versus Brecht’s formalism of historical-structural signification—is “essential to a retrieval of formalism (as structuralism).” […]
The work of the NewLights Press could be labeled “formal” or “formalist.” And indeed it has. Some would apply that label negatively. But let’s be clear about which kind of formalism we’re talking about here (and so into Danny’s source text for the above passage):
[…] Thus the term “formalist” was an insult that Lukacs and Brecht tossed at each other, but the word did not have the same sense for each. For Brecht, a formalist was anyone who could not see that form was inseparable from content, who believed that form was a mere carrier; for Lukacs, it was anyone who believed that form even affected content. […] The antiformalism that was prevalent in the discourse of art criticism in the seventies can thus be explained in great part by a confusion between the two kinds of formalism, one that concerns itself essentially with morphology (which I call “restricted” formalism) [Lukacs], and one that envisions form as structural—the kind embraced by Brecht when he sorted out the “continuity” of Goering’s and Hess’s speeches as an essential part of their ideological machine. […] [1]
[More on the political agency that attention to form allows later.]

There are two main complaints about formalism in day-to-day art discourse. The first is that if a work is formal, or pays attention to form, then the work must be devoid or scant on “concept” or “content” (these two terms are often used interchangeably, but do not in fact mean the same thing). And if a work is devoid of “concept” or “content” then it must be devoid of thought, it must be merely pretty, it must be decorative. (“The decorative” has always been the evil twin of abstraction.) This complaint rests on two (false) presuppositions: 1) that a formal artwork, if decorative, is not and can not be theoretically rigorous; and 2) that form and content are mutually exclusive areas that an artwork can engage, that paying attention to one necessarily excludes the other (and now we’re back to Brecht). I have two answers, and both can be used for both of those presuppositions:

Figure 12.09.05
Pablo Picasso, Bowl with Fruit, Violin, and Wineglass, mixed media, 1912-13.

Figure 12.09.06
Frank Stella, Die Fahne Hoch!, enamel on canvas, 1959.

1. Yves-Alain Bois, “Formalism and Structuralism,” Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, ed. Hal Foster, Yves-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, and Rosalind Krauss (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 33.

TO BE CONTINUED: the second complaint to formalism, that of political agency

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