Comparing Formalism & 'Art for Art's' Sake

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  • 0:05 In Defense of Art
  • 1:00 Formalism
  • 2:35 Art For Art's Sake
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore two different philosophies about the purpose of art and ways to analyze art. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

In Defense of Art

Hey, we're off to a protest. Want to join? What's our cause? Save the planet? Nope. Save the whales? No. Save the art. That's our cause. Here, you'll need a picket sign.

Did you know that art was endangered? That's why we're trying to raise awareness, not many people know this. Actually, art has been on the endangered list since the 19th century when a new technology was introduced into art's natural habitat, France. This technology was photography and it threatened to replace art due to its ability to perfectly capture reality. So, people began discussing the purpose and meaning for art.

There are several different viewpoints; today we're stopping by rallies for two of the major ones. We may not all agree on the purpose of art, but we can appreciate its value and work together to save the art. Ever been to an art historian rally? It can get pretty heated, so keep your eyes open.


Welcome to the first rally, hosted by the Formalists. Formalism is a theory of art which states that the value of art is within its form and style. Formalists argue that art should be studied for its compositional elements, such as line, shape, or color. This is the true function of art and therefore, formalists do not focus on iconography, symbolism, or the historical and social context in which the art was created. These aspects are not ignored, but they are considered of secondary importance below the physical traits of the art.

In the 19th century, formalism helped define the goals of art history as a discipline. Some scholars saw it as the duty of the art historian to simply analyze the composition of a painting, not its context. This reflected emerging values of the time that looked to scientific, rational logic for truth, not traditions or emotions.

Here, looks like a few protestors have some art for us to look at. This is Impression, Sunrise, by Claude Monet:


A formalist analysis of this would focus on the rough, wide brushstrokes that obscure clear senses of figures and objects. Notice the use of horizontal strokes of color to indicate motion in the waves or reflections of light. This contrasts with the vertical orientation of the silhouetted figures, both the person in the boat and the ships and factories in the background, as well as diagonal strokes of the sky. Color and direction serve to distinguish spatial relationships. Through this analysis of color and composition we can identify this as an Impressionist painting. See how that works?

Art for Art's Sake

Uh-oh, I see some anti-formalists coming over. They think that art should be studied in terms of its context first. This could get pretty ugly, so I think it's a good time to head over to our next rally. This one is Art for Art's Sake, a 19th-century belief that the value of art is in the existence of art.

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