Formalism vs. Art for Art's Sake

Sasha Blakeley, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

Learn about the critical theories in the art of formalism and art for art's sake. Learn about the differences between these two critical stances in the art world. Updated: 06/09/2022

Table of Contents



What is formalism in art? Understanding what formalism is requires looking into what it means for something to be a work of art. Many people have their own definitions of what constitutes art, and artists and critics have been arguing over this question for centuries. Formalism is one school of thought that seeks to define what art is and how it should be analyzed. In formalism, art is valuable because of its form and technique. The visual aspects of art, including the skill that the artist displayed in creating it, are the most important thing to consider when evaluating art. This formalism definition suggests that elements like composition, color selection, line work, and technique are what make a great work of art.

Formalism first developed in the nineteenth century when the art world was going through something of a crisis. The invention of photography had raised questions about the value of art: why should it be created? What made it good? What were the limitations of art? The formalists had one potential answer: art is about style and skill, and it is these formal qualities that set art, especially painting and sculpture, apart from other human creations. Formalists focused on the painting itself as an object of value, regardless of the painting's subject, its historical context, its emotional resonance, or its political and social commentary. All of these elements of a work of art, while not outright ignored, were considered secondary. Painter and writer Maurice Denis wrote about the importance of aesthetics in art, saying, ''Remember, that a picture, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colours arranged in a certain order.'' Denis' point about the value of art was taken seriously and went on to form the basis for a lot of formalist thought.

Examples of Formalism

Because formalists did not think that historical context or specific meanings were important when producing art, they sometimes created pieces that were deliberately ambiguous, allowing viewers to come to their own conclusions about a piece's meaning. The following formalism art examples were either painted by formalists or highly valued according to formalist principles.

Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian is an example of formalist art

Broadway Boogie Woogie, a white canvas with yellow, red, and blue squares and rectangles connected to resemble a grid

Piet Mondrian, who painted this piece, created art that was excellent according to formalist standards. It demonstrated deliberate and expressive use of line, shape, and color. It also did not specifically reference anything, allowing individuals to interpret the painting without requiring external context. Mondrian's work demands to be understood on its own terms.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket by James McNeill Whistler defies clear explanation

Nocturne in Black and Gold The Falling Rocket shows an abstract dark scene with glowing lights appearing to fall from the sky

This painting by James McNeill Whistler uses carefully applied colors and shapes to evoke an abstract image. Like Mondrian's work, Whistler's painting refuses to be contextualized, allowing viewers to see a variety of different scenes. According to formalist thought, it is not the content of the painting that matters, but rather Whistler's skillful use of the art form.

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Art For Art's Sake

A school of thought often placed in opposition to formalism is art for art's sake, meaning art that has intrinsic value on account of being art at all. Although the two schools of thought are different, they are not, strictly speaking, diametrically opposed. The phrase ''art for art's sake,'' sometimes rendered as the Latin version Ars Gratis Artis, actually originated as the French l'art pour l'art. Art for art's sake argues that the value of art is not tied to its subject matter, political agenda, ethics, or educational purpose. The idea behind art for art's sake was a rejection of earlier ideas about art, which suggested that the value of art lay in its adherence to religious doctrine, its moral goodness, and its conventional and acceptable subject matter.

Instead of using these older criteria, proponents of art for art's sake argued that each work of art should be analyzed on its own terms, absent typical considerations. A work's beauty was one element that was under consideration, as was its emotional resonance. Individual opinions on different works of art were valued, rather than categorizing art in a specific hierarchy from good to bad. Art could be good, these critics argued, even if it promoted unorthodox ideas or was out of step with fashions of the day, provided it connected with its audience and demonstrated good use of formal elements.

Art for Art's Sake Examples

The philosophy of art for art's sake was prominent in painting, but it also made its way into the literary world. Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde was one of the biggest proponents of the idea of art for art's sake, both in his own writing and in his critiques of visual art. In the late 1800s, the Decadent movement was an art movement concerned with aesthetics that aligned itself with the idea of art for art's sake.

This illustration by Aubrey Beardsley is an example of Decadent art, which focused on aesthetics

The Dancers Reward by Aubrey Beardsley is an example of the Decadent movement

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does formalism mean in art?

Formalism is a specific kind of art criticism that first developed in the late 1800s. It suggested that the technical elements of a work of art were paramount when determining whether the art was good.

What are examples of formalism?

Painters who subscribed to formalist principles included Piet Mondrian and James McNeill Whistler. Their paintings required audiences to bring their own interpretations without being concerned with historical context.

What is the meaning of formalism in art?

Formalism in art refers to a heavy emphasis on technical and formal elements in art criticism. How the artist has used line, form, and composition is more important in formalist analysis than the subject or emotional quality of a work.

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