Socialist realism regarded the avant-garde movements as "formalist".

Modern styles like Cubism and Impressionism were considered non-representative forms of art, therefore hard to understand by the masses.

Why was formalism seen as something bad or inferior?

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    They were considered inferior because Georg Lukacs liked Courbet, and for a writer, Balzac. But this mainly had an influence in the Eastern Bloc, and for USSR. But in the USSR they also had modern things, constructivism etc. . As for the West, avant-garde, non-representational visual works, irritated the bourgeoisie, and so the socialist thinkers loved it!
    – Gordon
    Aug 31, 2019 at 16:58
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    This was not just visual art, but also literature and music. For the most part in the wider socialist world, Modernism (and its off-shoots) prevailed.
    – Gordon
    Aug 31, 2019 at 17:13
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    (When you say “formalism” per se, I think of artists such as Piet Mondrian. But, though eg Klee was a modernist, I would not put him in the category of formalism. So the avant-garde was broader than formalism, in the strict use of the term). I guess you could also say the later works of Schoenberg were formalist, but many musicologists highly respect this work today.
    – Gordon
    Aug 31, 2019 at 17:54
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    could it be argued that 'formalism' is more a critic's word? @Gordon maybe something that unifies the work, after its creation
    – user38026
    Sep 1, 2019 at 0:00
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    @another-name using the example of Shostakovich (see the musical formalism link, or see his own Wikipedia) we can see what stress and anxiety he was under trying to not be a formalist in music. In visual art it is rather clear: look outward and realistically represent human subjects and nature. So there was some Soviet foolishness involved here, as you point out, lack of a clear definition. But the Verso book presents both sides of the debate, though everyone is basically aligned against Lukacs.
    – Gordon
    Sep 1, 2019 at 1:28

5 Answers 5


Studying art, and valuing art, purely the the lense of form, and aesthetics when onlythe artistic techniques/features of the work are taking into consideration, doesn't leave much room for the study of art as a guide to culture, or studying the social influences of the work, or its social effects, or who it rhetorically "privileges/underprivileges". But this kind of study has been the main vehicle for art critics to interpret works since the early 60s. Marxism is clearly a prominent variety of the type of criticism that wants to use art as a means to the end of saying something about the social world. So the boring answer is that formalist art is of little interest according to what certain schools "value" in art, and formalist criticism is a variety of art criticism that the academy rejects.


I think formalism is used pejoratively by people who do not understand this natural progression in art. It was bound to happen. This was art “in and for itself”. So it went to hard essences, the materials like the canvas, the way the paint was laid on, the color registrations ( think Joseph Albers), and basic arrangements to emphasize the materials. This was on the level of the canvas itself, not the canvas as a representation of nature, or people and things like that. In poetry, the sounds themselves (Surrealist poets), not a “deep message”. In music, down to the level of just ordering the sounds, not aiming for a grand effect. (Later Schoenberg) And it went as far as Philip Glass, just noise sometimes.

You will see in the IPhone Home button the strong influence of Joseph Albers’ work. https://www.artsy.net/artist/josef-albers

We can think of Pure mathematics, being “for itself”, not necessarily to produce anything “useful”. But people were shocked by this at the time in the art community, and those who enjoyed the old style. In my opinion, there is room for everything. Perhaps some people saw formalism as “too easy” (it was NOT always easy), but the main reason for dislike was that it was so different.

One amendment to my last comment above regarding formalism, P. Mondrian etc. You might want to focus more on music and formalism. Lukacs would have known of Adorno’s keen abilities in and understanding of modern music (really music in general) so you may want to read over this. Music formalism: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formalism_(music) See USSR. See also, The Routledge Research Companion to Modernism in Music article by Stephen Graham “Modernism for and of the Masses” good article touching upon your question and G. Lukacs belief that formalism was a kind of “negation of outward reality”. ( Lukacs real specialty was literature. Adorno’s music I would say. ). This book you can find by a search online. Ch 10 https://www.routledge.com/The-Routledge-Research-Companion-to-Modernism-in-Music-1st-Edition/Heile-Wilson/p/book/9781472470409 there is also a google book.

So since your question is in the category of socialism then as to why formalism was used pejoratively (particularly in USSR areas) , it would be over emphasis on the art itself, in itself, the actual form of it, and as Lukacs suggested perhaps a negation of outward reality. The Verso book here gives the detailed debate. “Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch, Brecht, Lukacs: Aesthetics and Politics” Verso Press. 1977 (2007).

  • do we need a general definition of 'formalism'?
    – user38026
    Aug 31, 2019 at 22:01
  • @another-name Can you suggest one? I did not particularly like the Wikipedia on music and formalism but I posted it to save time. But because the arts differ in their concrete procedures, it will be different for each art, I mean it will be carried out differently.
    – Gordon
    Aug 31, 2019 at 22:07
  • my mind has gone blank, i'm sorry. formalism is about the revolution of forms, about art in its own right rather than the meaning of works?
    – user38026
    Aug 31, 2019 at 22:08
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    @another-name Maybe go back to Plato’s criticism of art. That it appealed to cheap emotions, a bad paraphrase of Plato. Now to Lukacs’ credit, he was for a realism, so he certainly did not support complete pablum or emotional baby food. In reading the Verso book I think those opposed to Lukacs see broader possibilities for modern art. But I think it was inevitable that art would be as you say in its own right.
    – Gordon
    Aug 31, 2019 at 22:26
  • haha, sorry but what a lovely comment!
    – user38026
    Aug 31, 2019 at 22:32

Using the definition of formalism from the Tate Gallery:

Formalism describes the critical position that the most important aspect of a work of art is its form – the way it is made and its purely visual aspects – rather than its narrative content or its relationship to the visible world. In painting therefore, a formalist critic would focus exclusively on the qualities of colour, brushwork, form, line and composition.

...it's clear why some people — and particularly some socialists — might dislike it. Formalism is (in that particular perspective) the reduction of art to technique. It discourages semiotics or symbolic representation, and treats art as a purely sensuous phenomenon. In the socialist view, it would be the ultimate commodification of art: the reduction of artwork to standardized goods that can be bought and sold on the open market.

  • i'm not sure that symbolism is anti formalist. wasn't it one formal phase or technique in art? imho lukacs and the soviet realists probably just had a dim view of both art and the proletariat.
    – user38026
    Sep 1, 2019 at 9:08
  • Sorry, I was using 'symbolism' in the philosophical (semiotic) sense, not the artistic sense. I should probably revise that... Sep 1, 2019 at 13:38

Welcome, s. dragos. 'Formalism' doesn't have a fixed, single sense. Consider the following:

I suggest that, in the theory of value and valuation of art work, we provisionally define formalism as a theory according to which the value of a work of art qua artwork - its artistic value-is constituted exclusively (radical version) or primarily (moderate version) by its formal aspects. Its "meaning" or its (conceptual, cognitive, material, etc.) "content" has no important consequences for its value. Hence, only the formal aspects should be considered as criteria of artistic excellence. Aestheticians and art theoreticians use the concept of "form" (and its correlatives, such as "meaning," "content," "matter," "fabric") in many different senses. British aesthetician David Pole, for example, characterizes "form" as a "polar term" which "has its meaning bound up with its correlates." He mentions three possibilities: "form as opposed to matter," "form as opposed to content," and "form as opposed to formlessness." In addition to these three basic ways of understanding form, Pole suggests a fourth possibility: "form as structure" where structure "is constituted by a system of relations, and it is opposed to content, what they relate. (D. Pole, Aesthetics, Form and Emotion (London: Duckworth, 1983), p. 81 cited in Bohdan Dziemidok, 'Artistic Formalism: Its Achievements and Weaknesses', The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 51, No. 2, Aesthetics: Past and Present: 185.)

Dziemidok continues (giving the term a general meaning despite these distinctions) :

According to formalists, in our experience and appreciation of a work of art we should concentrate exclusively (or mostly) on its formal aspects, i.e., (when formal aspects are broadly under- stood) not only on the arrangement, construction, or composition of elements (e.g., sensual qualities or words), but also on those very sen- sual qualities (sounds, colors, pitches, rhythms, dynamics, bodily movements, etc.). According to them, this should be so because it is only when we act this way that we value the work of art as a work of art, that is, as an art object which is autonomous and self-sufficient. It is only its formal properties which are relevant for its aesthetic-i.e., unique, truly significant for art-value (= artistic value). (Dziemkdok: 187.)

The more we stress the content of a work of art - as in socialist realism or Dickens' novels of social critique - the less significant and satisfying formalism will be. In its major forms socialist realism (to take one operative contrast) has no time for 'art for art's sake'. Art has a purpose, namely to portray the life of the working class, the peasantry and the intelligentsia under socialism and to envisage the future possibilities of socialism. This content caps the material ('matter') from which a work of art is made as it caps also the artist's intention ('meaning') or the work's 'structure' or organised relationships. 'Formless' art has no content and so cannot serve a purpose of social critique.

I am not expressing my own views here, merely trying to point some of formalism's many contrasts with socialist realism, which I have chosen as a stalking horse.


The Tate, on 'figurative art':

The term has been particularly used since the arrival of abstract art to refer to artists that retain aspects of the real world as their subject matter, though in a general sense figurative also applies retrospectively to all art before abstract art.

Modern figurative art can be seen as distinct from modern realism in that figurative art uses modern idioms, while modern realists work in styles predating post-impressionism (more or less). In fact, modern figurative art is more or less identical with the general current of expressionism that can be traced through the twentieth century and on.

Picasso after about 1920 is the great exemplar of modern figurative painting, and Alberto Giacometti from about 1940 is the great figurative sculptor. After the Second World War figuration can be tracked through the work of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and the other artists of the School of London, and through pop art, neo-expressionism, and new spirit painting.

According to wikipedia, it is "representational" art.

It is evident that forms in art are not anti-representational, but containers of meaning, be that abstract or figurative. The l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poet Charles Bernstein seems to enact a maddening pun on figuration in the visual arts and poetic "figures", one that seems very robust to me.

Formalism is a separate concept and can be inert and regressive, or about the creation of new forms of expression (whether or not that is necessarily retroactive, these days). But over-emphasizing form in our 'art history' or 'work' does mean that 'content' drops out. And, someone who wants revolution, or to support a "revolutionary" state, will inevitably be more interested in the world that art inhabits (be that real, phenomenological, or literary) than how something is organized in its own right.

The philosophical disagreement, heightened by political opinion, is surely a matter of emphasis only. It is surely a truism of Adorno's that content and form must be thought together by any critic.

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