Deng Mng-Dao, The living

On Formalism and the Question of Spiritual Art

Art as I learned it in college, as it was practiced by professional artists from the late 1800s to the end of the twentieth century, and as it is defined within the paradigm of museums, is marked by formalism. It is art in dialogue with itself, marked by ideas as opposed to mere appearances and resemblances, and in search of the nature of pure art. Minimalism, for example, asked what the most basic form of art could be. In painting, it was color and form. Therefore a perfectly red canvas made sense: the shape of the art was identical to the shape of the canvas—it was not a picture of something but the thing itself. It had no lines to divide it, nothing that might seek to be an illusion of anything other than what it was. It was wholly what it was. Conceptual art took that further: the art object wasn’t necessary, only the idea itself. As long as the viewer understood what the artist was communicating, why use an object?

In formalism, any context, content, representation, or realism is superfluous, even an interference to accessing the purely visual. Everything that one needs to understand a piece should be right there;

historical context, extraneous reasons for making the art, and, obviously, more mundane concerns such as interior decoration or social concerns were completely jettisoned.

Yet when one looks deeper, artists have been celebrated precisely for bringing external concerns and outside elements into art. Andy Warhol and other Pop artists incorporated references to popular culture: the package design in Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans, the comic-book enlargements of Roy Lichtenstein, the references to news and mass-media photography of Robert Rauschenberg. One can argue that the collages of Picasso and Braque were the very importation of real objects and materials into the dimension of art.

African American, Latino, and Asian American art was allowed, even expected, to touch on themes related to community life, even as the established art world refused to put any of that art on a par with its canonical works. The art historians may look for influences of mainstream art on ethnic American artists, but they don’t search for ethnic influences on mainstream artists. Read more