Art is a broad concept, and attempts to define or classify it is a challenge within itself. Terry Barrett divides the medium into four categories (formalism, postmodernism, realism, and expressionism) in his critically acclaimed book, What is Art, Aesthetics and Criticisms of Contemporary Art. The four approaches listed in the book are both thought-provoking and challenging for the minds of readers who want to put images in categories. As a reader, I gained insight into the differences and similarities of each subdivision, and pondered which category I identify with the most. Which category do you prefer?
Formalism is a theory of art that looks at the “form”, or how it is made. Emphasis is placed on the visual aesthetics such as lines, shapes, colors, and textures of the piece. Formalists believe a particular piece of art should be able to stand-alone based on its aesthetics, without any consideration of constructs, or outside factors such as society or culture. It’s all about the form, and the form alone; nothing else matters to a formalist. This approach can be summed up as “Art for the sake of art”.
For other theories of art, such as realism and expressionism (which encourages you to seek further meaning behind a piece), formalism only places emphasis on half the story… or at least thats what I thought as I studied this approach. When I look at a piece of artwork I try to decipher the meaning behind it. I ponder questions such as “what was happening in society when the artist created this piece?” or “What cultural message does the artist attempt to share with this piece?” But then I thought about the people who don’t care what the artist was thinking or what was happening. Some people are only interested in the elements that come together to make a piece of art, for example, the way lines intersect, or the way colors collide. Even I can relate to that feeling as a digital designer. I love typography just because…it’s typography. I don’t consider what the creators of some of my favorites typographic pieces was doing, thinking, or experiencing when they created their pieces. I just admire the juxtaposition of elements used to create the piece.
Let’s look at one of its opposites, postmodernism, or better yet, anti-modernism. Postmodernism is hard to explain. The ambiguity of the term is purposeful. Some people don’t even know how to categorize it; is it a theory, concept, philosophy, movement, condition, etc.? One thing that can be said about the Postmodernism approach is the assertion that art plays a bigger part in our social, political, and ethical world, and it should be examined beyond its visual aesthetics.
When I think of the philo-theo-concept-ment (my attempt to categorize Postmodernism), I see it as a rebellion against Modernism, which attempts to classify art. It rejects the existence of any ultimate principle, and it disagrees with the Modern notion of a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth that explains everything for everybody. Some art forms that arose out of the idea of postmodernism include pop art (one of my favorites with the great Andy Warhol), futurism, dada, and surrealism.
Then there is realism and expressionism, which are exactly what their names imply. These two forms of art share some similarities and differences with postmodernism and formalism. For example, both formalism and realism seem to want you to pay attention to the piece of art and how it’s made. However, for formalism, it stops there, while realism wants you to think about what the piece of art tells you about the world (similar to postmodernism). Expressionism shares similarities with postmodernism and realism because it encourages you to seek deeper meaning behind the world; however, expressionism wants you to look at the emotions of the artist in the work of art. In addition, expressionism is not limited to portraying the real world like the theory of realism.
Although I am not an art connoisseur, I study art because I enjoy digital and graphic design. Both digital and graphic design are a form of art, and artist have to know the roots of their passions. When I look at pieces such as Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, I attempt to translate it and use it for inspiration. With art the inspiration is unlimited. I appreciate Barrett’s attempt to help explain and categorize the medium into four simple, yet complex categories, and can understand and identify with each viewpoint.