Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 10, 2020
Sam Rose Art and Form: From Roger Fry to Global Modernism University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2019. 224 pp.; 27 b/w ills. Cloth $89.95 (9780271082387)

In Art and Form: From Roger Fry to Global Modernism, Sam Rose contends with the discursive legacy of “formalist modernism,” a narrative contaminated by perpetuating misunderstandings. According to Rose, “formalist modernism” constitutes a narrow view that cleaves internal form from external meaning, separating art from life. Formalism itself, as an intellectual category, has suffered the same reductivist fate that it purports to drive in the orthodox trajectory of modern art, from representation to abstraction. To counter this narrative, Rose situates Roger Fry’s writings on form in an expansive intellectual nexus that includes connoisseurship, literary criticism, design theory, Marxist art writing, and, as the book’s title indicates, notions of global modernism. In this regard, Art and Form presents the reader with an understanding of formalism outside the picture plane.

At the crux of the intellectual histories presented in this book is Rose’s understanding of Fry’s ideas as “communicative formalism.” In Rose’s view, “This formalism is interested not in structure to the exclusion of meaning, but in structure’s connection with traces of intentionality, of a meaningful way to make judgments about ways of seeing and forms of life” (10). In other words, Fry’s “communicative formalism” considers form to be a channel of meaning—in this case, a sense of intention—from artist to viewer. Redeeming this view of Fry’s formalism allows Rose to posit a “modest postformalism” for today, a mode “that is no longer stridently confident about the direct communicative potential of humanly made things, no longer certain that the look of a painting accords with the vision of the artist, and no longer certain even that human creation has a distinct and primary sort of meaning” (10).

Rose’s use of the structural model of communication hearkens back to the “linguistic turn” of the late 1980s, when art historians considered the propositions presented by poststructuralist theory in the field of artistic production. Those familiar with Jacques Derrida’s writings on communication, for example, would be unsurprised by Rose’s advocating for a modest postformalism. If visual form operates communicatively like language, then it too is both iterable and utterable; these qualities allow form to be both recognized and understood within a specific context. Yet the instability of intention and the multiplicity of contexts, as Derrida exposes, indicate no single authoritative meaning. Compatible with this conclusion, Rose’s modest postformalism is “no longer stridently confident . . . no longer certain.”

Rose’s arguments resonate with the writings of Richard Shiff, in particular Shiff’s work on doubt and specificity. Yet to tackle the topic of formalism requires one to write in general terms. On this front, Rose adheres to T. J. Clark’s configuration of structural formalism, tracing it back to the Russian literary criticism of Viktor Shklovsky (9). For scholars who can reconcile the particular with the general, Rose’s arguments will likely be agreeable. Indeed, Rose acknowledges that he aims to trace for sympathetic scholars how such ideas have persisted since Fry. There are those who defend structural formalism but nonetheless have a dismissive view of Fry and ascribe to him a solipsistic version; Rose positions himself against Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois in this respect (6n13). For scholars in that camp, Rose’s book should compel a reconsideration. The value of Art and Form is in Rose’s revelatory process of detailing the ironies that led to Fry’s formalism being reduced and misconstrued in the first place.

Art and Form focuses primarily on British art writing between 1910 and 1939. Within this scope, the book is divided into two sections, “Art and Writing” and “Art and Life.” Rose anticipates that the book will attract readers with varied interests, encouraging those invested in aesthetic theory and criticism to focus on part 1, while those looking for discussions of wider political contexts could skip to part 2.

In “Form and Modernist Aesthetics on or about 1910,” Rose begins by identifying the first obfuscating character in the narrative of miscommunication regarding formalism: Clive Bell. Fry’s Bloomsbury colleague, according to Rose, was “confusing and unhelpful” as both writers were coming to prominence (14). Bell’s views on “significant form” and “aesthetic emotion,” as well as the contemporary criticism of them, ran interference with Fry’s own ideas of form’s significance as moving beyond composition to its ability for expression. Rose establishes Fry’s brand of communicative formalism, relating it to practices in connoisseurship—the eye of the critic identifying the hand and expression of the artist. Rose then shows how these ideas of communicative formalism also gained currency in the fields of literary criticism (I. A. Richards) and philosophy (R. G. Collingwood), as well as, most interestingly, in the texts of then-popular but now largely forgotten Margaret Bulley.

The second chapter on art writing, “The Science of Art Criticism after the 1910s,” considers the role of communicative formalism in alleviating the pressure for increased objectivity in art criticism, as brought on by contemporary developments in scientific fields. In tandem with connoisseurship, communicative formalism presented a relatively more objective mode of art writing that deviated from the “impressionistic practices of previous generations” (50). That the “science” of connoisseurship was the antidote to writers such as Walter Pater is not new; Rose’s contribution here is to show how Fry’s communicative formalism was compatible with the fundamentals of scientific inquiry, in which experience needed to be correlated, verified, and communicated. Weaving Fry’s words into the narrative, Rose likewise succeeds at the very least in showing that Fry’s formalism was externally communicative rather than solipsistic.

The second part of the book focuses on the social relevance of formalism in the expanded field of visual culture. Chapter 3, “Mass Civilization and Minority Visual Culture,” deals with the role of formalism in constructing the distinction between “high” and “low” culture. Here the politics of formalism become clearer. Rose argues that communicative formalism, in its emphasis on the active “re-creation” of meaning, facilitates individual betterment for the purpose of a harmonious communal society. Here too Rose calls attention to one of many ironies: the misunderstanding of formalist modernism as a mode of escape from life equates it to passive consumption of mass culture, the very feature that active communicative formalism sought to counter. Rose makes a tentative yet bold claim in this chapter: that it is “possible to link aestheticism of a principled kind with a social criticism” (93).

Building on previous arguments about formalism’s social role, the fourth chapter deals with relationships to design theory and Marxist art writing as responses to mass culture. In the arena of popular consumption, formalism’s “demand for human intervention and style ran up against machine production” (98). Relating back to previous discussions on connoisseurship, this chapter likewise underscores formalism’s reliance on the hand of an individual maker. The privileged place of the artist as an individual then proved incompatible with Marxist consideration for the masses. Rose next discusses the “partial failure of Marxist art writing in Britain” (114). Despite championing social realism at the expense of Fry’s formalism, the Marxists wound up revealing formalism’s critical engagement with—as opposed to its separation from—mass culture.

The final chapter, “Modernism and Form in Africa, Britain, and South Asia,” discusses the spread of formalist thinking to the British colonies. Rose details how British initiatives in education relied on Fry’s formalist views and spread to Nigeria and India via institutional directives. One problem with this colonial model, as Rose argues, is that institutional formalism sought to arrive at a universality, thus engendering claims of belatedness or lack of authenticity on the part of Nigerian and Indian artists. Communicative formalism may facilitate individual understanding through “contact,” but as Rose observes it was easy “to slip almost imperceptibly from sympathetic attempts to engage with others into overconfident pronouncements about the way that others make and see” (129). In other words, formalism became an avenue for generalizations about cultural production. Rose makes an astute observation regarding the irony of the entire situation: “Was it right to teach self-government in an aesthetic and metaphoric sense . . . when the chance for self-government of a literal political kind was being refused?” (134).

Rejecting the narrative of universality, Rose concludes his book by advocating for a modest postformalism, “one that takes contingency as its watchword and understands that learning to see for yourself has nothing to do with learning to tell others how they should see” (129). Moving away from universality and determinism, Rose arrives at individual specificity. Style, writes Rose, “turns out to be a carefully articulated choice that gains meaning precisely through the specificity of that articulation” (145). To this specificity of making I would also add the specificity of the viewing condition. After all, communicative formalism provides a channel of meaning from artist to viewer.

For all of Rose’s discussion of contact and how the analysis of form could lead to a semblance of understanding about artistic intention, the inquiry is very much about reception itself. If communication is the model, then the agency of all aspects of this triad—artist, form, viewer—must be considered. Underscoring the role of the viewer would bring into higher relief the reception of Fry’s own writings. The final and overarching irony that proves the point of a modest postformalism is the discursive fate of Roger Fry. The critic’s communicative formalism, as described by Rose, suffered a crisis of meaning in its received contexts, showing the instability of communication itself. There is nowhere to go but the modest, uncertain route of Rose’s postformalism. If I may be allowed a generalization, all roads lead to specificity contingent upon context, itself an unstable thing.

For another point of view, see Malika Maskarinec’s review of this title here.

Jessamine Batario
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Lunder Institute for American Art, Colby College