Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 31, 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 revisits British writing on art over the first four decades of the twentieth century so as to determine what can be retrieved from its formalisms. Rose asks in what way art historical formalisms can be made productive for today’s renewed interest in aesthetics and in light of an urgent, more inclusive turn in the discipline from Western modernism to global modernisms. The answer, in a nutshell, is a “more modest” formalism (10).

Throughout the book, the counterpart to this modest formalism is a capacious “pure” formalism that defends elitist high culture and attends to the structure of an artwork at the expense of the artist, history, social context, and the work’s material constitution. However, the reader of Art and Form remains uncertain to whom this pejorative version of formalism should be attributed and in what terms it was articulated in the past or remains virulent today, if indeed it does. Beyond his careful analysis of the legacy of Roger Fry (1866–1934), Rose briefly discusses two further specific formalist schools of criticism, the Russian formalists (19) and Heinrich Wölfflin’s art history (53). As Rose correctly notes, these formalisms were never merely interested in form at the cost of, for example, questions of history and intentionality. Wölfflin’s formal categories aspired to nothing less than a history of vision, imagination, and representation. As a result, pure formalism comes across as a ghostly and ill-fated straw man used to profile the modest formalism that Rose defends.

The first part of Rose’s book treats Roger Fry’s writings, which are helpfully described in chapter 1 in dialogue with his British contemporaries (Clive Bell and Bernard Berenson, for example). Chapter 2 then considers how Fry’s account of aesthetic appreciation, in particular the significance it ascribes to personal experience, came under pressure from the rise of positivism and the felt need for an objective method. As Rose convincingly shows, Fry understands form as a communicative possibility. “Form” continues to refer to a structure or organizational principle of an artwork, but it is a structure that can inform us about the historical situation in which the object originated. Form affords a channel of communication between viewer and artist. In Rose’s words, “Form, it could be said, is the basis of the ability to re-create or recuperate the original functioning of the work: securing correspondence of experience between makers and viewers of artworks, conveying expressed thought and feeling, grounding historical reenactment, or simply guaranteeing that one can properly assess its historical operation” (20). Attention to form thus enables an imaginative re-creation of the artist’s intentions and the making of the object that borders on an empathic displacement.

But isn’t the promise of such an activity to provide the viewer access to form as process and as intention diminished or misrepresented when called “modest”? Rose traces an ambitious account of encountering artistic artifacts, one that answers basic methodological questions of any historical discipline. Indeed, what Rose describes as “communicative formalism” harks back to Immanuel Kant’s description of the form of aesthetic judgment: what is at stake in the appreciation of an aesthetic object is nothing less than the possibility of understanding another’s intentions, communicating those intentions to a community of viewers in a compelling form, and coming to a kind of social consensus. According to Rose, Fry’s criticism too was motivated by “the longing for a description of that personal experience that grounds a communal enterprise” (61).

Part 2 of Art and Form turns to the legacy of Fry’s formalism in the 1930s when he and his critics come to terms with the significance of mass culture (chapter 3), design (chapter 4), and non-European art (chapter 5). At stake are the “ethics and politics” of formalism as they come under attack from attempts to advance a more democratic but also more globally inclusive understanding of the appreciation of art (74). While formalism ostensibly relies on and reifies the distinctions between high and low art, between craft and industrial production, and between Western modernism and supposedly belated non-Western modernisms, Rose demonstrates that Fry and the later critics inspired by his art writing were also deeply concerned with encouraging public visual literacy, namely, in teaching the ability to imaginatively and empathically participate in an artwork’s form. In Rose’s analysis, these efforts to break down “barriers between art and life” were, at best, a partial success since they remained indebted to a traditional art historical privileging of fine art and an insistence on the viewer’s active engagement with the object contrasted with the passive spectatorship attributed to forms of mass culture. But, as Rose shows, claims that Fry’s formalism was unwilling or unable to engage with dimensions of mass culture were also only partially apposite insofar as his critics remained indebted to the same basic premises.

Chapter 5, with which the book concludes, is the most far-reaching and perhaps also most consequential for the discipline of art history. It considers the legacy of formalism among colonialist programs of artistic education in the British colonies of Nigeria and India. Rose argues that under the influence of the art historical views charted in the earlier chapters, these programs insisted that good art depends on authentic individual expression. Hence, artists in these colonies needed to be shielded from a globalized modernism (including, paradoxically, the very colonialist project that advanced these programs). Rose examines Aina Onabolu and Jamini Roy as two examples of artists who, rather than acquiesce to a formalist insistence on native, authentic expression, made the influence of Western modernism productive for their painting. The chapter concludes with an answer to the question as to what can be recuperated from Fry’s legacy: a modest formalism that abandons “at once both the end of grand modernist self-confidence and universality.” This is a formalism that “dovetails with a global modernism that can acknowledge both multiplicity and the possibility of a shared horizon” (152). 

The greatest achievement of Rose’s book is to create a strong sense of dialogue among individuals, factions, institutions, and even publications—and to endow this dialogue with a sense of historical duration. Rather than presenting any individual or tradition as isolated or autonomous, Rose helpfully elaborates these views within the dialogue and shows how they are evolving. We can appreciate Fry himself, for one, for taking a measured distance not only to his earlier publications but also to the long-lasting influence that terms such as “post-Impressionism” would have on British criticism. What remains conspicuously absent, perhaps necessarily so, is an attempt to broaden this dialogue beyond the confines of the British Empire. For this greater horizon of Fry’s writing, it remains helpful to return to Michael Fried’s Tanner Lecture “Roger Fry’s Formalism” from 2001. Fried reminds us that Fry can be situated in a tradition of antitheatricality going back to Denis Diderot (and extending up to Fried himself). At the core of Fried’s argument is that the other against which Fry’s formalism takes a stand is by no means intention or history but rather dramatic expression, understood as an overt theatrical appeal to the viewer. To place Fry in this tradition, as Fried does, might superficially be at odds with Rose’s ambition to identify formalism at a remove from the privileged attention art history has given to Western painting. Yet for others Fry’s exemplary sensitivity to the formal structures of a painting, from which he develops his antitheatrical position, is itself already a legacy worth defending.

For another point of view, see Jessamine Batario’s review of this title here.

Malika Maskarinec
University of Basel