Formalist criticism of Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg


                        Formalist criticism of Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg

Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg are among the best known critics of their time although each belongs to a different school of art. Roger Fry embodied the kind of sensual formalism that was embodied in the 1920s while Clement Greenberg’s was a more self critical form of art appreciation that evolved in the 1930s and 1940s when abstract art became more popular. Roger Fry was a painter himself and the paradox in the relationship between art and real life was always uppermost on his mind. When he looked at a picture, he would ask himself how it compared with real life; do we look at pictures in the same way as we see the objects in the pictures in real life?  Roger Fry always questioned the reason for the emotional impact that some paintings had on a viewer and believed that this element of emotional attachment or association hindered the appreciation of the art for its aesthetic form itself. In his work titled “Essay on aesthetics” Roger Fry attempts to rationalize the intuitive reaction and emotion that one feels to certain feelings by attributing the form of art to have a primary significance.

He believed that a viewer of a painting needed to approach the picture with a mind that was completely clear of the debris of sentimental or emotional associations.  In order to aesthetically evaluate a painting, he believed that all its associations had to be cleared from the mind and all the talk of whether or not it resembled nature was irrelevant in the appreciation of the true aesthetic form of the picture (Fry 14-27). Roger Fry believed that the aesthetic value of art was the supreme factor in assessing and appreciating its form. Therefore, in a sense, he did not believe in the coalescence of form and content but rather leaned towards the appreciation of art on the basis of its form alone.

Greenberg however, believed that while aesthetic value is vital in the appreciation of art, it is not the supreme value. He approached art purely from the intuitive standpoint and was able to discern form in abstract painting with a highly critical eye, yet unlike Roger Fry, his appreciation always hinged on insight rather than analysis or generalization. In reference to abstract art, Greenberg (1961) summed up his impressions on the properties of abstract art as follows:

“….the eye has trouble locating central emphases and is more compelled to treat the whole of the surface as a single undifferentiated field of interest and this in turn compels us to judge the picture in terms of its overall unity.” (137).

Yet, even in this difference in the approach to form, Fry from a rationalized standpoint and Greenberg from an intuitive standpoint, there is one essential similarity between both the art critics. Both Fry and Greenberg approached formalism as devoid of ideology (Bois, 1996). Both of them were able to discuss art formally, without attributing any significance to the meaning or deeper emotional overtures that underlay any painting. They believed that the success of art could be judged on the basis of its form rather than on the basis of its content, and that the form of a painting could not be meaningfully interpreted. They were able to appreciate art strictly on the basis of its form, keeping the meaning of the art at bay. Abstract art poses a peculiar problem for some viewers in that a recognizable image is absent and their criticism of formalism is based precisely on this absence of image. But critics such as Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg were able to view the abstraction in specificity – i.e, in the form of the painting itself.

Fry and Greenberg are also similar in that they both believe that the quality of the picture must first of all delight the senses, devoid of any pre conceptions.  Fry aesthetic approach to painting was condition by an inner distinction in his mind between art and nature, believing that any similarities between art and nature were purely coincidental, because art, unlike nature, is structured, purposeful and organized and the conception of beauty that is inherent in nature cannot be applied to the aesthetics of art. Greenberg approached a painting with much of the same intuition, appreciating a painting purely on the basis of its form and the sensual experience that it provided him. This is why both these art critics were unconventional and Greenberg in particular, was possessed of an intuitive sense for good art.  Both of them did not believe that art could be measured by moral criteria, rather it was to be assessed on the beauty of form, the lines,

Greenberg believed that art was not meant to be some kind of external manifestation of “beauty” as such, good art was more in the creation of expressive forms that communicate feeling and emotion. His appreciation was instinctive, based upon what delighted his senses – like Fry. But Fry differed from Greenberg in that he wanted to separate emotion and preconceptions of beauty from the experience of viewing a picture and he disagreed with the fact that appreciating a painting was based on one’s instinct and judged by moral criteria and the criteria of emotion and feelings, including the emotional associations that it awoke within the feelings of the viewer through effective communication of emotion.

                                              Works cited:

*     Bois, Yve Alain, 1996. “Whose formalism?” The Art Bulletin. New York., March

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*     Fry, Roger, 1981. “An Essay on aesthetics”  London: Oxford University Press, pp 14-27

*     Greenberg, Clement, 1961. “Abstract, representational and so forth”  In “Art and Culture”

Boston: Beacon Press, pp 133-137.

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