The Utility of Formalism


A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to attend a Japanese flower arrangement class. The art form has flourished in Japan since the 6th century where it was introduced or invented by Buddhist monks. Ikebana has many schools, but all of them rely on a formalist framework. Forms are defined and rigidly adhered to. Even “free form” arrangements are mash ups of accepted forms.

It can be argued that formalism is a rather arbitrary way to determine what is beautiful. If the Golden Mean was a brute force definition of what is beautiful, ikebana is an elaboration of this principle of balance and thematic cohesion. But who decides what forms are beautiful, and what makes a particular set of proportions, relations or settings more pleasing than another?

Music is the best clue to the solution of this problem. Auditory phenomena that qualify as music are fairly universal. There are cultural variations of course, but the basics of tonality, timbre, rhythm and harmony can be found in music anywhere. We know the difference immediately between noise and music (with the notable exception of composers who knowingly blur the lines such as John Cage). But even in the case of Cage, one cannot understand or appreciate his innovations without first acknowledging the formal structure that he was intent on breaking.

The phenomenology of beauty is a fascinating topic worth exploring in more detail at some point. In short my take on it is that human beings are hard wired with some good useful short cuts that help us interpret the raw phenomena of being in the world. Some rule based cues from the environment and good adaptive experience lock us into a circumscribed world of aesthetically pleasing relations between sounds, shapes and colors.

As a young artist, my idea of formalism had more to do with tradition than theory. I had never heard of Clive Bell, let alone Kantian aesthetics. “Form” was something you learned in art school and I wasn’t interested in that.

This misunderstanding of formalism as an aesthetic idea combined with my prejudice against certain styles of art, left me handicapped from self-inflicted wounds. My introduction to Japanese flower arrangement alerted me quite unexpectedly to this blind spot.

The lesson was straightforward. The instructor gave us a piece of paper with the form we would be using that day: Tateru Katachi (rising form). It included a subject, an object and a region of space (shown as a dotted line shaped like a beehive on the diagram). The form was three dimensional of course so it was confusing to try and visualize what the little diagram meant. Our instructor provided some cryptic tips, but after a while I got a sense of what was going on.

Tateru Katachi (rising form)

It all seemed easy enough: The subject is at the center in this form. The object moves away from the subject on the same vertical plane but thrusts outward on the horizontal. The rest of the arrangement uses additional elements (other flowers and greenery) to compose a balanced piece that brakes up the different planes in all three dimensions without piercing the beehive shaped imaginary space. (At right is my finished product. We got one practice attempt, and then one more try).

After the lesson I became aware of the value of taking some kind of formalism in composition more seriously than I have in the past. It’s not that I have not been aware of the importance of composition and relations in my work–I take that very seriously. But it has never been something that I thought about a great deal in preparation for a piece. The lesson made me realize that I was unnecessarily leaving a great deal of the composition to luck. There will always be a huge element of accident in any piece of mine no matter what I do. But by taking a formalist approach in terms of the most general primary and secondary elements in a more conscious way, I think the work may be less stressful and more aesthetically pleasing. And the give and take between what is necessary (the formal) and what is expressed within that imaginary space may make the process much more enjoyable. Maybe painting doesn’t have to be a battle but rather a series of small skirmishes on a clearly defined field.

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