Continuities in artistic form from the fourteenth century in Italy to the present are examined, with emphasis on two overriding tendencies: (1) the formalization of visual representations and their interpretations, and (2) the association of that formality with extreme individualism in the Western world. Challenges to the tradition struck only at certain aspects of it (such as strict perspective and the hierarchy of subject matter) but did not undercut such fundamental characteristics as the nature of a given visual space or harmony derived from concentration of elements rather than, for example, cumulative distribution of elements, commonplace in Islamic and Early Christian art. Theories of art history and criticism have expressed the same inclination toward focusing on pictorial form and the contextual implications of it, not just because post-medieval art does so, but also because of the influence of Enlightenment philosophical thought. Kantian epistemology, too, reduces knowledge to form, a development that led theorists of Pure Visibility to establish an abstract formalism in opposition to the doctrines of content in the idealistic aesthetics that had survived from the pre-Christian Era. It is no accident that the development of this theory is coeval with the emergence of modernism, for both are expressive of the same individualistic concept of existence. Attempts to resist the conception of art as order on the grounds that such rationalism is inimical to free thought have ultimately revealed themselves to be alternative versions of what they resist; thus, deconstructionism, for example, is hardly more than an extreme formalization of conventional criticism.
About the Author:
JOHN ADKINS RICHARDSON is Professor Emeritus of Art and Design at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Previously published books include Modern Art and Scientific Thought (1971) and Art: The Way It Is (1974).