A concept associated with modernism, especially by the British critics CLIVE BELL (1881-1964) and ROGER FRY (1886-1934), and the American CLEMENT GREENBERG.
In response to a developing interest in non-European art in the first decades of the 20th century, Fry and Bell attempted to formulate a semi-scientific system in which visual analysis of the formal characteristics of art took precedence over the artist's intentions and its social function.
Formalist approaches were also applied to post-World War II criticism, particularly by Greenberg, in relation to abstract expressionism. By the 1960s its importance as a critical concept gave way to alternative methodologies.
Any doctrine emphasizing form as against matter or content, especially in aesthetics, ethics, and philosophy of mathematics. (The term is not, however, normally used of a metaphysical preoccupation with Platonic or Aristotelian forms.)
In ethics formalism sees the value or rightness of an action in what kind of action it is (what formal description it satisfies) rather than in its consequences (also see: deontology, a commoner term).
For formalists in the philosophy of mathematics - followers of the German David Hilbert (1862-1943) - the objects of mathematics are mere marks (for example of ink or chalk) which are subjected to certain rules and arranged into formal systems; there is a certain connection with finitism, at least as a method.
S Korner, The Philosophy of Mathematics (1960), chs 4, 5