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English Formalism and Russian Formalism:
Clive Bell and Viktor Shklovsky

Trevor Pateman

Abstract: This essay examines the nature of aesthetic and literary Formalism, especially as defended in the work of Clive Bell and Viktor Shklovsky. It seeks to show how very different are the formalisms of these two near-contemporary theorists and practitioners.

Art makers can be more or less preoccupied with the formal properties of their works. Aesthetic experience has always been linked - sometimes centrally linked - to the experience of form in nature or art. Critics and theorists generally, and sometimes exclusively, concern themselves with the form of works of art. The greater the emphasis on form, the more we are likely to dub someone a formalist and their approach formalism, whether they be artist, philosopher or critic.

In each case, we can ask not only what formalism is or might be, but whether it is a good thing and whether you can have too much of it, as well as too little.

It is hard to imagine a (serious) artist not preoccupied with form in their work, though Oscar Wilde in The Decay of Lying (1891) complains that neglect of form is all too common among his contemporaries who nonetheless lay claim to serious consideration. There are writers, he says, who are so urgently oppressed by the need to express themselves or transmit a Message that they quite neglect their proper artistic work. Such would-be artists will, of course, usually end up experiencing Form in its coercive aspects, as when they are told by a potential publisher or producer that their novel simply has too many characters or that their play is too long (and boring).

For artists working consciously with form, content and form may be experienced as antagonistic: the content refuses to fit the form, the form alters the (meaning of the) content. It is then often said that real creative achievement occurs when an artist finds a way of relating form and content in such a way that they are no longer antagonistic but reinforce each other - or even fuse, so that we no longer have a 'mechanical' union of form and content, but an 'organic' whole which cannot be disassembled into parts.

If a teacher asks pupils to 'Write a poem about such-and-such using alliteration', then this proposes a task conceived in terms of a mechanical division of labour. But if a teacher says 'Find a subject for a poem that cries out for use of alliteration', there is an invitation in that to see the artistic task holistically. That is not to say that the task set is an easy one, or desirable out of a context of much prior learning. But it is a task which points pupils in the right direction. In contrast, the first task imagined suggests that the work of poetry is to put icing on plain cakes.

But what about playing with the icing and leaving the cakes to look after themselves? Is there any role in artistic training for the 'merely formal' exercise, in which all that matters is that students make verses which match the standard pattern for a haiku or a limerick or paint pictures in correct perspective? Here it seems one could enter a plea for the value of exercises which foster facility with techniques. But then they are just that: technical exercises rather than artistic explorations. The latter require that expressive impulse and artistic form are held in a continuous reciprocal relation. On this view, it is pedagogically out of order to ask students to 'Write six haikus' just as much as it is to ask them to 'Write about love'. For neither task can quicken the artistic imagination if that is conceived as in some sense organic or holistic in its operation.

From the artist's relation to form, I turn to the claim that aesthetic experience just is the experience of form, felt to be pleasing or beautiful when its object is good form or significant form.

This claim was developed just before the outbreak of the First World War by Roger Fry and Clive Bell working - from their position within what we now call the Bloomsbury Group - to promote the reception in England of Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting. In a famous little book, published in 1913 and simply titled Art, Clive Bell developed an argument which goes like this: sensibility is the precondition of having aesthetic experience; aesthetic experience is the experience of a peculiar emotion; works of art are what produce this peculiar emotion; works of art differ enormously in medium and content; it is only in virtue of something which they have in common that works of art can produce a common response; what they have in common is significant form.

Bell elucidates this concept in relation to paintings, saying that:

lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call 'Significant Form'; and 'Significant Form' is the one quality common to all works of visual art' (p17-18)

Significant form, he continues, produces an emotion distinct from that aroused by the contemplation of natural beauty (p. 20), but this distinction should not lead us to think that it is the representative content of a work of art which marks the difference from an object of natural beauty. Bell is quite insistent on this, saying that:

if a representative form has value, it is as form, not as representation. The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful; always it is irrelevant. For, to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions. Art transports us from the world of man's activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation....The pure mathematician rapt in his studies knows a state of mind which I take to be similar, if not identical. He feels an emotion for his speculations which arises from no perceived relation between them and the lives of men, but springs, inhuman or super-human, from the heart of an abstract science.(p. 27)

Now this is formalism with a vengeance. The assertion that 'the representative element' is always 'irrelevant' in a painting opens the way to eliminating it, and it was soon eliminated in art which is properly called Abstract. The problem with such art is that it appears not to elicit just one peculiar (aesthetic) emotion, but that it elicits no emotion at all. We can appreciate such works for certain things - their formal properties, no less - but they do not engage us in the way that a representational painting can engage us, even when it is non-figurative (as it is with Mark Rothko). Such engagement occurs when imagination is able, as it were, to locate a space in which to operate with both reason and feeling. And this imagination can only do when the work connects to something in life, not to nothing. Works which do not connect to life are, ultimately, boring - though it is true that by frequent variation of formal properties, they may indefinitely postpone the real onset of our boredom. In rather the same way, people who divorce sex from feeling can postpone the onset of boredom by frequent changes of position and partner. Even that may not save us: look at too many Abstract works and you will end up feeling like the actors who have made one porn movie too many. Everywhere forlorn looks and limp dicks.

There is, however, a way of finding a truth in Bell's position. This is to see him as articulating the precondition of engaging with something as a work of art, rather than the result of the engagement with significant form. This precondition is that we approach the work with a particular kind of open mind. For Kant, this open mind is an attitude of disinterestedness, in which we accept that the work will display purposefulness without purpose. It cannot be annexed to the satisfaction of everyday need, material or ideological. It has to be engaged with in and for itself, as art for art's sake, just as the pure (virginally pure) mathematician takes maths as it comes, with no thought of its Practical Applications. It is the specific virtue of both art and pure maths to be perfectly useless. That is the truth which formalism is strong at recognising, but in Clive Bell's case, mistaken in formulating.

At the same time as the doctrines of Clive Bell's Art became influential in thinking about the visual arts, but quite independently, a group of Russian writers, critics and theorists was generating ideas under the name of Formalism which have had a continuing powerful influence on critical thinking about the arts, and especially on theories of poetry and the novel. Formalism as analysis of the arts, rather than as artistic practice or an aesthetics, owes an enormous amount to the Russian Formalists, headed by Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) and Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984) - the history of the movement is chronicled in Victor Erlich's book Russian Formalism (1981).

In a 1914 essay, 'The Resurrection of the Word', Shklovsky expressed a view close to that of Clive Bell, but more carefully phrased, saying that, ' "Artistic" perception is that perception in which we experience form - perhaps not form alone, but certainly form'. Poetic language, in particular, is distinguished from everyday language by the fact that the language is perceived to have an independent value. Poetic language does not primarily (or at all) function as a means of communicating something, and it is as language independent of communication that it is an object of aesthetic perception. In the practice of the Russian Futurist poets - with whom the Formalists were closely associated - this emphasis on the independent poetic value of words, as sound and syntax, extended to the creation of 'nonsense' language in the trans-sense poetry of Velimir Khlebnikov. Such poetry approaches to the condition of Abstract art, and is vulnerable to whatever criticisms are valid against other forms of Abstract art.

But as literary theory, it is perfectly viable to insist that a large part of the critic's work must have to do with identifying the forms - the structures - of poetic language. As Roman Jakobson put it in 1921, 'The object of the science of literature is not literature, but literariness'. And it was the Russian Formalists who pioneered the study not only of form in poetry but of narrative form in the novel, the starting point for any study of which is the distinction between the story (Russian sjuzhet ) and its telling (fabula ). Later French Structuralist work, like Gerard Genette's Narrative Discourse (1980), is the lineal descendant of Russian Formalism as a way of studying poetry and the novel.

The Russian Formalists had many more ideas to contribute besides the idea of form as a focus of aesthetic and critical interest and the contrast they drew between poetic and prosaic (communicative) language. In a 1917 essay 'Art as Technique', Shklovsky additionally offers an account of the function of art, and an associated sketch of the dynamics of historical change in artistic styles and genres:

Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war....Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar', to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. (p. 12)

If this is formalism, it doesn't sound at all like Clive Bell's. If the job of art is to resist the automatism of perception, its encapsulated unperceptiveness, in order to restore the world and ourselves to life, then it is humane in a way which Bell's aestheticism cannot accommodate. Whereas Clive Bell's aesthetic emotion is disconnected from the world represented in an art work and does not lead us back to it, for Shklovsky art is working well when it enables us to experience epiphanies about the real world - illuminations which may be major (about the human condition) or small (in which we feel the stonyness of the stone).

Techniques which work towards the humane goals of art include, centrally, techniques of defamiliarization or 'making strange' (in Russian, ostraneniye) . It is a short step to historicise this picture, and to argue that the purpose of a new form in art is not to express some new content, but to displace an old form which, by becoming over-familiar, has lost its power to impede perceptual automatism.

Surprisingly, perhaps, since Romanticism and Formalism are sometimes (and rightly) seen as opposing tendencies, one finds Coleridge in Biographia Literaria attributing just such Shklovskyesque purposes to Wordsworth, saying that the poet aimed 'to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday', 'awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand'. Similar sentiments can be found expressed in other texts of English Romanticism.

Shklovsky himself was a creative artist as well as a theorist, and his subject matter is central human experiences. He uses the techniques of defamiliarization, the analysis of which he pioneered, in his own autobiographical work, A Sentimental Journey. (Shklovsky 1923). The title, of course, is taken from Lawrence Sterne but the content deals with the horrors of the Russian Civil War between 1917 and 1922, which Shklovsky experienced as a front-line soldier, activist, and, occasionally, fugitive.

Because the book deals overwhelmingly with that which is not everyday, not routine, one of the principal devices it uses is that of making the strange familiar the inverse of the better known technique of making the familiar strange which serves to increase ones sense of the horror or extraordinariness of what is being described. Here is an example;

Shklovsky is describing travelling home on a Prisoner of War train:

We were on our way.

We were given dried fish, but no bread. We gnawed at it. Bacon and the feeling of being full were only memories.

The POWs didnt talk, didnt ask any questions. When we got there, we would find out.

Included in the train were cars full of coffins, with the black inscription, hastily scrawled in tar:


When men died, they were taken as far as Kursk and buried. But the coffins went back. These boxes could be used again.

(p 170)

Here, the terrible fact that large numbers of men are dying on the POW trains is brought out by the off-hand, matter of fact statement about their coffins, These boxes could be used again by implication, unlike the men.

Shklovskys narrative is also packed with accounts of extraordinary and sometimes Quixotic adventures. These are defamiliarised by being made into anecdotes, told off-handedly and with a certain amount of forgetfulness. The following is more or less self-contained and can serve as an example:

Before I left Moscow, I ran into Larisa Reisner [a famous Bolshevik commissar - TP]. She welcomed me and asked if I couldnt help her get Fyodor Raskolnikov [her husband - TP] out of Revel [= Tallinn, capital of newly-seceded Estonia - TP]. I was introduced to some member of the Revolutionary War Council.

I was used to being in motion and I had no quarrel with the Bolsheviks, so I agreed to attack Revel with armored cars and attempt to take the prison.

This enterprise never came off because the sailors who were supposed to go with me went off in every which way, but mostly to Yamburg for pork. Some of them had typhus.

The English eventually traded Fyodor Raskolnikov for something or other.

(p 173)

Here, an extraordinary and dangerous plan and its fate is recounted so laconically that it becomes comic. Not only that, but in the end Raskolnikov is traded for something totally forgettable it could well have been pork and yet, at the outset, life and limb is going to be risked on his rescue.

By way of third example, Shklovsky also makes use of a well-worn clich´┐Żand then brings it shockingly to life, as in this passage where he is at the front in Persia at the end of 1917/ beginning of 1918:

Meanwhile, famine stalked the land.

It had already become commonplace to see people dying in the street.

People were fighting over the garbage thrown out of the headquarters mess hall.

At dinnertime, hungry children gathered in our compound.

One morning when I got up and opened the street door, something soft fell to the side. I stooped down and lookedSomeone had left a dead baby at my door.

I think it was a complaint.

(pp 114-15)

These final, shocking remarks serve a triple purpose. They turn famine stalked the land into a vivid image. They serve to remind the reader that Shklovskys daily existence is traumatised. And they make the point that the horrors of war become the stuff of everyday living. The overall effect achieved by Shklovskys formalism in A Sentimental Journey is one of deeply felt, humane protest.

On a visit to the Soviet Union, the young Bertolt Brecht picked up the idea of defamiliarization and used it in his own theory and practice of the 'alienation' or 'estrangement effect' (Verfremdungseffekt) - a theory which also did not stop him writing wonderful and moving plays, in which ordinary people find themselves in extraordinary situtations and extraordinary people in ordinary ones. Sometimes, we are told that Brecht's dramatic practice fails to realise the dramatic theories set out in works like The Messingkauf Dialogues - and thank goodness. But it might be more accurate to say that Brecht's formalism, like Shklovsky's, is not aimed against the artist's or the audience's engagement with central human concerns, but rather against those ways of working which allow and encourage a too-easy, over-familiar emotional engagement in which we are not required to think and feel afresh about what we are shown. Devices which impede the automatic, the easy, the conventional response are not aimed against feeling, but rather in favour of something better, which I will risk calling, authentic feeling.

In support of such aspirations, I would draw attention to classical European music, where the idea of impeding perception is central to the artistic technique, as the repertoire of means by which we are held away from the lure of a too-easy melodic line.

It is manifestly the same kind of thinking which inspires a film maker like Jean-Luc Godard to delay or frustrate easy gratifications from the flow of images across the screen and, interestingly, Godard is also one of the many contemporary film-makers who has made a repertoire of classical music come tantalizingly alive by both using it and constantly interrupting it - I am thinking of such films as Godard's Passion.

In other words, there are artistic practices outside poetry and the novel which can be illuminated by reference to the work of the Russian Formalists between 1910 and 1930. At the latter date Formalism was suppressed as a matter of Stalinist policy, which saw it as of a piece with bourgeois aestheticism, decadentism and, more generally, modernism. In the sketch of a contrast between Clive Bell and Viktor Shklovsky, I find I have indicated - in a way I did not foresee at the outset - some reasons for thinking that their formalisms are really quite different. For Bell's explicit theory is designed to take us out of and away from life, into art. This is why we do not need to, and indeed should not bring to the encounter with art our experience and knowledge of life. In contrast, Shklovsky's theory is one which attributes to art the function of re-integrating us with a life from which we have become estranged. It does this by using estrangement as a device. But such device is the means and not the end of Shklovsky's art.


Bell, C (1913) Art London: Chatto and Windus

Erlich, V (1981) Russian Formalism Yale University Press

Genette, G (1980) Narrative Discourse Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Shklovsky, V (1917) Art as Technique in L T Lemon and M Reis, eds., (1965) Russian Formalist Criticism. University of Nebraska Press

Shklovsky, V (1984) A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs 1917-1922 Cornell University Press

Wilde, O (1891) The Decay of Lying in O. Wilde, The Artist as Critic ed R. Ellmann London: George Allen

First published 1991 in my Key Concepts: A Guide to Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education (London: Falmer Press), pp 59 - 63. Revised 2000. Not previously published in this form.

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