Expressionism and Formalism: a Shallow Analysis

Artists did not cease searching for the definition of aesthetics after the birth of representation theory.

The expressionism and formalism are two dominant genres during the last hundred years. (Martin, 1956) The former focuses on the subjective experience rather than objective reality. The artists usually achieve this goal by exaggerating and distorting the items. (The editor of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019) The latter emphasizes the forms and styles of artworks, including the arrangement of color, lines, shapes, and even sounds. The historical context of artwork may also be taken into account but is less important than the form itself. (Wikipedia) Tolstoy is a representative of the expressionism. Clive Bell defended the formalism. Collingwood defined the boundary of art and craft, and Freud’s “Day-dreaming” further compacted the theory of art. In this paper, the opinions of Tolstoy, Bell, Collingwood, and Freud would be explored.

By reviewing their differences in aesthetics, people may get a better insight into expressionism and formalism. Also, readers would learn how these theories have influenced the modern art world by viewing the artwork of Stanley Whitney, “James Brown Sacrifice to Apollo.”

Tolstoy tried to describe art as a medium of communication between artists and audiences in his work, “What is Art?” (Tolstoy, 1896). In Tolstoy’s opinion, the activity of art is based on the reception of audiences. When the audiences are viewing the artwork, they may experience the feeling of another man (the artist). This feeling must have some external indications. In other words, art is an infectious item that can transmit the emotion of one person to another. Also, the degree of infection might be an index of the excellence of an artwork. If an artist can transit his emotion to more people via one artwork, this artwork is obviously more excellent than others. Besides, the artist should also experience this emotion he wants to transmit to ensure sincerity. In other words, if the artist wants to express anger while the audiences feel pleased genuinely, this cannot be a truly great artwork.

Expressionism has broadened the definition of art. For example, literature, including poetry, can be ascribed to art due to its ability to transmit emotions and touch the audiences. Some writers would like to eliminate the narrative and descriptive parts of their works to get the essence of feeling. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019) Likewise, films can also be an art form since they can powerfully evoke audiences’ emotions. However, this theory also faces some critiques. Some people criticize the vagueness of exaggeration and distortion in expressionism. Some even maintain that expressionism is associated with fascism since it conveys strong emotion and could agitate citizens.

Also, “infection” may not be a tenuous characteristic of art since disease and yawning are all infectious, while they are not art. Therefore, it would be a wise choice to explore other theories of art.

Although Bell also started from emotion, he intended to theorize art in a different way. Bell concluded that the starting point of a system of aesthetics is the personal experience of art. Therefore, creations that can provoke the emotion of audiences would be called art. However, this emotion is an “aesthetic emotion,” which is different from the general definition of passion. To clarify, it has some unique qualities that can provoke the emotion of audiences.

Bell applied “significant form” to evaluate the quality he mentions in “aesthetic emotion.” In his opinion, the significant form refers to lines and colors combined in a particular way to stir aesthetic emotions. Because the perception of different individuals is different, this emotion is subjective and has no objective validity. In this case, the responsibility of artists is arranging the components, i.e., colors and lines, with some intention to move the aesthetic emotion of audiences. Bell further came up with the idea, “significant relations to form.” It means the people who can tell the combination and arrangements of artworks more exactly. In Bell’s opinion, the significant relation to form would connect the aesthetic world and metaphysical world by calling these relations “rhythm.”

Nonetheless, formalism also gets some critiques due to its subjectivity. Some scholars maintain that it is even difficult to tell whether an artwork was created with some intention or not. Therefore, both expressionism and formalism seem to be imperfect. Artists need a theory that can reconcile the conflicts between form and emotion.

Collingwood may not have fixed the gap between expressionism and formalism; however, he did exceed Tolstoy.

On the one hand, he recognized that art is an expression fundamentally. On the other hand, he realized two obstacles had prevented people from understanding this truth. (Kemp, 2016) To dig into Collingwood’s theory, people need to determine the difference between art and craft. First, a craft is the production of controlled and directed action. The ends precede the means in the planning stage of a craft, while the means precede the end in execution. Audiences can tell a finished craft from raw material. Also, there are hierarchies of crafts.

Compared with crafts, art does not have a specific plan. The artists follow the inspiration rather than a procedure. For example, a poet erases his sentences since he was unsatisfied with that. It is hard to say that he was sticking to a plan, but he was trying to create something with artistic values. Also, it is not easy to distinguish the means and end of creating art. Neither in the scope of art can means and end be reversed. As for the material and finished product, Collingwood maintained that raw material is another kind of emotion. Plus, although audiences can find the arrangement of colors and lines in artworks, there is no distinction between form and matter of art. What’s more, there is no hierarchy of arts. As a result, it is safe to say that art is not a craft.

Now that art is not a craft but an expression, Collingwood would clarify what expression refers to. First, he pointed out the relationship between consciousness and expression. According to Collingwood, to express is to become conscious of an emotion. Also, the expression is an individualized utterance. Therefore, the expression of artwork is not the form of artwork. Plus, lightning is different from catharsis since the latter can happen without consciousness. Next, Collingwood illuminated the association between expression and emotion. In his words, the expression is a betrayal of emotion. By viewing the expression of others, people can experience the hidden emotion. This betrayal can also happen without consciousness. However, the feeling is an embodiment of emotion instead of inferring to the latter. Up to now, the expressionism had developed pretty robustly.

As mentioned before, Collingwood exceeded the theory of Tolstoy. According to Tolstoy’s approach, an item is an artwork if and only if it is intended to transmit emotions to the audience, and therefore incite the individualized passion of audiences. A combination of colors and lines can accomplish the goal of provoking this emotion. However, sympathy can also arouse the feeling of viewers while it cannot be categorized as art. Also, this theory has restricted the forms of art as well as the scope of artworks. Plus, it assumes that the significant responsibility of art is the medium of communication between artists and audiences.

Compared with Tolstoy, Collingwood’s theory highlighted that art proper is an expression of the artist in the finished art. Collingwood also contradicted Tolstoy that emotion is not the only determinant of art. Therefore, Tolstoy’s theory might be untenable. In Collingwood’s opinion, the responsibility of artwork may not be communicating with audiences but stimulating the emotion of viewers. Likewise, audiences don’t even need to feel the emotions. They merely need to understand the emotions that the artists try to convey.

To conclude, Tolstoy’s theory is named as “arousal theory,” and Collingwood’s theory is designated as “non-arousal (cognitive) theory.” Up to now, the expression theory had developed more comprehensively than the representation of art.

Nevertheless, the appearance of Freud has complicated the debate between expressionism and formalism. Freud was an Austrian neurologist who founded psychoanalysis. He came with the idea “Day-dreaming.” In his mind, Day-dreaming is the continuation of play. However, the hidden motives of Day-dreaming are different among children and adults. Day-dreaming has different characteristics. According to Freud, happy people would never make phantasies and, therefore, would never have Day-dreaming. Also, Day-dreaming is associated with the impelling wishes of individuals. As for phantasies, it is date-stamped, and desires are the string that connects past, present and future.

Freud’s theory seemed to be tangential to art. However, he further maintained that there is a connection between poetry, phantasy, and time. Freud maintained that the experience of the poet had stirred up their memory. Then, they project this experience to their works to fulfill the experience in their childhood and make it discernible. The readers or audiences also have phantasies like this. However, they are reluctant to express their phantasies. Therefore, this feeling would become extremely strong when a man with talent presents phantasies in his plays. The revulsion would be overcome, and the audiences would get relaxed by enjoying phantasies. In other words, people can admire Day-dreams when reading literature without feeling shamed.

It is hard to classify Freud as the expressionism or formalism. Neither should audiences ascribe to Day-dream as mimesis or representation of real life. However, if readers dig into the kernel of Freud’s theory, the viewers may observe the foreshadow of surrealism. Surrealism usually explores the deepest dreams of humanity and expresses the desires or emotions abstractly. While this idea is similar to the “Day-dream” and “phantasy” disused by Freud, consequently, model people should not forget the work done by Freud in aesthetics besides in psychoanalysis.

Reflecting on the expressionism and formalism, people can view the two approaches towards aesthetic appreciation. The expressionism, which was supported by Tolstoy and developed by Collingwood, clarifies the relationship between artwork and expression. Although the artwork is not necessarily to be expressive, a lot of artworks are. According to expressionism, artists can make their emotions understood via some specific medium and stimulate the inner feeling of audiences. This method is more subjective and individualized. Different from expressionism, the formalism emphasized the form of artwork. According to Bell, the primary defender of formalism, this theory would count abstract art as art safely, and it could also help recognize the artwork of non-Western cultural artists. Formalism even developed to Neo-formalism. It states that an artwork should have content and formed satisfyingly. Although not every object in real life is intended to be art, those who designed to display their forms are artworks. This method is more objective and standardized.

When viewing the artwork, “James Brown Sacrifice to Apollo,” the audiences can experience the passionate emotion of the creator, Stanley Whitney.

Admittedly, Stanley is good at applying colors and grids to express a theme or a story. This painting is dominated by warm tones. It makes it vivid and brilliant. These warm colors have been put into the center of this painting. Also, some areas contain cold colors. The high contrast among those areas has made a harmonious combination of all elements. There are not too many components of this painting. The colors are essential, and the arrangement is organized. There are even no specific borders of the colors. In this way, Stanley conveyed his idea in an ironic mixture. Some people thought it should be named “James Brown at Apollo,” while Stanley refused that. He thought this is a sacrifice of James (John, 2015). Obviously, this artwork functioned as a medium for transmitting the artist’s emotion. Therefore, it is a qualified expressionism artwork.

Nonetheless, it is not safe to deny it as artwork according to formalism. In this painting, the colors are well organized. The artist even used borders across the picture, deliberately to highlight the difference between different colors. The difference can be trivial, while the subtle comparison had indicated Stanley’s purpose in this painting. Therefore, this painting has content and designed to be displayed as an artwork. In conclusion, it is a qualified artwork acceding to formalism as well.

To conclude, the discussion of art is not likely to cease. We’ve talked about expressionism and formalism briefly in this article. The expressionism can be further divided into “arousal theory,” which was developed by Tolstoy, while the “non-arousal theory” was maintained by Collinwood. And the formalism was known by Bell’s “significant form,” which argues that an artwork should have a specific form to invoke audiences’ emotions. Perhaps none of them are perfect, but with reference to these predecessors, we may have a more critical view on artwork and admire it from more than one aspect. So, enjoy art, and enjoy your life!

P.S. If you want to read more about art and philosophy:

From Imitation Theory to Representation Theory


Martin, F. David. “On the Supposed Incompatibility of Expressionism and Formalism.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 15, no. 1, 1956, pp. 94–99. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Expressionism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, Accessed 15 Mar 2020.

Tolstoy, Leo N. What is Art? Translated by Almyer Maude. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1960.

Kemp, Gary, “Collingwood’s Aesthetics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Yau, John, Stanley Whitney Reclaims His History, July 26, 2015, Hyperallergic, retrieved from, Accessed on Mar 16, 2020

Monika, Documenta 14, Retrieved from Accessed on Mar 17, 2020

Stanley Whitney, Berggruen, retrieved from Accessed on: Apr 7, 2002

A. G. Hopkins, Rethinking Decolonization, Past & Present, Volume 200, Issue 1, August 2008, Pages 211–247,



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