Formality in serious art is one of the highest expressions
of individuality known to the human race. Why it should be that form and formal
rigor were misrepresented in the twentieth century— from the height of
individuality into a snobbish, classicist ploy, which represented high art as priggish, "Sunday School"— is because the twentieth century was essentially, to
employ America as paradigmatic, a Republican century, in which serious
expressions of individuality were frowned upon in high sectors, both in
America and in Western Europe. Serious expressions of individuality were
largely replaced with empty spectacles, and thus the degeneration of the
century into a kind of school
of quietude. A Republican
century, like the twentieth largely was, regards formality in serious art as
one of the gravest threats to the hegemony of homogeneity and non-individuality; and the persecution of serious individuals is de rigueur; what part of me warms
to talk about this, is that the Republican twentieth century is now over, Great
God Almighty! Now that high ideals around issues of formality in art, and
serious artistic individuality, are back in circulation, and the lives of
serious artists and those who appreciate serious art need not be macabre
(serious art does not have to be humorless, either), we can put our crosses and
garlic away and look at the issues around formality which are more intriguing.
Like, for instance, who Mary Harju is— a serious formalist
who I tend to think will be underrated over a long period of time, but who will
nonetheless fail to drop off into nothingness. Mary is not, to be sure, dazzling
the way Abby Heller-Burnham is; and, to shallower aesthetic minds, is easily
dismissed as too derivative of Renaissance Humanism to be taken seriously as a
major artist. Mary, to me, represents a certain class of artists— formalists—
who are solid, and/or workmanlike, without being dazzling, yet whose work tends
to endure while a surprising number of dazzling showmen/showgirls disappear.
Yet this type of artist, and there are tons of them in different rooms at PMA (Philadelphia Museum of Art) too, have a strange karma— never to appear dazzling, but only solid; and yet to
find their work enduring in a solid way, and in such a way to suggest that the
expressiveness of mere formality, when executed in a rigorous fashion, is 60/40
correct as the approach to serious art in general. Innovation (maybe, and I am
sort of playing Devil’s Advocate here) counts 40/60 less then solidity.
Republicans and their empty spectacles throw the whole thing into the garbage,
as they are taught to do in the school of quietude; but in a more liberated century, artists will have to decide for themselves what mere formality and
formal rigor count for, even as I have a suspicion that Mary’s paintings may
sneak up on some in an uncomfortable fashion over a long period of time.
My own approach to formality in poetry is a complex one. As of one hundred years ago, rhyme and rhyming poetry still dominated most poetry economies, both in the United States and Europe. That poetry should involve heightened language, what is commonly referred to as poetic diction, was not then in question. Century XX stripped things back so that by the turn of the century into the twenty-first, when I began to seriously publish, rhyme and rhyming poetry, and poetic diction with it, had been replaced by a hodge-podge of free verse or blank verse approaches (blank verse being unrhymed iambic pentameter, like Paradise Lost or Hyperion), and an ambitious poet was forced to make a kind, manner or form of music that would have been considered stunted from the 1920s and back. Being a student of the Romantics and Milton, I chose to address this difficulty, which takes formality in poetry and cheese-grates it, by using a technique I call "clustering"; building musical effects into poems without being obsequious to the convention of end-rhymes. On the other hand, when by 2018 I found myself publishing The Ballad of Robert Johnson, I felt that the time had arrived when hand-over-fist formality could again be accepted into English-language poetry, as both an expression of individuality and a rejection of what were still standardized poetry operations.
Twentieth-century avant-gardism (and I do consider Robert Johnson an adjunct to post-avant or the avant-garde) was short on discussions of formal beauty in high art. "Beauty" itself, as a manifest aim in art, was mistrusted, and gamed against heavily. In a way and on a very salient level, this travesties the entire endeavor of major high art consonance, which must include, as a component aspect, the idea that formal beauty ranks high on imperative spreadsheets, no matter what other avant-garde imperatives may ride alongside it. This game against formal beauty guaranteed that, in the twentieth century, the likes of William Blake- a comparative novice/amateur, whose worth as a higher artist is contained in a philosophical imperative and visionary stance puerile next to Keats' Odal vision- could be given a higher ranking than Keats, who supersedes Blake at every point, both as formalist and philosophe.
Keats' prosody, his metrics, the formal beauty of his best poetry, is a political statement in and of itself, against society which would impinge on the individual, against individual-slandering authority as well. In a certain way and on a certain level, formal beauty in high art is the ultimate cultural statement of individuality and innovative power against authority, and an ultimate statement (also) of rebellion. By granting extreme non-homogeneity to the work, which inheres not just superficially but profoundly within the works' confines, and raises the work to a level at which history must be brought into focus by the works' grandiosity (and I do mean grandiosity against mere novelty, as mere novelty is one quagmire built into century XX avant-gardism), the work situates itself within its own transcendent mode of visualization/realization, and authority instantly cringes at having its vestments and privileges stripped from it. Century XX avant-gardism was very secretly invested in different forms of homogenization, up to and including complicity with authoritarian governments- thus, its tendencies to de-emphasize, demean, and degrade formality and/or formal beauty.
This sense- that twentieth century avant-gardism was secretly a game against formality, and/or formal beauty, and thus posited against an important component element of major high art consonance- is what makes it so easy to dispense with. By emptying art of anything artistic, both avant-gardists and centrists proved themselves to be non-artists. They, thus, might as well have been government clerics or bureaucratic scripters- they were there, in high art spaces, for the wrong reasons. This century, a gauntlet has already been laid down against these middling-at-best structures, welcoming formality and/or formal beauty in high art back into the fold, understanding what put amateurism in place of giftedness and inverting things back to where they belong, which is (to be frank, and perhaps overly general) the nineteenth century and back. Rebellion in century XX avant-gardism was faux-rebellion- more in cahoots with authoritarian impulses and destructive games than not- now, we stand ready to let our own version of prosody, its masterful manifestation and enactment, to dictate terms to us about how we may cultivate any extreme form/manner of artistic individuality against the rest of the world (art-world or otherwise) which is not us, and thus make a potent political statement that there is room, in American society, for individuals to stand against the masses, and for the realization of beauty, from individuals on out, to become an event of some consequence for the whole of society at large.