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What is zombie formalism?

December 10, 2014

A google search for “formalism” tells me it is a noun defined as:

1. excessive adherence to prescribed forms.

2. a description of something in formal mathematical or logical terms.

It refers to art, literature, math, philosophy and law, and there are Wikipedia pages about each of those. Legal formalism is defined by Wikipedia as:

Legal formalism is a legal positivist view in philosophy of law and jurisprudence. While Jeremy Bentham’s legal positivism can be seen as appertaining to the legislature, legal formalism appertains to the Judge; that is, formalism does not (as positivism does) suggest that the substantive justice of a law is irrelevant, but rather, that in a democracy, that is a question for the legislature to address, not the Judge.

And maybe that would be ideal, if our legislatures weren’t so terribly deadlocked.

We need judges to step out from the formal logic and be human, nay be Hercules. Recall the blog by Federal Judge Richard Kopf, “Hercules and the Umpire“. The umpire is a formalist, but the law also needs heroes.

Consider the recent case of Riley v. California in which the Supreme Court found a Constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches of smart phone data. In that case the legislature of California passed a bill to do the same thing, but Governor Jerry Brown refused to sign it because:

“Courts are better suited to resolve the complex and case specific issues relating to constitutional search-and-seizures protections.”

From 2011, EFF: “Governor Brown Vetoes Warrant Protection for Cell Phones” by Trevor Timm. Law professor Orin Kerr is quoted for his disagreement. But this is the political climate of our times, and if the political process will not adequately protect us, then we need judges who will. Like the modern artists, we seem to have forgotten that law is not merely formalized abstraction, it’s people.

Meanwhile in terms of art, at Wikipedia:

In art history, formalism is the study of art by analyzing and comparing form and style—the way objects are made and their purely visual aspects. In painting formalism emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape, texture, and other perceptual aspects rather than iconography or the historical and social context. At its extreme, formalism in art history posits that everything necessary to comprehending a work of art is contained within the work of art.

Tonight at the School of Visual Arts: ““Zombie Formalism” and Other Recent Speculations in Abstraction

A panel discussion addressing the newest iterations of non-objective art and the trends that have emerged in abstraction as well as the numerous stylistic changes abstraction has gone through since Kandinsky first practiced it over a century ago. Panelists also discuss the recent resurgence of interest in abstract art for both young artists and art collectors. Moderated by artist and SVA faculty member Amy Wilson (BFA 1995 Fine Arts). Panelists include curator and art advisor for Levin Art Group Todd Levin, painter and art critic Walter Robinson and artist, writer and curator Ryan Steadman. Presented by BFA Visual & Critical Studies.

See also Wikipedia on Abstraction (art). In the visual arts:

it refers to art unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible world—it can, however, refer to an object or image which has been distilled from the real world, or indeed, another work of art.

Recall Walter Robinson and the art term “Zombie Formalism” from the prior ZombieLaw post: “Zombie Art World: surrealism, realism, formalism, conceptualism, ART!” and see more ZombieLaw: Art

zombie walter robinson

See also SFAQ: “Who’s Afraid of the New Abstraction?“, Alex Bacon in conversation with Jarrett Earnest, described by Painter’s Table as:

Alex Bacon and Jarrett Earnest discuss current trends in abstract painting, and the labels “crapstraction” and “zombie formalism.”

And more recently ArtNet: “Have Art Fairs Destroyed Art? Zombie Abstraction and Dumb Painting Ruled in Miami” by Christian Viveros-Fauné:

the latest iteration of Art Basel in Miami Beach … featured lots of shiny surfaces, stacks of joke paintings, and enough zombie abstraction to inspire several remakes of World War Z.

Consider also in connection to robots and employment automation. In Australia, Sydney Morning Herald: “Automation could be the real zombie invasion” by Jacob Greber, linking to his article in Financial Review: ““Up to 500,000 jobs threatened by rise of robots, artificial intelligence: report“. And see Telegraph: “Parents will wave off children to school in driverless cars, says minister” by Georgia Graham, suggesting we could replace school bus drivers with robots but that hacking could be the “key barrier”:

Ms Perry said there were legitimate concerns in Government that the cars could be hacked by cyber criminals, but that people should think of driverless cars as “assisted technology” not “zombie robot taxis”.

Remember when Mitt Romney insulted school bus drivers too? Wouldn’t thank them for helping the kids get A’s, because they are just zombie taxi drivers, right? Because driving the school bus route isn’t an art, it’s just automaticity?

But, no! Even if the system is formalist, it’s still people! But of course, what’s a person. Consider again, the case of Tommy the chimpanzee, for whom the Nonhuman Rights group is trying to secure personhood and get out of a slave cage. Formally, not a person, but there has to be more to it. We can be legal formalists and say Tommy is not a person because the law has never done that before or we can realize that there is a larger purpose to law, not a Natural Law from a higher power, but a natural law from the natural purpose of law. Law can be more than formal and we need judges who believe.

Modern conceptions of law are increasingly formalist. The prevailing idea that the formalism keeps the system stable, keep markets orderly flow. And I suspect it’s similar for the art world. Consider quotes from a 1988 Yale law review article, “Formalism” by Frederick Schauer, cited by the Wikipedia on legal formalism, noting a “contemporary aversion to formalism”, and intending to “rescue formalism from conceptual banishment”. That was over 25 years ago, it seems maybe we’ve gone too far, missing some of the spirit.

zombie brain usb keychain

Finally, if you are interested in some of my own art, which I do think is somewhat of a formalist abstraction, see the collection of ZombieLaw zombie portraits. Then please consider buying a book or ZombieLaw Cafepress merchandise and also consider my non-zombie Cafepress merchandise too. After all Zombie Christmas is coming.

And don’t forget zombie-brain USB – because formalism vs. realism is sort of similar to debates about mind-body phenomenology (is meaning in the structure of the texts, or in the reader? not to mention any intent of a so-called author). But remember, using USB drives from strangers can be dangerous, zombie cyber hackers are everywhere (taking advantage of computers formalism to do what wasn’t intended).

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