Formalism (n.) : A strict adherence to, or observance of, prescribed or traditional forms, as in music, literature, or art.
Formalism is a way of analyzing a piece without taking into consideration any previously existing information (time period, artist, politics, biases, assumptions, etc.) Instead, it suggests that any successful piece should intrinsically display its meaning through only what is available to the viewer. It encourages one to look at the form, composition, color use, and other techniques that the artist or author provides in that piece AND NOTHING ELSE.
There is also a difference between providing a description and formally analyzing the work. Describing the piece, for example, would be to state, "The sculpture is composed of a sphere (the head), a rectangle (the torso), and two larger rectangles (the base)." Formal analysis takes it to a HNL by making inferences such as, "The figure's eyes look upward, creating a sense of attentiveness in the subject." Formal analysis takes into consideration how the piece makes the viewer feeeel. The point isn't to ask "How does this make me feel?" but rather "Why does it make me feel this way?" Get it?
Err, anyways, tell me what you think about formalism. I personally agree, to some extent, but I feel that considering existing information such as the time period or the artists background is also crucial. So much of the artist goes into their piece, in my opinion. Let me know what you think.
By the way, if you dont know what HNL stands for, you're SOL.