Formalist criticism asks us to look at art objects in terms of their materials. When we're talking about pictures or the plastic arts, this is pretty easy to do. In literature, I think it tends towards looking at how the literature is made, and thus a structural approach would be appropriate (The 'material of language' being itself either etymology or a range of linguistic studies, including structural linguistics. Whilst this level of examination is full of insight, a formalist literary critic would, I think, tend to use them at one or two 'removes of complexity'. That is, they would inform a structuralist criticism of the work.)
Perhaps the easiest way to see formalist criticism is over against what it is not, what it reacts against. It reacts against over-interpretation; the tendency to ask, not 'what is the work?' , but 'what does it really mean?'. The aesthetics of formalist criticism try to stay with the values actually intrinsic to the work, and the formalist critiques the interpretive (hermeneutic) approach, because it inevitably moves away from the work. Layers of interpretation shroud the work in a kind of fog of meaning, through which it is hard to see what really makes the artwork moving. Thus the formalist offers a different answer to 'what the artwork really is'. It is not 'what it really means', but what exactly it actually is.
If, then, we were to characterise the formalist and the interpretive positions in some way that reflected their relationship to our experiences as observing and reflecting beings, we might do worse than to characterise formalism as emphasising more attention to the sensible aspects of experience, and hermeneutics as emphasising the intelligible. For in the one there is a concentration on what the material form can tell us, and in the latter there is a concentration on what we can deduce synthetically from the form (bringing with us extrinsic understanding). Handling these terms roughly, I will conflate the sensible with the empirical, and the intelligible with the rational. The former pairing seems to describe the worldview emphasised by formalism, and the latter that emphasised by hermeneutics.
I introduce these terms because they have been thoroughly explored by philosophers. Kant tells us that experience must arise from both the empirical experience and our rational intelligence, and that to enter the realm of experience is to include as a necessary predicate of 'experiencing', certain synthetic a priori categories of intelligibility, that, in short, 'give form form'. Both are necessary components of our experience of reality, and of any claim to objectivity.
If we want to understand an artwork, might it not be the case that we might need (and are certainly already employing) both approaches there, too? It might. And perhaps on a larger scale we do. It's true that critical fashions come and go, and with new sweeps of the critical radar, new critical approaches tend to revivify our understanding of work. But what if we were to systematically include both critical approaches in our studies? What would this be like?
It's easy to read Susan Sontag's essay Against Interpretation as a formalist stance. Away with interpretations getting in the way of us seeing what work really is, it says. She says 'in place of a hermeneutics of art, we need an erotics of art'. Sontag argues that we need to 'recover our senses'. This moves strongly towards the sensible and the formalist. But it would be a mistake to read it solely in that light. Sontag doesn't rail against all interpretation. She doesn't mean 'interpretation in its broadest sense', by which light she might well be acknowledging that which was to develop as poststructuralist conceptions of epistemology and ontology as examining the interpretive histories that give rise to aspects of human society. Though Sontag cites Nietzsche 'there are no facts, only interpretations', we might read Foucault here just as successfully. But Sontag does get pretty formalist. The meaning of a work of art is illusory, she says. But she also admits that interpretation can be a 'means of revising, of escaping the dead past', (when it is not reactionary, 'impertinent', 'cowardly' or 'stifling').
My reading is that Sontag moves against interpretation as a corrective, aiming to 'recover our senses', over against interpretation run rampant. But in her mitigations of interpretation she seems to allow that it is not always in the wrong, just out of balance. It is too tempting to read Sontag's essay as a jeremiad against interpretation; I think it aims more towards a balance.
And this I think is illustrated most tellingly in the essay's closing line 'in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.' An erotics, though sensible, though concerned with experiencing the tactile and visual and other material qualities of the work, is no mere formalism. An erotics is also a system of desires, those of the object and the subject (and is a system where the 'view' works both ways, with the object becoming the subject and vice versa), and the exchanges between the two. (Something that should remind us more of the interpretive turns of hermeneutic approaches where the object/subject divide is constantly crossed by any worthwhile reflective practice.) Just as to 'experience experience', we require both the sensible and the intelligible faculties of mind, to have 'an erotics of art' would necessitate both the formal senses, and the interpretive noos that allows us to perceive the desires (the intentions, even) of the other. Unbalance either aspect, and the system begins to fall to pieces.
The majesty of art is that it does give us this sense of the other. I do not 'interpret' the music of Bach in the overly codified measures that Sontag criticises, because I am not a baroque music scholar (though I am aware that such interpretation exists, and I take pleasure in hearing the Radio 3 punditry explore such: classical music critics seem to enjoy a fine balance of formal and interpretive critique). I lack that extrinsic knowledge. But I do interpret the presence of Bach, and of the musicians, and of the centuries of other listeners somehow there in the music. For me, that is a powerful part of how I respond, and it seems so intermingled with the sensible qualities of the music I can barely describe it as interpretive. Nevertheless it is there, and I take pleasure in feeling (as I believe) how the others have felt, of being in concord with their feelings for this music. That seems to me to reflect an erotic understanding of the piece. I feel not only ravished by sound, but also held in the (usually imaginary) presence of all those I have shared that powerful impression with. Though the power of it begins with the senses, there is a kind of a priori capability to feel this as a person in common with others.
One of the strongest intentions I uncovered while exploring other artists' books artists' practices, was that they had a strong impetus towards making work for others. The book, with its wide reaching and socially important means of distribution, and its equally important formal capabilities of narrative (with its corresponding empathetic capability), has a twofold presence. Firstly, it is very often a means of such contact. It has such capabilities and artists use them. Secondly, and more universally, it is reified as the symbolic book. Even if it cannot be read, even if it cannot be shared, it promises this (if there were no promise of reading, the nailed-shut book sculpture would be meaningless). The sense of commonwealth in books has had a long history as 'the republic of letters', and it has developed in many other more or less tacit forms as well. The world of artists' books seems to be one such.
The quality that books have to amplify this connotation of a shared experience, both actually through the mechanisms of books, and symbolically, through the promise of reading and its republics, seems important to artist who make them. And I think this is because they more easily afford an experience of an erotics of art.
Books bring together formal mechanisms, modes of distribution and spheres of discourse, the presence of other media and roles for the artist, and in their symbolic role they connote a strong 'public field' of shared experience. This is the mysterious power of the printed word and the reason 'printing offices' dub themselves 'sacred ground'. Amongst their other felicities for the artist, using books gives access to this commonwealth, and, in doing so, they amplify the presence of that erotics of art that vivifies materials and intentions alike.