We can perhaps begin by describing formalism as the valorization of the purely aesthetic experience, as aestheticism. The principle work of formalism focuses on the techniques specific to a medium.
Michael Podro describes the critical historians of art as treading a tightrope between a sense of context in art and a sense of autonomy. He describes the concept of art as both inextricable from context and irreducible to it. When the former is elevated at the expense of the latter, art becomes a trace or symptom of context, when the latter is stressed, the position moves more towards formalism. For art, to be autonomous is to have a separate history. (The compromise solution for this tension has been to describe the "semi-autonomy" or "relative autonomy" of art.)
For the Russian formalist critics, such as Viktor Shklovsky, "estrangement" (or "defamiliarization”) was the central vehicle for a modernist aesthetics that sought to define the "literariness of literature". (although Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Cervante's Don Quixote written long before modernism, are often referred to as canonic examples of the technique)In "Art as Technique" (1917), Shklovsky claimed that the purpose of art was to force us to notice. Because of habitualization, "the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously...and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. ...The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar", to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important." (Lemon & Reis, p. 12)
Formalism presents itself as moving beyond representation, and it thus moves out of the communicational social contract constituted in representation.
Russian Formalism was first attacked by Trotsky, in Literature and Revolution, in 1923. Trotsky saw Formalism as only concerned with the technical aspects of literature. In the following year, the first Soviet Commissar of Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, renewed the attack, calling Formalism "decadent" rather than simply "narrow". for Lunacharsky, Formalism encouraged art for art's sake and promoted aesthetic sterility. (see Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism, p. 103-107)
The debate between the Marxist and Formalist critics continued for the rest of the decade and took a decidedly more frightening turn with the rise of Stalin. One of the more interesting attempts at going beyond both a-social pure Formalism and a-literary sociologism of pure Marxisms was the study originally attributed to P.N. Medvedev, but now thought to be principally written by M. M. Bakhtin, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship.
In 1932, Sergei Eisenstein was one of the few active artists still able to defend the idea of form. In "In the Interest of Form", he wrote, echoing what Medvedev/Bahktin saw as "the main claim of European formalism" that "Form is always ideological ."