Reading Notes on ‘The Shape of Content’

October 13, 2018

4 min read

The Shape of Content is written by Ben Shawn, an artist who began lecturing on art, when it was uncertain whether art belonged at the university.

He discusses the challenges an art program can face at the university, his approach to developing a painting, the fundamental nature of art, and advice for the aspiring artist.

Here are some passages that I thought about.

I had long carried in my mind that famous critical credo of Clive Bell’s, “The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful, but it is always irrelevant. For to appreciate a work of art, we must bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its affairs and ideas, no familiarity with its emotions.”

Clive Bell is arguing that it is the form (appearance, shape, color) which is significant. What about the meaning of a painting? What about what it represents?

Bell describes how some paintings just convey information. Perhaps the painting depicts a terrible scene and causes you to feel remorse. Or perhaps the painting is a snapshot of intimate family life in a bygone time. In each of these cases, the painting could be translated into written form and the effect would be the same. To Bell, these forms of art are purely communicative, he argues that the greatest works rest on their form alone, not on the ideas they communicate1.

I have said that form is the shape of content. We might now turn the statement around and say that form could not possibly exist without a content of some kind … If the content of a work of art is only the paint itself, so be it; it has that much content.

Shawn describes art as having two parts: content and form. Content is an idea lacking a representation. Form is that representation—the shape of content. His last remark is significant in light of approaches to art which try and free themselves completely of content.

I know that it is often the earnest effort of critics to bring to painting and sculpture the most objective sort of consideration and judgement. But there is an underlying contradiction in this good purpose. Let us face it honestly: to have no values, no preferences, no enthusiasms would be simply to react to no art and to enjoy none.

Art is subjective. Nothing about the universe, no amount of collecting facts will ever determine that some form is good or bad. You have to hoist art upon values you already have in place. For example, when you’re learning to draw, one of your values is photo-realism. Each of your drawings is good whether or not it is realistic. If you experience a piece of art and you don’t know how to react to it, you just need to discover a value system that will enable you to appreciate it.

Art becomes increasingly free; it has freed itself of craft, freed itself from academic discipline, freed itself from meaning in many cases and freed itself of responsibility … I too cherish the word freedom. But i want to be free to be painstaking if I want to, to be responsible, to be involved; to be free to exercise whatever intellect I may have, and I consider both discipline and craft indispensable to freedom.

Art began a phase of freeing itself from meaning, because it felt constrained by meaning. But Shawn is feeling constrained that he cannot create a meaning-driven painting. So Shawn is advocating for a phase which permits meaning.

As to the first [question]–“What shall I paint?” … such a question seems to indicate an absence of opinion … I think that many young people if they were asked “What do you believe, or hold most dear?” would reply honestly, “I do not know.” And so we again go back to our first outline for an education: ‘In college or out of college, read, and form opinions.’

1. You can read the original argument from Clive Bell under the section The Aesthetic Hypothesis from his book, which is available in the public domain here.