13 July 2005

Content with Form

Now and then an irresolvable discussion of how we approach works of art can be fun, and even occasionally enlightening. For instance, Mark Kaplan's discussion of aestheticism at Charlotte Street:
Whether it is Kafka (Kafka speaks of books that break open the frozen substance inside us) or any other of the authors who really interest me, there is in these writers a content which burns a hole in the given social substance, which is indifferent to the Symbolic Order in which the writer lives, and which, taken seriously, is incompatible with a life lived pragmatically within that order. And the view of literature as no more than a painless supplement to such a life is anathema to such texts.

I have strayed a bit... the point is to suggest that the 'aesthetic' is often a denial of content, a defusing of its radicalism; the content is placed in parentheses. And yet the critics by insisting on the aesthetic (defined as the suspension of content) have turned things on their head. For it is almost always the case that the form of the work -- the innovations in form -- have resulted from a rigorous effort on the part of the artist to work-through some specific content, to think through the formal consequences of a certain content.
Those two paragraphs are full of implications, as is the entire post (be sure to read the summary of John Berger's exploration of a painting by Franz Hals), but what I kept thinking about was the relationship of the audience to the artifact, and the near impossibility of separating form and content, even in works where one or the other doesn't seem to be particularly skilled. Both terms are critical abstractions, perhaps even fictions. Certainly, at the most obvious level, a painting is a bunch of paints adhering to a canvas, a novel is a bunch of words put onto pages, etc., though I'm not sure if proclaiming that is insightful or an example of willfully missing the point. Certainly, too, there are works (some music, some abstract art) where anything other than an aesthetic approach goes out on a thin limb of imagining.

These seem more to be problems for academics and critics than for sane people, but though the discussion may not be particularly valuable for creators or appreciators of writing, art, music, dance, etc., it's important for people who write about such things -- those of us who are the vultures of the culture industry -- to think about, because it affects how those works are portrayed in reviews and articles about them. Such portrayals can have, at least in the aggregate, an effect on how they are portrayed in the wider culture. I've been thinking about it since my post on J.M. Coetzee and allegorical readings, which was an attempt to think about how literal readings of texts can be a useful starting place before getting everything jumbled with other ways of reading. Such an approach, though, is not going to be satisfying with every type of writer -- it works with Coetzee because the literal is so complex, and so much meaning can be drawn purely from dealing with the surface of the novels. To claim that because it is such a productive way of reading Coetzee that it should be the only one, though, is to give in to self-imposed intellectual impoverishment, and to minimize what great writers can accomplish. To claim that because it works with Coetzee it will work with everyone would be dangerous, too, because there are plenty of excellent writers who provide clear surfaces that are not complex, and the interest lies elsewhere (a form that seeks to stay out of the way of content).

All of this seems clangingly obvious, and it may be just that, but I'm a slow learner at times, and am trying to move beyond that form/content dichotomy and toward a way of thinking about works of art that doesn't lose sight of the pleasures, stimulations, and challenges of the art by cutting it in half. What stops us from aestheticizing and historicizing, from examining both the work and the culture it's part of, both the words-as-artifacts and the work as the production of a particular person? Do critics accept things as mutually exclusive that normal people who encounter the work do not? Is all of this just empty, idle blather? Is this question rhetorical? Will there be a test?


  1. There will be a test, but this won't be on it.

  2. "These seem more to be problems for academics and critics than for sane people"

    --LOL! Matthew, I think therein lies an answer to your post: overthinking can be dangerous; it can possibly lead to "insanity." I have some experience in this (ahem), as I've been known to overthink everything, even making shopping lists. I also think it probably swings both ways (as many things in the Universe seem to do, IMO at least): overthinking and insanity can be both causes and effects of each other.

    What you said about a painting being paint on a canvas and a novel being words on pages, I think that way of looking at art is very important--it's how I often try to view art. But I wouldn't say most people find that description obvious. Most people seemingly don't see how ephemeral art can be in a physical Universe, how ephemeral the physical Universe can be. Most esteem works of art too much in the context of life. To me, art is often fun, exciting and thought-provoking, and life without art would probably be a real drag. But art isn't necessarily life. Life is life. Art's normally only one part of life. I think many great artists have known this subconsciously at least, which is probably a big reason why some have destroyed their own works--to humble themselves, to keep themselves sane, or at least saner. They were conflicted: they saw both a great worth in art and a great lack of worth in art. The artists would only be corporeal in the end. And so would their works be someday.

    Hope I soon get the courage to do something I've been meaning to do for years: I'm going to set fire to one of my works--not that that simple act would necessarily make me a great artist or anything. But I think it would put my work in its proper context. Guess I would think that way, though, considering I'm largely a nihilist....

  3. David: Thanks for the relief. Rereading the post, I think I'd fail any test associated with the ideas therein...

    Fran: Fascinating thoughts. How often do artists of any sort get to choose what sort of context their work gains or appears in? In any case, the differences between "normal" and "academic" approaches have recently changed for me, as I'm in the midst of academia for the next year, while trying to maintain a sense of what is or isn't just empty philosophizing, because I think there are useful techniques and ways of thinking available within academic approaches, but I'm almost instinctively skeptical. In any case, it's a continuing process of thought -- I find myself, particularly here at the blog, trying on ideas to see how they fit. (Peter Elbow has called it "the believing game and the doubting game": first see what happens if you try to believe completely in something, then see what happens when you try to doubt it completely. A dialectic, of sorts.

    Ugh, now I'm using words like dialectic. There may be no hope.

  4. If "dialectic" floats your boat, use it! That the English language has so many words available is one of the best (and worst) things about it, IMO. I must admit, I had to look up dialectic in a dictionary; vocabulary isn't my strong point. So I often like reading writers with good vocabularies--even if I can't easily understand what they mean sometimes! As a writer I definitely aim for clarity, conciseness and accessibility; it's not necessarily how many words a writer uses and what specific words she uses, but how she uses them that's often more important. I try to do as much as I can with my limited vocabulary. Like I'll try writing many different versions of something using the exact same words. My stuff's usually in constant forevermore revision because of my tendency to rework my sentences, to have many different versions of my works in part and in whole too. I love reading my thesaurus, but my thesaurus and I aren't exactly bosom buddies, if you know what I mean.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking posts. Your blog is interesting and so are your reviews, which I think I first came across at sfsite.com, though somehow I only found this blog through the LBC site.

    Take care and keep writing,