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?