… [The mind] does not accept a purely traditional inert content and impose a form on it, like a costume on a neutral mannequin …
This is from Worldview in Painting — Art and Society by Meyer Schapiro (1999):
… Perhaps the painting is an ideal empirical object, in the sense that it calls for persistent concentrated looking and attention to all that is there, but in this sense it is unlike the empiricism of science, which limits looking to observation of a relevant feature in a context of a problem that includes an appeal to generalities.
… What we call idealism and empiricism in art are better understood as programs than as descriptions of the art or of art in general. Courbet, refusing to paint angels and proposing to represent only what he had encountered directly, seems an empiricist. But in 1950 a painter who refuses to paint what he sees, since the result would be an unreality, an illusion, is also called an empiricist.
The following is from the essay ‘Art and Social Change’ in the same book:
… if a work of art is, indeed, a whole there cannot be an inconsistency of form and content. The mind that conceives the whole, we can say a priori, does not conceive two separate things. It does not accept a purely traditional inert content and impose a form on it, like a costume on a neutral mannequin, just as the mind does not accept all sensations indifferently and clothe them with arbitrary, independently constructed ideas. The content is itself a creation of an order related to that of pure formal design; it presents itself already as a traditionally designed form, or if it is a text, its interpretation even as a content implies a given viewpoint of the artist that is related to his manner of conceiving any forms.
… We must discover in any analysis of content those aspects that are central in the artist’s conception of the subject. The horror of the incident may be a meaning that exists for us from the very nature of the historical episode, but it may be iconographically minimized in the picture without our being aware of the fact, because our concentration is not so much on the picture as on our feelings about its effects. Only by a comparative study of the same theme in various styles can we arrive at a proper judgment of the content of a work, for we acquire by this comparison a more exact polarity in description and a more precise characterization.
The correspondence of forms and style can be illustrated by the Last Supper:
- Primitive type — sigma table with Christ at one end; no setting, but illusionistic detail; prominent fish and bread and wine.
- Early medieval — horizontal band; movement of Christ to center.
- Renaissance — further individualization; space and perspective; real gesture, but coordinated.
- Baroque — angular view; light and shade; dramatic quality.
- Northern art, sixteenth to eighteenth century — view through kitchen.
- Nineteenth-century impressionistic — insubstantial disembodied, spiritualistic conception; light, etc.