Unreal Nature

April 13, 2017

The Impact of Idea Upon Material

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… so that meanings will not depart fitfully as they do from the mind, so that thinking and belief and attitudes may endure as actual things.

This is from the title essay found in The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn (1957; 1985):

… Form arises in many ways. Form in nature emerges from the impact of order upon order, of element upon element, as of the forms of lightning or ocean waves. Or forms may emerge from the impact of elements upon materials, as of wind-carved rocks and dunes. Form in living things too is the impinging of order upon order — the slow evolving of shapes according to function and drift and need. And other shapes — the ear, the hand — what mind could devise such shapes! The veining of leaves, of nerves, of roots; the unimaginable varieties of shape of aquatic things.

Forms of artifacts grow out of use too, and out of the accidental meetings of materials. Who again could dream of or devise a form so elegant as that of the chemical retort, except that need and use, and glass and glass-blowing all met to create form? Or the forms of houses, the Greek, the Roman, the extremely modern, or the gingerbread house; these the creations out of different materials and tools and crafts and needs — the needs of living and of imagining.

a chemical retort [image from Wikipedia]

Forms in art arise from the impact of idea upon material, or the impinging of mind upon material. They stem out of the human wish to formulate ideas, to recreate them into entities, so that meanings will not depart fitfully as they do from the mind, so that thinking and belief and attitudes may endure as actual things.

I do not at all hold that the mere presence of content, of subject matter, the intention to say something, will magically guarantee the emergence of such content into successful form. Not at all! How often indeed does the intended bellow of industrial power turn to a falsetto on the savings bank walls! How often does the intended lofty angels choir for the downtown church come off resembling somehow a sorority pillow fight!

For form is not just the intention of content; it is the embodiment of content. Form is based, first, upon a supposition, a theme. Form is, second, a marshaling of materials, the inert matter in which the theme is to be cast. Form is, third, a setting of boundaries, of limits, the whole extent of idea, but no more, an outer shape of idea. Form is, next, the relating of inner shapes to the outer limits of the theme. It is the abolishing of excessive materials, whatever material is extraneous to inner harmony, to the order of shapes now established. Form is thus a discipline, an ordering, according to the needs of content.

… We have seen so often in past instances how content that was thought unworthy for art has risen to the very heights. Almost every great artist from Cimabue to Picasso has broken down some pre-existing canon of what was proper material for painting. Perhaps it is the fullness of feeling with which the artist addresses himself to his theme that will determine, finally, its stature or its seriousness. But I think that it could be said with certainty that the form which does emerge cannot be greater than the content which went into it. For form is only the manifestation, the shape of content.

My most recent previous post from Shahn’s book is here.




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