“Form is the Shape of the Content” — Ben Shahn

“The Shape of Content”(Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1956-57) by artist Ben Shahn was an important book in my life — if only because I took away just one little piece of wisdom, the answer to the question, What is form?  The form of something is, to put it simply, the shape of its content.  And the example I recall is … a tree … an individual tree … different from any other tree, taking the form of its own special, inner content … and what I took away was to not worry about the outer form of what I am writing, but, instead, to let the subject matter — the content — take its unique shape and become whatever it wants and demands to become.

So I have decided to get another copy of the book and will report back from its pages.  Meanwhile, one of the customers who reviewed it on Amazon has generously given us this excerpt … some of Shahn’s advice to artists on their education:ben-shahn

“Attend a university if you possibly can. There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do. But before you attend a university work at something for a while. Do anything. Get a job in a potato field; or work as a grease-monkey in an auto repair shop. But if you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle — yes, even potatoes! Or, in the auto shop, the smell of oil and grease and burning rubber. Paint of course, but if you have to lay aside painting for a time, continue to draw. Listen well to all conversations and be instructed by them and take all seriousness seriously. Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice. In college or out of college, read. And form opinions! Read Sophocles and Euripides and Dante and Proust. Read everything that you can find about art except the reviews. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many artists. Go to an art school, or two, or three, or take art courses at night if necessary. And paint and paint and draw and draw. Know all that you can, both curricular and non-curricular — mathematics and physics and economics, logic and particularly history. Know at least two languages besides your own, but anyway, know French. Look at pictures and more pictures. Look at every kind of visual symbol, every kind of emblem; do not spurn signboards of furniture drawings of this style of art or that style of art. Do not be afraid to like paintings honestly or to dislike them honestly, but if you do dislike them retain an open mind. Do not dismiss any school of art, not the Pre-Raphaelites nor the Hudson River School nor the German Genre painters. Talk and talk and sit at cafés, and listen to everything, to Brahms, to Brubeck, to the Italian hour on the radio. Listen to preachers in small town churches and in big city churches. Listen to politicians in New England town meetings and to rabble-rousers in Alabama. Even draw them. And remember that you are trying to learn to think what you want to think, that you are trying to co-ordinate mind and hand and eye. Go to all sorts of museums and galleries and to the studios of artists. Go to Paris and Madrid and Rome and Ravenna and Padua. Stand alone in Sainte Chapelle, in the Sistine Chapel, in the Church of the Carmine in Florence. Draw and draw and paint and learn to work in many media; try lithography and aquatint and silk-screen. Know all that you can about art, and by all means have opinions. Never be afraid to become embroiled in art or life or politics; never be afraid to learn to draw or paint better than you already do; and never be afraid to undertake any kind of art at all, however exalted or however common, but do it with distinction.”

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for this. It is so important to be reminded how organic the creative process is. Its golden thread is integrity between impulse and execution. Shahn’s wife, Bernarda Bryson, was also a very great artist. Her color watercolors of the book ‘Gilgamesh’ are documents of myth and symbolism. She lived to over a hundred years.

    • Thanks for this info!

  2. An important book. More from it:

    (1957) Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content: “Some critics consider any mention of content a display of bad taste. Some, more innocent and more modern, have been taught – schooled – to look at paintings in such a way as to make them wholly unaware of content…. But again, we must look upon form as the shape of content…
    “…form is the right and only possible shape of a certain content. Some other kind of form would have conveyed a different meaning and a different attitude. So when we sit in judgment upon a certain kind of form – and it is usually called lack of form – what we do is to sit in judgment upon a certain type of content.”
    “While I concede that almost every situation has its potential artist, that someone will find matter for imagery almost everywhere, I am generally mistrustful of contrived situations, that is situations peculiarly set up to favor the blossoming of art. I feel that they may vitiate the sense of independence which is present to some degree in all art…. One wonders how Cézanne would have progressed if he had been cordially embraced by the Academy. I am plagued by an exasperating notion: What if Goya, for instance, had been granted a Guggenheim, and then, completing that, had stepped into a respectable and cozy teaching job in some small – but advanced! – New England college, and had thus been spared the agonies of the Spanish Insurrection? The unavoidable conclusion is that we would never have had ‘Los Caprichos’ or ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’….
    “Thus, it is not unimaginable that art arises from something stronger than stimulation or even inspiration – that it may take fire from something closer to provocation, that it may not just turn to life, but that it may a certain times be compelled by life. Art almost always has its ingredient of impudence, its flouting of established authority, so that it may substitute its own authority, and its own enlightenment.”
    “I believe that if the university’s fostering of art is only kindly, is only altruistic, it may prove to be also meaningless. If, on the other hand, the creative arts, the branches of art scholarship, the various departments or art are to be recognized as an essential part of education, a part without which the individual will be deemed less than educated, then I suppose that art and the arts will feel that degree of independence essential to them; that they will accept it as their role to create freely – to comment, to outrage, perhaps, to be fully visionary and exploratory as is their nature.
    “Art should be well-subsidized, yes. But the purchase of a completed painting or a sculpture, the commissioning of a mural – or perhaps the publication of a poem or a novel or the production of a play – all these forms of recognition are the rewards of mature work. They are not to be confused with the setting up of something not unlike a nursery school in which the artist may be spared any conflict, any need to strive quite intently toward command of his medium and his images; in which he may be spared even the need to make desperate choices among his own values and his wants, the need to reject many seeming benefits or wishes. For it is through such conflicts that his values becomes sharpened; perhaps it is only through conflicts that he comes to know himself at all.
    “It is only within the context of real life that an artist (or anyone) is forced to make such choices. And it is only against a background of hard reality that choices count, that they affect a life, and carry with them that degree of believe and dedication and, I think I can say, spiritual energy, that is a primary force in art. I do not know whether that degree of intensity can exist within the university; it is one of the problems which an artist must consider if he is to live there or work there.”



    • Great stuff and much appreciated.

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