Form and content


That all things have form and content reflects an analysis fundamental in our cognition and an dichotomy fundamental to language. Language is largely about content—semantic meaning. Yet, it must have syntactical form to communicate successfully. The content of statements is their nominal reason for being; but their effectiveness depends on how they are expressed. In poetry and song, syntax and form are as important as semantics and content. They may even dominate in whimsical expressions of nonsense, where truth or meaning is not the point.

The interplay of form and content applies even in mathematics, which we think of as expressing timeless truths. ‘A=A’ is the simplest sort of logical truth—a tautology, a sheer matter of definition. It applies to anything, any time. By virtue of this abstractness and generality, it is pure syntax. As a statement, it bears no news of the world. Yet, mathematics arose to describe the world in its most general features. Its success in science lies in the ability to describe reality precisely, to pinpoint content quantitatively. The laws of nature are such generalities, usually expressed mathematically. They are thus sometimes considered transcendent in the way that mathematics itself appears to be. That is, they appear as formal rules that govern the behavior of matter. You could say that mathematics is the syntax of nature.

The ancient Greeks formalized the relation between syntax and semantics in geometry. Euclid provided the paradigm of a deductive method, by applying formal rules to logically channel thought about the world, much as language does intuitively. Plato considered the world of thought, including geometry, to be the archetypal reality, which the illusory sensory world only crudely copies. This inverted the process we today recognize as idealization, in which the mind abstracts an essence from sensory experience. For him, these intuitions (which he called Forms) were the real timeless reality behind the mundane and ever-changing content of consciousness.

The form/content distinction pertains especially perhaps in all that is called “art.” Plato had dismissed art as dealing only with appearances, not the truth or reality of things. According to him art should no more be taken seriously than play. However, it is precisely as a variety of play that we do take art seriously. What we find beautiful or interesting about a work of art most often involves its formal qualities, which reveal the artist’s imagination at play. Art may literally depict the world through representation; but it may also simply establish a “world” indirectly, by assembling pertinent elements through creative play. Whatever its serious themes, all art involves play, both for the producer and the consumer.

Meaning is propositional, the content of a message. It is goal-oriented, tied to survival and Freud’s reality principle. But the mind also picks up on formal elements of what may or may not otherwise bear a message or serve a practical function, invoking more the pleasure principle. The experience of beauty is a form of pleasure, and “form” is a form of play with (syntactic) elements that may not in themselves (semantically) signify anything or have any practical use. Art thus often simply entertains. This is no less the case when it is romanticized as a grand revelation of beauty than when it is dismissed as trivially decorative. Of course, art combines seriousness and play in varying ways that can place greater emphasis on either form or content. While these were most often integrated before the 19th century, relatively speaking modern art liberated form from content.

For most of European history, artists were expected to do representational work, to convey a socially approved message—usually religious—through images. At least in terms of content, art was not about personal expression. That left form as the vehicle for individual expression, though within limits. Artists could not much choose their themes, but they could play with style. The rise of subjectivity thematically in art mirrors the rise of subjectivity in society as a whole; it recapitulates the general awakening of individuality. Yet, even today, a given art work is a compromise between the artist’s vision and social dynamics that limit its expression and reception.

From the very rise of civilization, art had served as propaganda of one sort or another. For example, Mesopotamian kings had built imposing monuments to their victories in war, giving a clear message to any potentially rebellious vassals. Before the invention of printing, pictures and sculptures in Europe had been an important form of religious teaching. Yet, even in churches, the role of iconic art was from the beginning a divisive issue. On the one hand, there was the biblical proscription against idolatry. On the other hand, the Church needed a form of propaganda that worked for an illiterate populace. Style and decoration were secondary to the message and used to support it. In the more literate Islamic culture, the written message took precedence, but the formal element was expressed in the esthetics of highly stylized decorative calligraphy. In either case, the artist usually did little more than execute themes determined by orthodoxy, giving expression to ideas the artist may or may not have personally endorsed. But the invention of printing changed the role of graphic art, as later would the invention of photography.

Except to serve as political or commercial propaganda (advertising), today representational art holds a diminished place, superseded by photography and computer graphics. Yet, artists continue to paint and sculpt figures and scenes as well as decorative or purely abstract creations. In the age of instant images (provided by cell phones, for instance), what is the ongoing appeal of hand-made images? How and why is a painting based on a photograph received differently than the photo itself, and why do people continue to make and buy such a thing? The answer surely lies in the interplay of form and content. The representational content of the photo is a given which inspires and constrains the play with form.

Skill is involved in accurately reproducing a scene. We appreciate demonstrations of sheer skill, so that hyper-realist painting and sculpture celebrate technical proficiency at imitation. Then, too, a nostalgia is associated with the long tradition of representational art. Thirdly, status is associated with art as a form of wealth. An artwork is literally a repository of labor-intensive work, which formerly often embodied precious materials as well as skill. Photographic images are mostly cheap, but art is mostly expensive. Lastly, there are conventional ideas about decoration and how human space should be furnished. Walls must have paintings; public space must have sculptures. In general, art serves the purpose of all human enterprise: to establish a specifically human world set apart from nature. This is no less so when nature itself is the medium, as in gardens and parks that redefine the wild as part of the human world.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the essence of modern art—as sheer play with materials, images, forms, and ideas—is no longer representational. Art is no longer bound to a message; form reigns over content. Perhaps this feature is liberating in the age of information, when competing political messages overwhelm and information is often threatening. Art that dwells on play with formal elements refrains from imposing a message—unless its iconoclasm is the message. Abstraction does not demand allegiance to an ideology—except when it is the ideology. But in that case, it is no longer purely play. Art can serve ideology; but it can also reassure by the very absence of an editorial program. Playfulness, after all, does not intimidate or discriminate, though it may be contagious. It engages us on a level above personal or cultural differences.

Decoration has always been important to human beings, who desire to embellish and shape both nature and human artifacts. Decoration may incorporate representation or elements from nature, but usually in a stylized way that emphasizes form, while tailoring it to function. Yet, even decorative motifs constitute an esthetic vocabulary that can carry meaning or convey feeling. A motif can symbolize power and military authority, for example. Such are the fasces and the bull of Roman architecture; the “heroic” architecture, sculpture, and poster art of Fascism or Communism; or the Napoleonic “Empire” style of furnishings. It can be geometric and hard-edged, expressing mental austerity. Equally, it can express a more sensuous and intimate spirit, often floral or vegetal—as in the wallpapers of William Morris and the Art Nouveau style of architecture, furniture, and posters. In other words, decoration too reflects intent. It can reinforce or soften an obvious message. But it can also act independently of content, even subversively to convey an opposing ethos.

Even when no message seems intended, there is a meta-message. Whatever is well-conceived and well-executed uplifts and heartens us because it conveys the caring of the artist, artisan, or engineer. On the other hand, the glib cliché and the shoddily made product spread cynicism and discouragement. They reveal the callousness of the producer and inure us to a world in which quantity prevails over quality. Every made thing communicates an intent, for better or worse.