Content is central in a work of art and form participates in rendering the content accessible to the viewers. Form is the brush work, the colors, the strokes, in other words, what appears on the canvas that will project on the viewers retina.
A very good realist work, a landscape for example would project from the canvas on the retina and leave the viewer believing that what he sees is a real landscape. But the artist injects something more in the painting, even in a realistic landscape, he projects his own internal disposition, his likes, his feelings about that landscape. That is what differentiates a good painted landscape and a banal photograph. The good photographer does indeed the same as the painter, he injects his internal disposition and thus the good photographer's works are works of art in the same way as paintings are.
The internal disposition that the artist projected in his work has long been the essence of the art work. In Christian times and early modern times, the artist's knowledge was limited to the bible and he was thus limited in his work to two aspects only:
- his technical skills, his virtuosity with the brush.
- the projection of his internal disposition.
The knowledge of the artist was restricted in the same way during the early modern age. The artist was indeed commissioned to execute landscapes, portraits and stills exclusively.
What differentiated the works of different artists in Christian times as well as in the early modern age was thus limited to the same two aspects of technical skills and internal disposition.
With the advent of our late modern age, things change radically. Art works are not commissioned anymore, the artist has now to determine the content of his work on his own. I'm firmly convinced that this very fact constitutes the most important event in all our art history and I'm amazed at how silent our art 'authorities' are on that subject, it's as if this phenomenal event never took place. But artists deeply inside themselves are feeling this change. Here again I have to go back to history to make my point.
Starting around 1850, the most sensitive artists rejected the realist rendering of the 3 traditional subjects (landscapes, portraits and stills). Impressionism, cubism and futurism are typical of this phase. They keep the 3 subjects and they try to work around the classical realist rendering.
Expressionism and surrealism are going one step further. They are searching for something else to represent than the 3 traditional subjects. At its best, expressionism reaches to the soul and renders exclusively the internal disposition of the artist. If expressionism has been particularly strong in Germanic areas, this explains itself by the extremely harsh economic conditions in those lands that impacted on the subjectivity of all sensitive minds in the period immediately following the 1st world war.
Surrealism was consciently thought of as something else than the representation of the 3 traditional subjects. Translated from French, surrealism means something as 'overrealism' or 'more than realism'.
Georgio de Chirico in his 'mystery and creation' writes 'It is most important that we should rid art of all that it has contained of recognizable material to date, all familiar subject matter, all traditional ideas, all popular symbols must be banished forthwith.' But the artist lands on such 'absolutely nothing from the logical point of view' that a crisis is unavoidable.
Breton, the most important thinker of the movement recognizes this '... let us not forget that in this epoch it is reality itself that is in question. ... When I know how the grim struggle between the actual and the possible will end, when I have lost all hope of enlarging the field of the real, until now strictly limited, to truly stupefying proportions, when my imagination, recoiling upon itself, can no longer do more than coincide with my memory, I will willingly accord myself, like the others, a few relative satisfactions. I shall then number myself among the “embroiders”, whom I shall have to forgive.'
But this was considered the summit of the ignominious and thus they could not abdicate so easily. This was the time that Freud, Jung and others were examining the workings of the “uncounscient” and their works gave the surrealists the intellectual substance for leaving the first degree image of reality that projects on the retina. They were saved and Breton could write 'The plastic work of art, in order to respond to the undisputed necessity of thoroughly revising all real values, will either refer to a purely interior model or cease to exist. ... I believe in the future transmutation of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality.' Different approaches were then devised to render the unconscient: automaticism, Dali's “paranoiac-critical activity”, Max Ernst's use of Leonardos “admirable inventions”,... Breton mentions the danger to fall into the absurd but his conviction about the fundamental flaws of traditionalism leaves his brain tranquil. 'Under color of civilization, under the pretext of progress, all that rightly or wrongly may be regarded as fantasy or superstition has been banished from the mind, all uncustomary searching after truth has been proscribed'.
By 1941, Andre Masson wrote “The conquest of the irrational for the irrational is a poor conquest, and the imagination is indeed sad which only associates those elements worn out by dismal reason... Thus surrealism shuts itself into a duality incomparably more dangerous than cubism: - by liberating the psychic menagerie, ... , in order to make it a theme, - by expressing itself by the methods left over from the academics of the preceding century,...”.
Masson's argument was a radical destruction of Dali's approach that he considered intellectually empty and dishonest in the sense that such works were meant exclusively for reason of making money on the market place.
From this critique, he exposes a radical approach of the work of art:
'The tendency to allow oneself to be swamped by things, the ego being no more than the vase which they fill, really only represents a very low degree of knowledge. In the same way, a casual appeal to subterranean powers, the superficial identification with the cosmos, false “primitivism” are only aspecfts of an easy pantheism. Let us repeat the major conditions which the contemporary work of the imagination must fulfill in order to last. ... 1. the intensity of the preliminary thought 2. the freshness of the vision on to the exterior world, 3. the necessity of knowing the pictorial means...'
Masson gives us here a practical method to combine the surrealist approach, automaticism, dreams, admirable inventions,... with existing knowledge and technical skills in order to render the work intelligeable for the exterior world. Foundational here is knowledge, making sense in order to be intelligeable, to possibly be understood.
All citations are taken from Herschel B. Chipp. Theories of modern art. University of California Press.