2004/11/16

Form versus content

Art creation is a kind of marginal activity that in essence is elitist. Artists are seeing themselves as different from the mass of toiling-men this comes as a result of their free dwelling in areas never visited by toiling-men. But this does not in any way imply that toiling-men have no possible reach at art. They have homes and they decorate their walls. But what they put on their walls has a function that is limited to decoration, the content of what hangs on their walls is thus automatically mainstream, something that society at large has interiorized, has accepted as "normal beauty".

Van Gogh who could not sell one painting during his life is thus some 120 years after his death the darling of the masses and his works are accepted as one of the favourite mainstream "wall hangings" worldwide. Imposed worldviews have faded but society is still searching for conformity. New visions are not readily accepted, they need to undergo a process of socialized acceptance.
From this I derive that visual arts encompass works that have to satisfy two separate functions:
- on one side we have art works for the enjoyment of the brain and for diffusing the worldview of the power and knowledge elites.
- on the other side, we have decoration works for interior design and decoration at the attention of the mass market.

In short a distinction has to be made between art and design. They cover two very different social functions:
- In the 21st century, art is an individual undertaking that is unique, that brings some new understanding of ourselves and of our universe, in other words art gives the early signs of how a society is shaping its coming vision of reality. For one, content is paramount in an art work. In that sense, we can affirm that art is a risky undertaking focused on coming realities (remember our state of fast changing realities). For two, buyers of art works are few, they are a cultural elite with some money and viewed from the standpoint of demand the offer of art has to remain very limited to have some prospect of financial return in the future.
- Design is kind of a vulgarization of the spirit of art works at the attention of larger segments of consumers. We could also say that design is the merchandisation process of the substance of art works that will introduce the spirit of the works of art into the interiors of larger segments of the population. But more generally, design attaches no importance to the content of a work, form is indeed paramount in decoration and thus works of art from earlier times that were created foremost for their content, after having gone through a process of socialized acceptance, can become mainstream just for the form of their content. A good example of this process of acceptance of the form of content is given by Van Gogh's body of works that while being absolutely unknown, I mean not understood, by most people, is accepted as a mainstream form and prints of his works are then what help diffuse this form of content in unlimited numbers around the world.

Because nowadays' confusion between art and design, this idea that form is paramount in design succeeded to impose itself to many artists. But this is essentially a dead end road where the proeminence given to form is bound to irremediably destroy the primacy of content that is the essence of art.

This opposition between the primacy of content versus the primacy of form has outlined the debating ground about the nature of art during the last fifty years. Seen from the lenses of universities and through the words of those who monopolize the speaking arenas of our mediatized societies, the debate basically opposed conceptualism versus minimalism or versions of both.

Conceptualism gave priority to the ideas, the concepts expressed in a work while de-emphesizing the materiality of this work. Conceptualists came then to consider that non-merchandable media would extinguish once and for all this firery desire of material possession of a work and thus the concept would be garanteed survival.
Minimalism defined art as being "out of content", residing in the rendering of minimal forms, shapes, colors and textures.
It seems to me that both those approaches are focusing on very narrow segments of one and the same thing, as if they were targeting a beam of light at a particular aspect of a same observed. Not knowing that those contradictory views are derived from images of distinct areas of an identical observed, they happen to present their particular approaches and theories as contradictory views. But in reality both views make no sense, they both fail to realize the globality of what they observe. What they observe is the recurring polarity at work in visual arts: form and content and excluding one of the poles just destroys the whole. What they do is just the same as trying to isolate the negative and the positive poles in electricity, the result is simply meaningless for it lands in nothingness.
Both conceptualism and minimalism are already present in animist arts, in what white men termed "primitive arts".
Totems, as visual signs of their understanding of reality, spoke loud in those times to the people about the respect that they needed absolutely to express for the animals that ultimately would feed them. I guess that Joseph Kosuth the pope of conceptualism was somehow recognizing being in the dark about the reasons for the respect of those "primitives" for art when he claimed that the only role for an artist "was to investigate the nature of art itself... Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is".(1)
With "Art after Philosophy" Kosuth posists that an artwork can consist of any object whatsoever that is enfranchised as art. "Whatever" had found its justification in philosophical terms for as Danto writes, "... now that at least the glimpse of self-consciousness had been attained, that history was finished. It had delivered itself of a burden it could now hand over to the philosophers to carry. And artists, liberated from the burden of history, were free to make art in whatever way they wished, for any purposes they wished, or for no purposes at all. That is the mark of contemporary art, and small wonder, in contrast with modernism, there is no such thing as a contemporary style".
Here is the point where conceptualism, disguised under the clothes of intellectualism, becomes meaningless. The initial questions were right but the final answer erred.

(1) Arthur C. Danto. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, Published in 1997 by Princeton University Press.

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