Art and Form

Modern art evolved gradually, beginning with the Impressionists' deconstructiori of the visual experience and the loosening of the solidity of the image. It continued with the experimentation of Cezanne, as objects became reduced to their geometric shapes to reveal visual structure. Picasso, Braque and the Cubist movement followed, and on their heels came abstract art, which has been at the lorefront of twentieth century painting.

As mentioned before, much abstract art represents nothing at all, and a new model was needed to allow modern art to be seen as art. In the same way that we must find a criterion for art status which may include the performance of magic, a new way of looking at art was necessary to include this new and controversial wave of painting which was evolving into something which no former theories of art could embrace. A criterion was needed which would include all past ad, and that criterion was, according to the influential theorist Clive Bell, the possession of sigthficant form. In other words, some salient design must be offered - a uniformity of structure which encourages us to consider the ways in which our perceptual sensibilities interact with the composition of the piece. According to this theory, the representational content of a piece is entirely irrelevant.

The theory carries across well into orchestral music, which never sat comfortably with the representational theories. It allowed works previously disallowed as art (such as decorative arts and other nonrepresentational areas) to become enfranchised, and would seem to be a welcome departure from the previous theories which were concerned with the content of a piece (and therefore were doomed to failure as inevitable changes in artistic concerns continually changed the role of art and the artist). As well as non-representative art, it allows, for example, for the nonexpressive art mentioned in the last section — for all these artworks will still have the common denominator of significant form.

However, a mathematical theorem also has significant form yet is not art, so there is a further qualification to be made, namely that the piece must be designed primarily in order to possess and to exhibil significant form.

A classic objection to this theory comes in the grotesque shape of the various demon figures carved in parts of the primitive wortd to ward off intruders. They are designed to scare people, and it would be ludicrous to suggest that they are made with any intention to exhibit form. Indeed, this kind of cognitive consideration of the pieces would defeat their purpose. Yet we show these pieces in our museums and count them as artworks. So in this way, the formalist theory is too exclusive. If we drop the criterion of intention, then we would hove to include nature as art, for nature also possesses significant form. Obviously this cannot be allowed. But perhaps the biggest problem with the notion of significant form is how we decide what form is significant, and there is no answer that can be offered here which is not circular or equally as ill-defined.

Modern music aficionados will know the John Cage piece called 33," which consists of a pianist sitting at the keyboard for that period of time but not striking any of the keys. The point of the piece is that we, as an audience, become attuned to any audible sounds for that period, sounds that become the piece itself. Sounds of chairs scraping, and members of the audience couglt~g, yawning and sobbing would all become part of that performance. Therefore it cannot be argued that the piece has any form, for it is different in every performance and purposefully formless. This and other formless pieces exist, and are considered art. The formalist theory simply is not wide enough to explain this. A similar problem exists with the monochrome paintings of Reinhardt and the like already mentioned: as blocks of sin gle colours, they cannot be said to possess form. Furthermore, we added the notion of a primary intention to exhibit form as a means of disallowing such things as a mathematical theorem status as art. But what of the mathematician who produces a more elegant version of an already known truth? Or the chessmaster who similarly intends to exhibit form in terms of elegance? These people are intending to show significant form, yet we still cannot cail it art. Dai Vernon was known to us for revolutionising many aspects of magic, and in teaching a simplified and more elegant means of card control to a knowledgeable audience, and one which improves upon a previous version, he could be said to be having the primary intention to exhibit significant form. Yet neither the move nor the act of teaching it is in itself art.

Between these problems and the neglect ol the role of content in conferring art status, formalism failed and neo-formalism took over. This latter theory demanded that the work have both form and content and that the both are related to each other in a satisfyingly appropriate manner. This will allow for Cage's piece: it has a form that is satisfyingly appropriate to its content. If he wants us to realise that ordinary sounds are worth listening to, he has come up with a very good way of ensuring thaL But the idea of content — i.e., a meaning to the work, the thing that the work is about, is a problematic one. There is plenty of art that has no meaning, and is there simply to create an effect on its audiences. Rococo ironwork filigree, much architecture and ornamentation may just be there to be pleasurable, yet we call it art. Much orchestral music may be the same. Therefore this reworking of the formalist account still fails due to the problem of necessary content/meaning.

Magic at its best is very much about a satisfyingly appropriate retationship between form and content. However, it is the case that if one magician performs the material of another (and dear God it has happened in the past), the form, content and relationship between the two may remain the same, but we cannot call this type of performance art. The performer is not an artist, he is a copyist. The original performance may have been art, but the effect alone cannot carry that status. An interesting issue arises here which may help us. The form of a painting exists in the arrangement of lines and colours made by the artist. If this arrangement supports the meaning of the piece (for example, it draws our eye to the area of the painting where the main action is occurring and guides us through the work in a way which clearly communicates the situation at hand), then we have a piece of art according to the neo-formalist account. In magical performance, are the routines themselves form or content? It is tempting to answer that they must be the content of the performance, but I would disagree. We have seen that in this formalist account of painting, the content is the meaning of the piece, not the components of the picture. In a magical performance, the routines are analogous to theform of the painting: they are choices made by the performer to support the mearting of his performance. What is that meaning? What is the content of the performance if it is not the tricks themselves? It is the vision of the performer, the point of his magic. It is what he is choosing to express through the performance.

This, then, is my notion of the Greater Effect, where we must see individual routines as mere methods to achieving the magical effect, which is the magician and his performance and whatever he is choosing to say with his magic. And in the same way that we must subordinate method to effect in magic, so too we must always look to the greater effect of our performance and see the individual tricks as retatively unimportant. In a poor performance where there are only tricks over which to puzzle, then those routines are standing as content, which is artistically dissatisfying, for they go nowhere. Under these circumstances, magic stands only as a craft. When there is no meaning to which the effects relate in a satisfyingly appropriate manner as form, then there is no art.

We are closer to our goal, yet we have seen that the formaiist accounts do not stand as a reliable means of conferring art status. So we must move on.

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