Notes from The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn

On why artists need to be challenged:

Art should be well-subsidized, yes. But the purchase of a completed painting or a sculpture, the commisioning 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 become sharpened; perhaps it is only through such conflicts that he comes to know himself at all.

On how (visual) artists see other art: 

I think that most artists do read a great deal about art, and know a great deal about it — while he may have loked at scores of paintings, have dwelt upon them and absorbed them, his interest has been a different one; he has absorbed visually, not verbally. The idea of classifying such work would never have occurred to him, because to him the work is unique; it exists in itself alone. It is its distinction from other art, not its commnality with other art, that interests him. If the work has no such distinction, if it does not stand alone, he has no reason for remembering it.

On orthodoxy:

If the artist, or poet, or musician, or dramatist, or philosopher seems somewhat unorthodox in his manner and attitudes, it is because he knows — only a little earlier than the average man — that orthodoxy has destroyed a great deal of human good…

On labels:

I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels most would choose none. For most artists have expended a great deal of energy in scrambling out of classes and categories and pigeon-holes, aspiring toward some state of perfect freedom which unfortunately neither human limitations nor the laws allows — not to mention the critics. 

On form:

But the idea itself must always bow to the needs and demands of the material in which it is to be cast. The painter who stands before an empty canvas must think in terms of paint. 

and also

At one point he will mold the material according to an intention. At another he may yield intention — perhaps his whole concept — to emerging forms, to new implications within the painted surface. 

and of course

Form is the very shape of content (p. 62)

On form and content:

Form and content have been forcibly divided by a great deal of presnt-day aesthetic opinion, and each, if one is to beliee what he reads, goes its separate way. Content, in this sorry divorce, seems to be looked upon as the culprit. … Some…have been taught—schooled—to look at paintings in such a way as to make them wholly unaware of content.

[F]orm is the right and only possible shape of a certain content. Some other kind of form wuld have conveyed a different meaning and a different attitude.

Forms in art arise from the impact of idea upon material, or the impinging of mind upon material. They stem out of the human wish to formulate ideas, to recreate them into entities, so that meanings will not depart fitfully as they do from the mind, so that thinking and belief and attitudes may endure as actual things. 

On content and meaning:

a work that is tawdry and calculating in intent is not made more worthy by being easily understood. One does not judge an Einstein equation by its communicability, but by its actual content and meaning.

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