Upon entering my freshman year of college, I was assigned to read a book by American artist Ben Shahn. It was a short read, a mere 130 pages or so with pen and ink illustrations scattered throughout. At the time, I had very little, if any, knowledge of who Shahn was or why reading this book served of any purpose to my life. As it turned out, Shahn too, had perplexities as to what context he fit into, as well. He confesses to the reader that he was not a lecturer, nor a scholar of art. After all, he chose to paint pictures, not talk about them. The book immediately radiates a reassuring tone to the amateur artist, hesitant of what inexplicable expertise may lurk inside. It also may alarm the reader to know a skilled artist such as Shahn would not find it worthy to comment on his own experiences. He writes,“What can any artist bring to the general knowledge or the theoretical view of art that has not already been fully expounded?”
Based on a series of lectures delivered at Harvard University in the 1950s, The Shape of Content contains six sections each devoted to artistry: its role in education, form, subject matter, process, abilities, and implications. In his first chapter on Artists in College, Shahn proposes the possibility that “art may be stifled within the university atmosphere” and that “creative impulses may be wholly obliterated by the pre-eminence of criticism and scholarship.” Although I did not fully grasp the understanding of this at the time, throughout years of liberal arts education, many students including myself, felt just that. Every project seemed to be just another competitive race against peers or myself… a triathlon of brainstorming, conceptualization, and execution in order to embody that gilded trophy, that pseudo greatness.
Under many circumstances, this is the reality of a working design professional. There are deadlines to be met, clients to appease, and an insatiable urgency to stay relevant in the field. Shahn not only addresses the changing attitude of art in schools, but the inner critic as well. He implores trust from the skeptic reader, stating, “I feel, I even know, that this first step in rejection is a presence… the moving toward one’s inner self is a long pilgrimage… it offers many temporary successes and high points, but there is always the residuum of incomplete realization which impels him on toward the more adequate image.” Despite its age, The Shape of Content bestows timeless lessons to students in present times. Its telescopic view into the innermost thoughts of an artist underscores the emotional and physiological warfare that comes into effect when an artist parallels his art with his own sensibility and ethics.
Rooted in the belief that form and content are one in the same, Shahn describes these inseparable entities as “the expression and the remnant of self,” suggesting that for as long as any substance of life or creation existed, there was form. He claims that there is a divide in higher education among students who are instructed to avoid any awareness of content, and critics who outright dismiss it on the basis of “bad taste.” He connects this divide with the Platonic views of representational imagery. This suggests that representational imagery is merely a copy of a copy, where form expressing the content of life, its affairs, or its familiar emotions is inferior to catharsis from abstract form. Instead, Shahn believes that at times, representational imagery is needed to demonstrate human emotion in social realism, such as exposing situations of discrimination or struggle. Although he conveys these artistic philosophies through the medium of paint and illustration, Shahn concludes that, “The incidental items of reality remain without value or common recognition until they are symbolized, recreated, and imbued with value.”
Why did I re-read The Shape of Content? This powerful piece of literature channels Shahn’s fiercely liberal stances on education, immigration, discrimination, organized labor, and other cultural injustices through anecdotes and lessons to young aspiring artists. His views on the arts in college are still relevant and applicable today, despite its publication date nearly 60 years ago. Regardless of course track, for a developing intellect, it is imperative to learn to analyze, write, and speak about art. Reading The Shape of Content not only articulates a sense of comprehension and taste, it encourages others to conversationally add depth and meaning the to objects, people, and ideas in our lives, everyday.