I’m re-reading this book after having it for about 5 years. I originally picked it up based on the recommendation of someone who was responding to a sort of personal dilemma I was having regarding the creation of art- specifically the creative process itself.
At the time I was in school receiving a formal education in design, and found myself a bit frustrated with my personal work. To the best that I can remember, I was at a point where I simply gave myself more reasons not to create than to create. I started to concern myself more with the idea of a set of rules that I felt could clearly define what constituted good and bad art- rules that I felt could aid myself in the creation of quality work.
After a while I came to the realization that I was doing myself more harm than good in pursuing that line of thinking. Rather than allow myself the freedom to make mistakes in my own work and learn from them, I was more afraid of simply creating work that didn’t meet my standards, to the point that I simply produced no work at all. I was also concerning myself too much with conceptual thinking that I, at the time, thought was necessary to create quality pictures. Eventually I was able to get over it, and I was able to create simply for the sake of it. I was able to find a lot of enjoyment in the freedom I offered myself. I became comfortable with the idea that while none of the work I was going to be producing might turn out the way I’d prefer it to, they would all be lessons to myself that would help me develop as an artist.
The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn was a good book to read while in that situation. While the book mostly discusses art specific to painting, a lot of what the author has to say can be applied to just about any creative activity. Admittedly I’ve found some of it a little heady at times, and I’ve had to re-read a few passages to really understand what’s being discussed (part of which I blame on never having had a formal art history education). But in general, the ideas are clear, well-written and pertinent still 50 years later. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the creative process behind picture making.
Below, a few selected quotes from the book:
Any living situation in which an artist finds material pertinent to his own temper is a proper situation for art.
… whatever one paints must be constantly re-examined, torn apart, if that seems to be indicated, in the light of new attitudes or new discovery. If one has set for himself the position that painting shall not misconstrue his personal mode of thinking, then he must be rather unusually alert to just what he does think.
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, whether of charity, or of good sense, or of art.
Nonconformity is the basic pre-condition of art, as it is the pre-condition of good thinking and therefor the growth and greatness in a people.
… art can be pushed to meaningless extremes. And it is a constant struggle to wrench out of the paint tube something that is still newer than new. Of course when such work becomes dated, its emptiness emerges, for nothing is so hard to look at as the stylish, out of style.
If a painting is to be at all interesting, it is the very absence of formula that will help make it so. If forms are reduced to have a certain common quality, a unity, that is so because they proceed from a personal vision, because they are affected and shaped by the aberrations or the excellence of a single mind. The personality is an axis which gives its radial direction to everything which issues from it.
Style today is the shape of one’s specific meanings. It is developed with an aesthetic view and a set of intentions. It is not the how of painting, but the why. To imitate or to teach style alone would be a little like teaching a tone of voice or personality.
The Shape of Content
Author: Ben Shahn