Once, in front of his pupils, an art teacher asked one of them to imagine he should receive some hazelnuts poured out of a bag. The pupil obediently put his hands together, forming a little bowel. There you are, said the teacher. You demonstrated a natural sense of form because you put up your hands like a bowl.
Not only literally, but also generally in art, form is about containing. The form of an artwork contains the content. If there is no content, however, the artwork might as well be formless.
Painting on canvas
I guess you can say „painting on canvas“ is one example of a form. But, as we know, this form is used for quite a variety of content and can be divided into sub-forms. The choice of a form is partly a matter of convention, partly about finding the appropriate form for your specific content.
I guess you can compare „painting on canvas“ to a novel in literature. A novel can be about anything, can’t it? A classical novel would also be „epic“ – a story. Traditionally, the story would unfold chronologically throughout the book. But modern storytelling does not necessarily comply with that.
We can also say that form provides a framework. A painting on canvas quite literally has a frame, or at least borders, where it ends. There is a clear distinction between the artwork and the surroundings. Borders make sense. An artwork allows for fiction, interpretation and more, but the white wall on which the framed painting hangs, we see simply as it is.
Comparing further with literature, literature emerges within the framework of a language. A language has a vocabulary and grammar. Any writer at the outset has to comply with the rules and conventions of his/her language. The grammar and vocabulary of a language may seem like a comprehensive set of rules which the painter escapes. But, of course, it would be a misunderstanding to believe that the rules of language make a writer unfree. Those rules make the author free to write.
So, how free are you, say before an empty canvas? Even if you consider yourself brave enough to break conventions, you cannot do that without consequences. Do you want to glue some plastic artifacts to your canvas? You may do that, but then it is no longer a conventional painting.
You feel well in clothing that fits you. As an artist, you feel well when you have found the right form. Or did you start with the form – hoping that it would make you feel well (and your work look good)?
Surprisingly many contemporary artists stick to the good, old painting on canvas. I mean, the art world is „wildly“ free in the sense that any form is considered acceptable, and no particular form feature seems necessary. You can exhibit a sample of wrecked iron bars (Ai Weiwei, Gropius Haus, 2014) or release hundreds of helium-filled balloons disappearing in the night (Berlin Wall memorial artwork, 2014), but most artists stick to painting on canvas. I guess this is not only because those extensive, modern forms require generous funding.
Dividing “paint on canvas” into sub-forms you can talk about figurative versus abstract and figurative divided further into realistic versus “other” – other being all forms that wilfully divert from the realistic‑natural appearance of things, like in impressionism and expressionism. When Monet & Co did their impressionist painting, once this form was settled (which took some effort), they knew what they did and the public knew what to expect. Today, roughly speaking, the abstract form remains, and certainly, you can sometimes see realistic-natural paintings. Otherwise, form now seems to be the “brand” of the individual artist. Perhaps we should talk about style when it comes to an individually developed form.
Moreover, the individually developed form, or style, may be seen to “settle” in the same way forms like impressionism and expressionism did. Once settled, we can observe an individual artist produce a large number of paintings looking by and large the same. Even if the motif varies, the variation does not always seem significant. The Norwegian painter Frans Widerberg (1934-2017) produced red-orange human figures roaming in dark-blue space for years.
The polish painter Leszek Skurski had 2-3 vague, black-and-white, kind of minimal figurative paintings depicting everyday situations at Berlin Art week this year, following a large number of similar, previous works.
The works of both artists „look like art“ – a deceitful “feature” that may fool you into believing that what you see must be art.
What is art?
So, what is art? I will suggest that art is about bringing relevant content in appropriate form. And then there is a third dimension which is about context, this perhaps being a dimension of new importance – little understood and little explored.
Artwork of the fortnight
Picasso developed his own, new form/style. He made great images, like the one to the left. Oddly enough, however, his achievement, however original and productive he was, does not seem to have contributed much to the development of art. Artists who seem inspired by him have not managed to take the form further – on the contrary, they tend to deliver imitations.