Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Victor Shklovsky - "Form and Material in Art"

It is usually thought to be obvious that every artist wishes to express something, to recount something, and that this "something" is called the content of a work. And the means by which this "something" is expressed--words, images, meter in verse, color and line in a painting--are called the form of the work.
Nearly everybody distinguishes between these two aspects of every work of art. People who want art to be of direct benefit to humanity usually say that in art the most important thing is content, i.e., what is said in it.
The so-called aesthetes, lovers of the beautiful, say that for them the important thing in art is "not what, but how," i.e., the main thing is form. Now let us calmly attempt, without becoming involved in this dispute, to look detachedly upon the object of the dispute.
The problem concerns works of art.
Let us begin with an analysis of musical compositions.
A musical composition consists of a series of sounds of different pitch and different timbre, i.e., of sounds high and low following one after the other. These sounds are combined into groups; the groups bear a certain relationship to one another. Besides this, there is nothing in a musical composition. Now what have we found in it? We have found, not form and content, but rather material and form, i.e., sounds and the disposition of sounds. Of course there may be people who say that in music there is also content, namely a sad or a gay mood. But there are facts which show that there is contained in a musical composition neither sadness nor joy, that such feelings are not the essence of music, and that its creators set no store by them. Hanslick, a famous student of the theory of music, cites the example of how Bach wrote indecent couplets to music which he had composed for psalms; the music was just as suitable for the couplets. On the other hand, it is by no means rare for many sects to use dance tunes for their hymns. Moreover, to do this they had to overcome the traditional connection of these tunes with the normal circumstances of their performances.
This is why Kant defined music as pure form, i.e., denied the existence of so-called content in it.
Now let us look at the so-called graphic arts. This name is inaccurate and does not cover all phenomena involved. Decorative art obviously depicts nothing. But in European art at least the graphic arts usually depict the so-called external world, scenes of work, pictures of men and wild animals. Scarcely anyone will dispute this, and moreover, we know from the artists themselves that when they paint flowers or grass or a cow, they are not interested in whether these have any practical use, but only in how they appear, i.e., in color and line. For the artist the external world is not the content of a picture, but material for a picture. The famous Renaissance artist Giotto says: "A picture is--primarily--a conjunction of colored planes." The Impressionists painted things as though they saw them without understanding--only as spots of color. They perceived the world as if they had just suddenly awakened. This is how the Russian "Itinerant" artist Kramskoy defined the effect made on him by the Impressionists' pictures.
Another realistic painter, Surikov, used to say that the "idea" of his famous picture "The Boyar's Wife, Morozova" occurred to him when he saw a jackdaw on the snow. For him this picture was primarily "black on white." To anticipate a little, I will say that Surikov's picture is not merely the development of his impression of a color contrast; in this picture we encounter a great many heterogeneous elements, particularly in relation to meaning, but even meanings are used as material for artistic construction.
Thanks to such an attitude toward "representation," there is in art an inclination to transform depiction, so-called organic forms, e.g., the outlines of a flower, a wild animal, grass, a ram's horn (as in Buryat designs), into an ornament--a design which no longer represents anything. . . . All rug designs, in particular the designs on Persian rugs, are the result of just such a transformation of organic form into purely artistic form.
This transformation cannot be explained by religious prohibition (Islam avoids depiction out of "dread of idolatry"), since there exist, during all stages in the development of Persian tapestry, rugs depicting entire scenes involving people and animals. This shocks nobody. We have Persian miniatures which, it would seem, were influenced just as much by religious prohibitions as tapestry. On the other hand, we know that in Greece, where there were no religious prohibitions of this kind, a geometrical style developed (there is a vase in this style in the Petersburg Hermitage), and during this phase the way the human body was depicted vividly recalls the rendering of stylized deer in tapestry.
The entire history of written languages illustrates the struggle between the ornamental principle and the representative principle.
It is, moreover, curious to note that written languages at the first stages of their existence, and among many peoples, even to the present day (Turks, Persians), fulfilled decorative purposes.
The divorce of the letter or ideograph from its conventional function is a result not only of the technique, but also of the stylization of writing. . . . The letter is an ornament.
The artist clings to depiction, to the world, not in order to create a world, but rather to utilize complex and rewarding material in his art. This break with representation, this transformation of picture into calligraphy, occurs more than once in the history of art, but artists have always returned to representation.
But the artist needs the world for his picture. There is a Greek anecdote about an artist: people came up to him at an exhibition and asked him to remove the cloth from his painting. "I cannot do that," said the artist. "My painting depicts a painting covered with a cloth." In analyzing a painting, people who wish to go beyond its limits, who talk about demons in connection with Picasso, about war in connection with all of cubism, who wish to decipher paintings like a rebus, want to deprive a painting of its form in order to see it better.
Paintings are not at all windows onto another world--they are things.
It is in literature that the view of the separation between form and content seems most plausible.
And in fact, a great many people suppose that the poet possesses a specific thought, a thought about God, for example, and expounds this thought in words.
These words may be beautiful, and then we say that the work's form, sound-form or image-form, is beautiful. This is what most people think about form and content in literature.
But first of all it cannot be affirmed that there is content in every work of art, since we know that in the first stages of its development poetry possessed no precise content.
For instance, the songs of the Indians in British Guiana consist of the exclamation: "Heya, heya." The songs of the Patagonians, the Papuans, and certain North American tribes are also senseless. Poetry appeared before content.
The singer's task was not to render in words some thought or other, but to devise a series of sounds possessing a definite relationship one to another, which is called form. These sounds should not be confused with sounds in music. They have not only an acoustic but also an articulated form: they are produced by the singer's vocal organs. Perhaps in a primitive poem we are dealing not so much with an ejaculation as with an articulated gesture, a sort of ballet of the speech organs. Even in modern poetry, the act of speaking it may have, in varying degrees, the same sensuous effect on us "the sweetness of verses on the lips.". . .
A line of verse quite often appears in the poet's mind as a definite patch of sound not yet verbalized. . . .
Alexander Blok used to tell me about this phenomenon as he had observed it in himself.
Victor Hugo used to say that what was difficult was not finding a rhyme, but "filling the spaces between rhymes with poetry," i.e., fitting the "image" aspect to the already existing sound aspect.
In short, the deeper we go into the study of verse, the more complex become the phenomena of form which we discover within it.
But poems are formal throughout and it is unnecessary for us to change our methods of investigation. What is called the image aspect is also not intended to be depictive or explanatory.
Potebnya's notion that the image is always simpler than the concept it replaces is absolutely incorrect.
There is a line in one of Tyutchev's poems saying that flashes of heat lightning are "like deaf and dumb demons conversing with each other." Why is the image of the deaf and dumb demons simpler or more obvious than the lightning flashes?
In erotic poetry we generally find that erotic objects are designated by various "image" names. The "Song of Songs" is an extended series of such comparisons. Here we are dealing not so much with imagery as with what I call "estrangement," in the sense of making things strange.
We live in a poor and enclosed world. We no more feel the world in which we live than we feel the clothes we wear. We fly through the world like Jules Verne characters, "through outer space in a capsule." But in our capsule there are no windows.
The Pythagoreans used to say that we do not hear the music of the spheres because it goes on uninterruptedly. In the same way those who live by the sea do not hear the noise of the waves. We do not bear even the words we speak. We speak a pitiful language of incompletely uttered words. We look one another in the face but do not see one another.
The Renovation of Form
In his diary, Tolstoy wrote ". . . I dusted off the sofa and couldn't remember doing it. . . . So if I did dust it off, I did it unconsciously. . . . If someone had seen it consciously he could have reconstructed my action. . . . And our entire life, lived through unconsciously, is all as if it had never been."
Perhaps mankind began using reason too early. With its reason it jumped forward out of turn, like a soldier from the ranks, and began running amok.
We live as if coated with rubber. We must recover the world. Perhaps all the horror (which is little felt) of our days, the Entente, the war, Russia, can be explained by our lack of feeling for the world, by the absence of an extensive art. The purpose of the image is to call an object by a new name. To do this, to make the object an artistic fact, it must be abstracted from among the facts of life.
We must first of all "shake up" things. . . . We must rip things from their ordinary sequence of associations. Things must be turned over like logs in a fire. . . .
The poet removes the labels from things. . . . Things rebel, casting off their old names and taking on a new aspect together with their new names. The poet brings about a semantic dislocation, he snatches the concept out of the sequence in which it is usually found and transfers it with the aid of the word (the trope) to another meaning-sequence. And now we have a sense of novelty at finding the object in a fresh sequence.
This is one of the ways of making things tangible. In the image we have the object, the recollection of its former name, its new name, and the associations connected with the new name. . . .
One device in modern artistic prose is very curious. To create an unusual perception of things in modern prose there is a widely used device which has never been described and which I would define as the "recurrent image." In Russian literature it is represented by Dostoevsky, Rozanov, Andrei Bely, Zamyatin and also by the Serapion brothers. It consists in using a certain word (usually such a word is "orchestrated" by means of repetition or else an exotic word is chosen) and then equating all the other matter in the work of art to this word. . . .
Andrei Bely in his reminiscences of Blok (Epopeya, Book Two) notes that Merezhkovsky wore shoes with pompons on them. These "pompons" rapidly come to define Merezhkovsky's entire life. He speaks with pompons, he thinks with pompons, etc. In this case we seem to have a certain mechanization of the imagery device.
The word deprived of sense is constantly associated with a number of other words, which are thus removed from the way they are usually perceived. I cannot trace the history of this device outside Russian literature, but I think that perhaps Dostoevsky borrowed it from Dickens, who was a great devotee of it.
In Little Dorrit the governess Mrs. General advises the young ladies in her charge, to give a pretty shape to their lips, to constantly pronounce "prunes and prisms."
For Dickens these "prunes and prisms" soon become a distinct condition of the newly rich Dorrits' life.
Dickens writes of "the heaps of prunes and prisms" which had filled the Dorrits' life to overflowing. In Our Mutual Friend the same use is made of the conversations about lime, with which at first the detectives concealed their real intentions, but which later became for them a sort of game. . . .
It seems clear to me that for a writer words are not at all a sad necessity, not just a means by which something is said, but are rather the very material of the work. Literature is created from words and takes advantage of the laws by which they are governed.
It is true that in a work of literature we also have the expression of ideas, but it is not a question of ideas clothed in artistic form, but rather artistic form created from ideas as its material.
In verse, rhyme is opposed to rhyme, the sounds of one word are connected by repetitions with the sounds of another word and form the sound-aspect of the poem.
In parallelism, image is opposed to image and forms the image-aspect of the work.
In the novel, thought is opposed to thought, or one group of characters to another, and this constitutes the meaning-form of the work.
Thus in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina the Karenin-Vronsky group is opposed to the Kitty-Levin group.It was this that entitled Tolstoy to say that he had no use for "those sweet and clever little fellows who fish out individual ideas from a work," and that "if I had wanted to say in one word everything that the novel was intended to express, then I should have had to write the novel all over again, and if my critics understand it and can put down in a review everything I meant, then I congratulate them and can say without hesitation that they are capable of much more than I."
In a work of literature it is not the idea that is important but the way ideas are combined. Again I quote from Tolstoy: "the combination itself is made not by means of thought (I think), but by something else, and it is impossible to express directly the basis for this combination. It can, however, be expressed indirectly by the description of images, actions, situations in words."
Consequently, the ideas in a literary work do not constitute its content but rather its material, and in their combination and interrelations with other aspects of the work they create its form.


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