The Shape of Content


Shahn, Ben. The Shape of Content. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Shahn’s Harvard art lectures

  • Artists in Colleges
  • The Biography of a Painting
  • The Shape of Content
  • On Nonconformity
  • Modern Evaluations
  • The Education of an Artist

It is only within the context of real life that an artist (or anyone) is forced to make such choices [between values and wants]. And it is only against the background of hard reality that choices count, that they affect a life, and carry with them that degree of belief and dedication and, I think I can say, spiritual energy that is a primary force in art. I do not know whether that degree of intensity can exist within the university; it is one of the problems the artist must consider if he is to live there or work there. (10-11)

Shahn lists three major problems with the university’s efforts at arts education. The first is dilettantism. Shahn cites the “Visual Arts Report,” p. 65:

We do not propose to inject the art school into the academic life, but rather to give the experience of art its rightful place in liberal education.

I wonder whether the university would also suggest offering the experience of calculus, of solid state physics; the experience of French or German; the experience of economics, of medieval history, of Greek. (16)

The second obstacle is “the fear of creativity.” The university stresses “the critical aspects of knowledge– the surveying, the categorizing, and the memorizing” (17). Formal aspects dominate scholarship. Painters value difference, or distinction, over lumping things together.

Scholarship is perhaps man’s most rewarding occupation, but that scholarship which dries up its own creative sources is a reductio ad absurdum, a contradiction in itself. (19)

The third obstacle facing the artist in the university is the “romantic misconception” of the artist as a “mad genius” (21).

I have one critical fencing companion who assures me that the meaning of one order of art– the nonobjective–is a supra-human, that is, a cosmic one. The artist, as he describes him, is a medium through which all sorts of ineffable forces flow. Any willing, however, on the part of the artist, any intending, would be an interference, would only destroy the time-space continuum, would render impure the art produced.

And, by implication, that art which is the product of intending must be impure. (21)

Shahn attributes the “Gorgon-like power that turns the creative artist into stone” to the rise of New Criticism (22). He also reiterates his conception of the university as the home of the verbal/critical rather than the visual/intuitive:

In the abstract, I believe that creative art is eminent in the university hierarchy of values. But teaching itself is so largely a verbal, a classifying, process that the merely intuitive kinds of knowing, the sensing of things which escape classification, the self-identification with great moods and movements in life and art and letters may be lost or obliterated by academic routine. They are not taught to be absorbed through a way of life in which intensively developed arts play an easy and familiar part. For it is just such inexact knowing that is implicit in the arts. And actually I believe that it is toward this kind of knowing that the classifications of the classroom reach, if sometimes unsuccessfully.

It is this kind of knowledge also–the perceptive and the intuitive– that is the very essence of an advanced culture. (23)

* from notes taken in 2006.

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