Form vs content: What is art, anyway?

I love being creative, but I’m not an artist.

Why? Because art is form and content. This is a new one on me, I’m ashamed to say. I have always understood ‘form’: the aesthetic part, the part that pleases the eye, or rolls off the tongue… but it’s only relatively recently that I’ve come to understand that a piece of work needs ‘content’ in order to be art. How does it interact with the viewer? Why was it produced? What thoughts does it provoke? What’s the story?

The photos on my flickr account that get the most hits (or even, dare I say, praise) are, of course, the photos that have both form and content but – silly though it sounds – I’ve only just realised this. I love taking photos with form: shapes and lines, shadows and silhouettes and symmetry… but I never take the time to think about the content.

lines lines lovely lines by editorialgirl on Flickr Good form, dubious content: the space between the Central Library and the Conservatoire. I love this photo – phwoar, the symmetry! – but what does it mean? Nothing. Are the buildings interesting? Well, possibly, but it’s obvious that’s not what this photo is about. So is it art?
Good form and good content, although only by accident or in hindsight: a guy sitting on a wall. This is one of few photos I’ve taken that could be said to illustrate both form and content (the Moseley Road Baths set is an obvious contender, too, but it’s all over this blog already). It’s an interesting image, but there’s also a potential story. I called it ‘waiting’. What’s he waiting for? There you go: art. waiting by editorialgirl on Flickr
post office tower by editorialgirl on Flickr This photo of Birmingham’s BT tower has good form (in my opinion, of course) – the silhouette; the shapes formed by the buildings around it; the sky; the light. But the actual content is … meh, pretty meaningless. Perhaps if BT had just gone bust, or if the tower was attacked by terrorists the very night I took the photo, it would also have good content. Would that make it art? Is the photo, as it stands, not art?

But do I even want to make art? Does any of this matter?

I left school with dire A level results, no chance of getting into university and no idea of what I wanted to do (or might be capable of), but I knew I liked being creative. I wrote stories and I played music and occasionally managed to get as far as drawing and sketching, taking photos and making scrapbooks and collages, but I didn’t really know whether there was a way that I could take it further – or indeed if I should.

I wrote to my friend John, who was always destined to be an artist and in 1994 was at college in London. I asked if he thought I should do an art foundation course. (I imagine my letter was fairly childish in both form and content.)

I’ve still got John’s reply, typewritten on a scrap of paper – I found it again the other day. After explaining how to put together a portfolio, how to decide on which college to apply to and what the interview stages might be like, he had written:

“…But is art actually what you’re into? There’s a potter at our college who refuses to be called a “ceramicist” because it’s horribly not-what-she’s-into. She makes pots – she’s a potter. A ceramicist is into art – trying to make a socio-political point through the clay. Are you more of a crafty good-with-your-hands-I-just-want-to-make-objects-of-beauty type? (Such an attitude is unlikely to get you too far at art college.) That sort of decision is up to you, and will probably come naturally.”

At the age of nineteen, I didn’t know what a socio-political point was, never mind whether I might want to make one through art. I realised that what I thought was art and what artists actually do are totally different things. I decided that, given I didn’t even understand the point he was making, art college probably wasn’t for me.

Luckily, over the years, I’ve drifted into what turns out to be a career – one that’s allowed me to use my creative talents in a way that I’m comfortable with. Being a website content editor means producing content – words and pictures – within very specific guidelines. And I’m able to combine this with a satisying amount of logic and problem-solving; I need the rules of the web. It’s only vaguely creative and it’s certainly not art (but it’s very me).

I’ve wondered about what people have called my “artistic streak” over the years and come to the conclusion that I was right not to go to art college. I’m not an artist. I have the same problem with anything that I produce ‘creatively’: I’m all about the form; I’m far too literal. I don’t write enough outside of work because, although I like to think I’m good with words, I don’t have enough original ideas. I would love to write stories, but a story is ‘content’ by definition and sadly thinking up content of my own stumps me most of the time.

Could I ever be an artist? I don’t know. I’m going to be pretentious and say that one of my new year’s resolutions will be to try and give as much thought to content as I do form. At least, I’ll devote some time to thinking about it when I take pictures. As far as writing goes, I might just have to wait for that big story – you know, the one that everyone has inside them? – to come pouring out when I’m least expecting it. And not to beat myself up too much if it never does.

6 thoughts on “Form vs content: What is art, anyway?

  1. Great post! I too am creative but not artistic and it’s a distinction that can be difficult to express or even clarify in my mind. Love how you explain it though and look forward to seeing how your resolution works out.

  2. I did art for three years at college and then six at foundation/uni. It wasn’t until the last term that I started to be able to draw the distinction between me making stuff and me making art!

    Ryan Gander came in to talk about his work and then I somehow managed to be one of about half a dozen students in a tutorial/group crit session afterwards. Ryan was challenging someone about his decision to exhibit a constellation-related sculpture in a small courtyard in Bournville when the context of the work meant it made perfect sense to place it on the Greenwich Meridian outside the Royal Observatory.

    I’m not sure whether the term was used by Ryan or not, but since then I’ve judged my work by whether it is ‘circular’ or not. Circular being achieved when every single decision (size and shape of paper, material used, timing, presentation, construction method…) relates back to the core idea in the middle.

    If I’ve not made it circular – if it doesn’t stand up to the pressure of scrutiny from every angle – then I’ve not made art.

    The good news is this is mostly logic and problem-solving :)

  3. I used to think stories were all about the content, too. Then I worked with a novelist who approaches his work in a very systematic way, and I discovered fiction also has formal rules that can be learnt. It helped me get over years of writer’s block. Original ideas are a bit of red herring; as a culture we have a lot invested in Romantic-with-a-capital-R notions of artistic inspiration that are really inimical to creativity. Coming up with ideas is a habit you can acquire. Let me know if you’d like an offline chat about it sometime – I’m always happy to exchange writing ideas.

  4. How interesting, I’m having trouble with these definitions as I get more and more involved with cake making. People go on about being a cake artist but I’d be uncomfortable with that phrase since I’m good at copying and not really good at coming up with my own designs.

    I hope John’s seen this, he’d be well chuffed you’d remember your discussions.

  5. I have always seen myself as creative.. turns out I’m quite good at making patterns, choosing colours and placing objects. I just let myself go mad decorating the house! I have never even vaguely thought of myself as an artist, I have nothing I am trying to express with my combinations of colours (except of course my general fascination with folk-art and non-conformity). What I am good at, is coming up with new methods and systems, delegating them and wandering off..
    Actually, what we’re creating is folk art, innit? That has it’s own timeless message, not shouty or attention grabbing, just a way of relating to others through something you have poured your energy and skill into.

  6. I think I have stuff to say about this but I’m not at a ‘proper’ keyboard. I hope I remember to come back to share my autistic view of this, when I’m next on the ‘big’ PC. If not, remind me …

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