Many years ago when I was around 15 year old and trying to make a head start with my HSC art studies, I found myself sitting beneath a North Queensland house reading Erle Loran’s Cezanne’s Composition (1943). It may have been my mother’s idea. She was a painter and particularly loved Cezanne. It was summer and I was staying at a school friend’s place in Townsville. Hiding from the heat, I struggled to make sense of the formal principles underlying Cezanne’s paintings. I can recall that Loran linked close textual analysis of particular paintings with detailed schematic illustrations. Greyed out images of the works were overlaid with geometrical shapes to highlight features of formal compositional structure. I hoped that this arcane analysis would reveal the secrets of painterly composition, but the book left me persistently mystified. Thinking back now, it was less the notion of formal analysis that confused me than the idea that it could be so precisely represented. While I was prepared to bracket all the tangible detail of Cezanne’s paintings, it seemed odd to conceive the formal aesthetic dimension of his work in terms of a neatly delineated set of static shapes.
This personal anecdote of formal-aesthetic initiation and misgiving exemplifies the priority of aesthetic form within modern art and its fundamental ambiguity. I recognised that formal awareness and literacy were the vital conditions of aesthetic sensibility and intelligence, and looked to Loran’s book to provide an effective shortcut to this elusive layer of aesthetic truth. Confusingly, this awareness was represented as both amenable to training and grounded in natural intuition. I felt lacking on both counts. Yet, what is it that I didn’t know precisely? And what is it that I was unable to adequately perceive? What is aesthetic form? Is it an objective feature of the art work or a consequence of aesthetic perception? Is it a universally legible quantity or a dynamic and ineffable potential linked to particular experiences of viewing? Loran’s analysis aimed to render aesthetic form as visibly available as possible but ended up demonstrating for me the strangeness and uncertainty of whatever it is that form represents.
Of course the notion of form extends beyond simply aesthetic consideration. Within the Western philosophical tradition, form obtains meaning in terms of its opposite, matter. Matter, in its essence, is mute and unformed. It appears as the neutral stuff of being. Form lends matter coherence and shapes the possibility of particular things. Matter can be likened to a lumpy, malleable mass of clay that only becomes a pot, a cup or a figurine when it is affected by form. It is constitutive of being but is not being itself. However, form is not to be confused with any statically conceived aspect of visible identity. Plato specifically criticises the mimetic practice of artists as focusing mistakenly (and dangerously) on the visible surface of the world. This shallow relation to being engages a dimension of illusion and untruth. Genuine engagement with things, for Plato, involves a more comprehensive understanding. It involves an understanding of how something comes to be, as well as its nature, operations and ends. In this sense, the layer of form represents a sphere of rational understanding. The light of truth is not the light of the actual Sun, which is apprehended materially and sensibly, but rather an inner light – the metaphoric light of reason, which illuminates the formal-explanatory basis of things.
Plato’s formalist idealism has often been conceived more literally as the apprehension of a metaphysical reality composed of an array of fundamental geometrical shapes. Plato does describe a set of constitutive geometric elements, but they are aligned with an effort to understand the underlying physical-mathematical composition of the world rather than with visibility per se. Arguably, the modern concern with formal aesthetic essence reflects a de-rationalised and hypostasised conception of form, in which explanation and understanding are supplanted by a mystified, phenomenological immediacy. Form ceases to explain the genesis, functioning or future of things and instead links to a mode of experience that seeks immediate sites of alignment between the particular and an ambivalently subjective and abstractly objective universality.
The modernist conception of form, evident for instance in the work of Clement Greenberg, has a thorough ambiguity. At one level it highlights the material and sensible features of artworks but only as a means of then abstracting them, of rendering them subject to disengaged formal recognition. Greenberg conceives the essence of painting in terms of its material conditions (the flat canvas, the qualities of paint), however this truth is instantly lifted to another level. It is dematerialised and conceived as immanently and ineffably formal. The aim of aesthetic sensibility is to recognise within the accidental features of the immediate visual field (and the accidental features of immediate sensible perception) the contours of something universal, pure and permanent. Baudelaire’s famous definition of modernity is relevant here: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.’ The tense alignment between flux and permanence in modern art aligns with the longstanding tension between matter (dark, amorphous, protean) and form (bright, coherent and resolved) in Western thought. The complexity of the dyadic relation between matter and form hinges on how quickly and flexibly we can shift between poles – how readily materialism can translate into idealism and vice versa.
Plato’s transcendental conception of form provides the paradigm for idealism. Formal being is projected as primary and material reality – in its sensible manifestations – as secondary and illusory. This informs everything from Descartes’ suspicion of sensibly given knowledge to Hegel’s argument that the dialectical unfolding of being leads inexorably to the Absolute Idea. It certainly informs the tendency to privilege the formal dimension of art and to instantly formalise its sensible, material qualities. But there are other conceptions. There is Marx’s reversal of the Hegelian dialectic – his insistence that material relations determine the realm of ideas. There is Aristotle’s hylomorphism, with its conception of the compound nature of reality, in which there is always at once an intimate correspondence between matter and form. There is also the complex, negotiated relationship that Kant determines between the a priori realm of formal understanding and the unknowable character of the material world. For Kant, we never have access to matter per se, instead we encounter our own internal resources of cognition that inevitably anticipate and enable the experience of space, time and anything in particular. This conception informs contemporary cognitive science, which stresses precisely the formative, constructive character of perception and cognition. The crux is that we never encounter the world in its alterity but always in terms of given modes of experience, apperception and understanding. If we recognise anything like aesthetic form it is in the context of our capacity to comprehend the world via hypotheses and schematic patterns. In this manner, form is cast less as intrinsically opposed to matter – as though we can experience matter directly and as such – rather it is the only means by which anything can become apparent. Form is conceived not as an objective external quantity but as an emergent quality linked to our engaged interaction with things. Any formal features we recognise are less things in the world than products of our processes of perception and cognition.
Within this context, the key dilemma of traditional aesthetics (as paradigmatically represented in Kant’s Critique of Judgement) is that it envisages a mode of seeing and experience that suspends action, that renders the ‘viewer’ immobile and detached. Our formal capacities are rendered as a self-reflexive process of ‘seeing ourselves seeing’. We take pleasure in our capacity to dynamically, fluidly and playfully entertain and project formal patterns. Yet this can only happen on the basis of suspending all aspects of practically inclined perception and cognition. Formal aesthetic engagement projects a distilled and hypostasised notion of form that entails deliberately bracketing everything that characterises our ordinary, interested interaction with things.
This conception of a necessary distance also enables formal awareness to represent something more than the recognition of existing formal patterns. Formal aesthetic awareness involves a contemplation of the flux prior to any coherent moment of apprehension. Formal aesthetic engagement specifically represents a disruption and renewal of ordinary perception and cognition. To recognise the formal aesthetic identity of something is to cease to see it as a recognisable thing and instead to attend to its malleable formal possibility – its capacity to be regarded differently and in other terms. This is evident in the Russian formalist notion of ‘making strange’, in which the experience of form represents a dislocation and an opening. It also relates to Heidegger’s conception of how a tool – his example is a hammer – can pass from ‘ready at hand’ (practically useful, taken for granted, scarcely seen or reflected upon) to ‘present at hand’ (subject to contemplation and revealing a fluid and alien space of possibility). The key mechanism here is the suspension of ordinary interaction. This is what enables form to transition from static, conventional determination to become a key for unveiling the dynamic potential and alterity of the world. Kant conceives this potential in terms of a pleasure arising from self-reflection. Aesthetic experience hinges on recognising our own formal constructive capacities, which is also to recognise our internal mirroring of the fecund, generative-formal capacities of nature. For Heidegger, it involves an open encounter with the fundamental mystery of being. However conceived, this scene of disinterested and disruptive separation signals at once the promise of aesthetically enabled social transformation as well as its tenuousness and uncertainty. Clearly, if transformation depends upon contemplative immobility and inaction then it has little capacity to intervene effectively within lived relations. The flux of formal comprehension opens up the promise of transformation but can offer no means of realising it.
Within this context, a more integral conception is needed, involving not only a rethinking of the relation between matter and form (a recognition, for instance, that features of matter and form are co-imbricated and indeed intrinsically unstable and confused), but also a reconsideration of the antagonism between practical and aesthetically reflective being. In relation to the latter, there is the risk of nostalgia – of imagining the possibility of a return to an organically whole conception that precedes the modern disintegration into different categories of being. There is the wish, for instance, to somehow resurrect Ancient Greek or Indigenous peoples’ perspectives in which there is a less firm distinction between practical and cultural dimensions of survival. While these cultural references can provide worthwhile alternative models, they can never erase the divisions that structure our contemporary experience. So we are compelled to work through these divisions, to conceive and elaborate them differently. This clearly has much wider implications that extend well beyond aesthetic experience per se. If we are to imagine modes of practical activity that incorporate dimensions of aesthetic play and that adopt a custodial and celebratory relation to materials (rather than a narrowly exploitative and instrumental one) then there is need to reimagine and reinvent the material and formal conditions of contemporary life, which are not simple, which are not singular, which extend beyond the sphere of human relations to involve every aspect of the planet. Yet, just as we cannot return to some earlier historical mode of experience, neither can we wait for some horizon of total cultural transformation. Our only option is to work within the messy contours of the present. This entails discovering the means to think and act differently without assuming that existing concepts and modes of social existence can be simply set aside and superseded. Very briefly and inadequately, this would seem to involve a recognition that the relationship between contemplation and engagement is complex and interleaved. There is no pure moment of the aesthetic, just as there is no pure moment of practical activity. The vital value of the aesthetic lies not in its notional separation and disinterestedness but in its attentive, curious and caring relation to alterity. Very importantly, however, this attitude is not peculiar to the aesthetic. It is also a feature of practical, interested activity (work), but only on the basis of pursuing a different set of social, cultural, economic and ecological priorities and circumstances. The aesthetic then, for all its leaky imprecision, provides a vital nexus of alternative value. While it was traditionally cast as a supplementary dimension of contemplative mediation between thought and action, it also provides a means of re-evaluating the relations between the categories of matter, sense, imagination, ethics and rationality.
We can draw some lessons from the traditional conception of form. As we have seen, the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions are not focused on immediate formal apprehension. Form is associated instead with a dimension of implicit narrative. It explains and contextualises. In this manner, we can envisage a mode of aesthetic awareness that emerges iteratively and ‘dialogically’ within the texture of experience and social relations (see Kester, Conversations Pieces). It is not imposed on matter – as superior, antecedent or as an ultimate goal – but rather develops in intimate relation to material tendencies (the latter regarded as at once material and formal, substantive and ineffable). This is to shift away from the conventional avant-garde and sublime scene of sudden, disruptive aesthetic unveiling (or, more precisely, the notion that aesthetic form is only genuine and tenable in these terms), and to acknowledge modes of aesthetic engagement that occur gradually and progressively in a wide variety of aesthetically marked and unmarked contexts. This also provides a means of thinking the aesthetic beyond simple notions of disruption (as a tear in our ossified forms of thinking, acting and imagining). Instead, the aesthetic can be conceived as involving all manner of relations to tradition. Dimensions of tracing, negotiation and following appear just as relevant as any work of critique or ‘making strange’. This is to recognise the vital role that aesthetic practice (conceived very generally) plays in cultural custodianship and continuity. It is not just about novelty and cultural transformation. There is an equally significant concern with maintenance and preservation. These are all things that depend upon continuing commitment, work and effort. Once we acknowledge the possibility of the slow, social unfolding of aesthetic experience then these other possibilities become more apparent. This also provides a means of contextualising aesthetic practice – of recognising, for instance, the illuminating relation to participatory oral cultural traditions that are profoundly durational and that foster a nuanced relation between the interests of conservation and renewal.