FORM ECOLOGY: A TOOL FOR INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH AND CREATION [essay]

Presentation at the Theater and Performance Studies workshop of the University of Chicago, on February 19th, 2018.

When poetry mimics musical forms, when literature imitates pictorial composition, when visual arts turn into performance, we witness transfers, or translations, of paradigms from one medium to another. Are these transpositions purely metaphorical? On what terms do they occur, and why? How do they affect the target medium and the way it defined itself previously? And, on a broader scale, what do they tell us about the relationship between ‘art and the arts’? To start answering these questions we offer to discuss a theoretical model, ‘form ecology’, understood as the translation of parameters from a given medium into the framework of another medium. 

Drawing from the translation analogy, let us quote Ezra Pound, for whom translation was, in theory and in practice, a key paradigm: he asserts that since the end of the age of The Seafarer, Beowulf and other examples of early Anglo-Saxon poetry, ‘English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translation; every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translation, every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer, Le Grand Translateur’[1]. Pound’s case is not simply one for translations of literature as a means to access a broader range of writings[2], and he illustrated himself the extent of his paradigm as a poet by offering his own versions of texts written in Latin, Greek, Chinese, Japanese and many others, his motivation being not only erudite knowledge of other cultures but also transformation, rekindling of his own thanks to alien material, by which he obviously didn’t simply mean ‘subject matters’ or ‘content’ that could have been paraphrased, but a deeper process of fertilization.

Hence, rather than simply as an analogy to the previous, but rather expanding Pound’s already broad understanding of translation and its function, we shall argue in the following that: Every artistic medium lives on form ecology, it is fed by form ecology. Emboldened by Pound’s peremptoriness, we might even dare to postulate: Every allegedly great age of a given medium is an age of form ecology. Whether this is a sustainable postulate will be the subject of the following inquiry. After trying to orientate within the available lexical tools to offer a better definition of form ecology, we will put it to test in the analysis of three contrasted examples where it has appeared to be relevant.

For the sake of method we will focus here on seemingly linear cases of form ecology, i.e. pertaining to translation from medium A to medium B, although one of our further goals, being rooted in theatre and performance studies, would be to have tools to study the action of form within complex art objects that involve multiple media such as opera and cinema, where form ecology operates in a layered and intricate way. As we shall see, in the understanding of media in play here, theatre and performance have a specific status, since they have been formalized fairly recently and have repeatedly been used as tools to aggregate or articulate media, or even defy the definition of ‘medium’ itself.

Why ecology? ‘Form fluidity’ for instance could seemingly appear as a strong enough description, but what we are looking at here is not simply movements between media, or the general possibility of such a movement, but rather the pattern that emerges from its observation: the understanding of a given ‘artworld’ as an ecosystem that needs to be comprehended in a more holistic way. If the old vocabulary that creates categories within art can still be of any use, it is by helping us name the phases of the inner workings of something that is actually organic. Even the existence of categories, or in the case of media of disciplines and genres, needs not to be negated, but understood as part of a process of its own that belongs to this broader ecology of the arts.

This text, that presents an on-going research, operates through forays and questions. We hope it will be answered with suggestions of examples and references that can broaden it, since by its ‘very nature’ the study of form ecology is an object that requires broad inter- and transdisciplinarity, and since by his own ‘very nature’ the author will be hindered by his own limitations while facing the challenge. 

1. Lexical Toolbox

Given the layered meanings of the vocabulary at use here, let us first make sure we are aware of them in order to operate them correctly.

Medium. This highly problematic old world has often been criticized for being confused and inducing confusion. Back to its most narrowed down meaning, it refers to the concrete material out of which an artwork is made, such as ‘written words’ or ‘oil on canvas’. The word’s theoretical use has then been widened, because the material usually comes with a way it is presented to its audience, a technique, a history and a set of conventions (called a discipline), that will then be considered as intrinsic to any given medium, to the point that the word medium comes to designate these other aspects of it, too. Just how much of the discipline-medium (e.g. painting, music) is considered to be embedded into the material-medium (e.g. paint, sounds) reflects on the state of art criticism at a given time: no definition of that notion can by any means be used as universal and anhistoric.

We shall not, for now at least, enter the lasting debate about the ‘purity of media’, this idea that they are media that speak to one of the five senses only and that this is their chief characteristic (painting to vision, music to audition), putting other media in the awkward position of being ‘mixed’ and ‘impure’. Let us rather recognize such an idea as a historical construct valid in some of the theoretical frameworks that have crystallized on media, namely disciplines. We need to understand media only through proper contextualization of these disciplines.[3] From here on we can work from the broad definition offered by W.J.T. Mitchell (see note 3), expanding Raymond Williams’s comment on language, of a medium as ‘a material social practice’.

In What Do Pictures Want?, W.J.T. Mitchell establishes a picture-based model of articulation (a metapicture in his vocabulary) in which a medium is the technique that allows the binding of an image (an immaterial figure) to a material object, thus producing a picture. Within this broad description of medium that is close to what we previously called discipline-medium (as opposed to material-medium), let us isolate a more specific tool, which is form.

Form. This word that also has a lengthy history in art theory has the advantage of having a very concrete, straightforward meaning in everyday language: it describes the shape of any given thing, and its use in the context of art can seem self-evident. Nevertheless the word also comes with a history and conventions, which we should try to narrow down. We shall not use the noun ‘art form’, which appears to be too blurry and, depending on the occurrences, refer to discipline, medium, genre or form as we will define it below.

(Let us also dismiss an opposition that is considered common sense but is of no help to describe artistic objects or artistic creation: the opposition between form and content. This theoretical straw man had already little intellectual bearing before the writings of Marshall McLuhan, and we mention it only to clarify that by no means is the word form used here as the opposite to contentdiscourse or message. Form is not a kind of mold into which content is cast. It is assumed that the many components of a work of art are closely entangled and that none of them can be isolated as ‘the content’, other than by interpretation and paraphrase.)

Form could be defined as the bridge between the previously mentioned concept of shape and the more specific concepts of design or composition, in the sense of a pattern pre-existing to a work of art, and that also informs our reception of it in a more or less conscious level. It is useful here to refer to the German word for this denotation of form, Gestalt. It is fitting to describe the double-ended understanding of form that we are trying to formulate, which is not concerned only with the working process of the creator but also with the reception of the resulting work by the spectator, insofar that form is not only the way in which the creator organizes his material for himself but also the way in which he organizes its reception. Gestalt psychology as a school has precisely been interested in studying the mechanisms of how we perceive forms (organized, coherent percepts) instead of random non-related stimuli. We shall not delve deeper here into the background of Gestalt psychology and its situation in the agitated debate about perception in cognitive science in general[4], but let us barrow its description of form as that perceptual pattern, that allows us not just to organize our perception of reality but also, in the case of art, to make sense for instance of a hierarchy of figures in a painting, or to recognize a tune transposed into a different key: the notes are different but the pattern is detectable.

A form is a pattern in which material is organized and perceived. Or to put it differently, it is the method according to which material is structured in order to condition its reception. Therefore a broad range of means can and must be used to comment on it, tools that enable us to perceive the workings and implications of forms from perspectives of both emission and reception but also context, which has historically been the task of aesthetics and has been explored for instance by Hans Robert Jauss or Stuart Hall in the context of reception theory.

Form/medium ecology. If we are to articulate these two concepts, it appears that by definition this organization of material that is a form occurs and develops in a context of traditions, techniques and theories, an environment, corresponding to what we call a medium, sometimes organized into a set of forms-conventions called a genre. Our hypotheses based on these definitions are the following:

1) In the ecological metaphor, all media are interconnected ecosystems belonging to a larger whole that is an artworld, meaning a cultural entity sharing equivalent aesthetics values.[5]

2) A form is typically formalized within a specific medium that informs its parameters and the way we talk about it –let us call this process form individuation.

3) Due to the conceptual bonds that seal the unity of any given artworld, and the bridges existing between its various media, a form has the possibility to circulate from one medium to another –let us call this circulation form ecology.

The use of the concept of ecology here intends to translate the assumption that all cultural practices in a given historical framework can be described as belonging to one dynamic system, however strong the way in which conceptual and pragmatic divides between various media have been organized, and that the circulation of those patterns called forms within that system are an inevitable and complex part of its organic life. The conditions of such an ecology are what we still need to determine.

It is inherent to this observation of the “life of forms” that a condition for their circulation (at least in a recognizable way) is their previous development within one specific medium. We borrow the useful concept of individuation from the writings of Gilbert Simondon[6]: it helps him describe the process of how ‘living organisms’ (both biological individuals and social groups) are produced rather than given or preformed, a process that is ever-continued as the organism conserves ‘a permanent activity of individuation’. In this perspective, there is no ‘substance’ of an individual that had been waiting to realize itself, and really no individual per se, but only processes of individuation. Moreover, individuation is always only ‘relative to the milieu associated with its existence’, and one aspect of it is interaction, meaning that individuation is also how the others come to perceive an organism as an individual –it has much to do with the theory of form perception of Gestalt theory we were referring to earlier. Such a model, built not only to describe various types of organic processes (namely, biological, psychological, social), but to demonstrate their interconnectedness on a deeper level, seems to be more than fitting to describe artistic phenomena as we have set out to.

This is especially crucial to the relationships between forms and media, too: it is this medium-borne nature of form individuation that has led to the conceptual blurring of form and media and led to exaggerate identification of both, and hence also to the whole Western ‘system of the arts’ based on a strong compartmentalization, and even hierarchy, of disciplines. Only by highlighting the tensions between individuation and circulation within a global form ecology can we begin to understand in a dynamic fashion the history of ‘the arts’.

Open questions. This set of tools leaves us with even more questions than previously. In which context does form circulation occur? Does a specific set of conditions have to present themselves? Can it be willed by an individual artist? What would be his impetus to do so? Mere exposure to other forms beyond his medium, or a more formalized assessment of the limitations of the forms available to him within his medium? And when proceeding to circulating a form, what tools are at his disposal to select parameters of this form to import it? What are the ‘translatable’ parameters? Is this translation really successful, or consistent? A lot of form translations we will describe operate on the level of what can only be termed as ‘metaphor’, meaning a selective and imperfect transposition that relies sometimes on imperfect analogies, a necessary liberty in approaching the areas objectively shared by two media and then the areas beyond, to which the transposition also needs to be expanded to be complete. Let us see this not as an imperfection but as a necessary condition to circulation.

This model also is an invitation to consider parameters/forms that do not intuitively belong to the scope of an artworld, or rather to expand our understanding of the artworld to the more global cultural framework that of course also informs our perception of art as art and our decoding of it. There seems to be no reason not to consider that a form cannot be found in the medium of philosophical, scientific or political speech, and imported into an artistic medium[7]. Theatre dialogue, naturalistic or not, is the translation into the medium of dramatic writing of ‘conversation’, a form found in the medium of speech, and the history of Greek drama shows it has been a slow development, a conscious artistic choice requiring a process of formalization to implement it within a medium that was ritual, lyrical and choreographic, rather than a self-evident imitation of life. The dodecaphonic and serial systems of musical composition, that rely on the idea that all tones of the chromatic scale (and later all other musical parameters), rather than being hierarchized by the previously dominant laws of harmony and tonality, are of equal value and should be treated as such, can be understood in historical context as the importation of the political form of ‘democracy’ or ‘egalitarianism’ into the musical medium, which is also how for instance Karlheinz Stockhausen describes them[8]. The opposite circulation, from the artistic field to the political field, is then also logically possible, and serves its own purposes: for instance, the form of unison choir singing (or limited to a division into only a small number of parts) has been repeatedly used by churches, parties and regimes as a tool to create a sense of internal cohesion and, by staging the expression of uniform consense of the masses, staged effective consense and tried to implement it. Such an example demonstrates how useful it would actually be to consider critically the ecology of form in the entire cultural realm, in order to understand the mechanisms of the ‘aestheticization of politics’ analyzed by Walter Benjamin. Our area of study would then be the entirety of what W.J.T. Mitchell calls in his field ‘visual culture’, or generally speaking what Jacques Rancière has termed the ‘division/distribution of the sensible’, which works on the assumption that political space is being organized aesthetically and that there indeed is no separation between politics and aesthetics, that they belong to the same realm[9] –he also explores how in the age of aesthetics arts can be a laboratory of political forms, which would be an example of global form ecology, open to later discussion.

2. Example 1: Text/Music interplay

The most common occurrences of form circulation are also those, like mainstream translations (see note 2), that are forcefully made invisible. The example of book-to-film adaptation is the most typical: when one sees printed on the cover of a novel the ritual words “Now a Major Motion Picture”, often adorned with pictures of the film’s actors, one could think it is a feat of prestidigitation one is treated to –as if that very object, the book, had magically been trans-formed into another object belonging to an entirely different medium, a film, and as if this metamorphosis had not required extensive processing from (probably numerous) screenwriters and other makers, of course filtered by intricate theories or prejudices about the target medium and what ‘translates’ best into it.[10] That process is so unreflected that one is commonly able to simultaneously speak of it as if the novel itself had been entirely transformed into a film, and unconsciously assume that what really has been transposed is simply the synopsis or plot, i.e. the elements of the storyline that are easiest to isolate and name. What the Russian formalists and other narratologists call the ‘fabula’ (the organization of the storyline) is of course a form in the present meaning and subject to transmedia circulation, but so are other components such as dialogism, viewpoints and other semiotic elements. At any rate each case ought to be assessed with the awareness of the problematic dimensions of form individuation and circulation, which would also include the long-term in-formation of cinema by literature, and its feedback.

Similar points could be made about another common case of circulation, so common that it has a specific expression in the English language: the ‘setting’ of text to music (in German it even has its own word, Vertonung; literally, transformation into notes). In terms of common vocabulary, no process could possibly be described as more im-mediate and uncomplicated than that of ‘setting’ something (an object on another, or a table, or an alarm, or a fire). And this specific type of setting does indeed have the particularity of leaving the source material (the text) intact, in the sense that nothing seems to be removed from it, as in the adaptation of a novel into a film. But this appearance clouds the fact that many things have then been transported from one medium to another, with immense implications for the target medium. This transition into music is facilitated by the aural components of words as codified by their pronunciation, and depending on the type of setting by the already melodic components of phrasing inherent to their use in spoken language, in other words, elements that are already adjusted to music as a medium –but it also carries along forms that belong to its original medium, text, and which may enter in conflict with the forms indigenous to the medium of music.

The musical quality of language –more specifically, correlation between emotional effect and the sound and rhythm of speech– is one of the chief devices of poetry according to Ezra Pound, who named it melopoeia.[11] Pound’s history of it in Western poetry is worth quoting, as a narrative of the relationships between music and poetry whose outline has come to be consensual. Like all narratives of decadence, it starts with a golden age of unity: in the Ancient Greek language, quantitative meter and the complex patterns it allows are the height of the possibilities of interplay of sound and meaning, but in general languages have tended to lose this quality, a very Rousseauist but linguistically correct assessment. And then in the Provence of the troubadours –which Pound had extensively studied and written about–, within a broad linguistic and cultural continuum that covered the entire European continent, the chanson/canzone illustrates the perfect unity of a medium whose authors were simultaneously poets and composers, and they created forms that were intrinsically both literary and musical, based on complex rime and rhythm patterns, such as the sestina and the villanelle, but also patterns of equal complexity created by the author specifically for the purposes of his creation. Such forms culminated in the Renaissance in such works as the complex compositions of Clément Janequin and the genre of the madrigal, whose “words were not published apart from the music in their own day”. Another telling point: “In Provence it was considered plagiarism to take a man’s form, just as it is now considered plagiarism to take his subject matter or plot.” But gradually the parameters of music and of poetry were cultivated separately, for their intrinsic refinements –sounds and rhetorics respectively– and lost touch of each other, in other words became entirely separate media into which separate forms individuated. This moment is called classicism and for Pound it belongs to a history linear enough: “European civilization or, to use an abominated word, ‘culture’ can be perhaps best understood as a mediaeval trunk with wash after wash of classicism going over it.” In the realm of poetry: “In all this matter the sonnet is the devil. Already by 1300 the Italian sonnet was becoming, indeed had become, declamatory, first because of its having all its lines the same length, which was itself a result of divorce from song. (…) The sonnet was next used for letter writing, used for anything not needing a new tune performance for every new poem.” On the long run: “French verse went soggy and leaden, and (…) tumefied when some literary lump was too dull to finger the lute.” And on the side of music, “you get to the last deliquescence, where the musician, despairing, possibly, of finding an intelligent author, abandons the words altogether, and uses inarticulate sound” –and rigidifies modal compositional tools into stiff tonality, one might add. Let us quote out of ‘pure literary’ pleasure the dark view Pound paints of the world of medium separation in which this history leaves us:

In an age of musical imbecility we find the aspiring poet in his garret, he never goes to a concert either from lack of curiosity, or because he can’t afford to buy concert tickets, that being the fault of a carious and wholly filthy system of economics, but in any case the level of general culture is so low that the poet’s impecunious friends are not musicians, or are accustomed only to an agglutinous or banal substitute for good melody.

 For Pound it is a matter of principle: “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” While one might not share the somewhat dramatic understanding Pound has of this history and its programmatic implications, the evolution and drifting of poetic and musical forms is indeed observable. In French verse the lengthening of verse can be followed over the span of a millennium: multiple internal rimes, then octosyllables, then decasyllables, then alexandrines, then even longer verses and free verses. Both less repetitive rime schemes (seen in any given era as liberation from models that are perceived as too restrictive for purely literary creativity) and longer verses make poetry ostensibly drift away from the chanson forms, and closer to prose, discourse and rhetoric. ‘Rondeau’, a chanson form emanating from a dance song, which derived into both a written poetical form and a purely instrumental form, could be a textbook case –if such textbooks were written– of form individuation, bearing the geological trace of the individuation of discipline-media.

It is however also necessary to put this linear reading into the context of a more complex ecology. The individuation of the sonnet, which allowed its developed free from a certain restrictive understanding of musical forms and of text/music relationships, then returned to music for instance in the Petrarch settings of Adrian Willaert’s landmark collection Musica Nova (1559), inspiring the renewal –of course not purely literary in its sources, but also indebted to the importation of new literary patterns– of madrigal in Italy, its new formal possibilities, and enabling the development of the new more discursive form that came to be known as opera. For Pound the difficulties of musical setting merely reflect the disastrous consequences of the divorce of poetry and music, and could only theoretically be achieved beyond what could be called form dissonance or on the contrary unsatisfactory submission of one medium’s forms to the other’s (what is usually termed dismissively ‘illustration’), if both disciplines were to return to a mutual understanding in line with his model of lost unity. But in a form ecology model, separate form individuation and subsequent circulation attempts such as musical setting offer the possibility to challenge a medium with new possibilities and leads to innovative forays. Musical setting being of course only one possible combination: Bach, by writing, as instrumental music, dance movements that were not meant to be danced, and ‘arias’ that were not meant to be sung, offered paradigmatic illustrations of the fact that music has the ability to gorge on extra-musical forms. In many ways multiple circulations short-circuit any linear understanding of form history: in search of musicality in the name of modernity, Verlaine and Rimbaud came back to short verses and repetitive rime schemes precisely inspired by chanson, which belonged to their preferred set of references, while Mallarmé by exploring pure literary forms later suggested yet unheard solutions to Debussy and Boulez when they set his poetry into music, and both Baudelaire and Ravel could draw on the Malaysian verse form of ‘pantoum’. Pound’s understanding of what at a given time can be understood as a poet’s lack of ‘musicality’ could, in many cases, more aptly be described as this poet’s secession from the field of the music of his time, within a process of individuation.

His comment on classicism, which can be defined as strong form individuation within appropriate media, is nevertheless important to the understanding of the history of Western artistic media. The separation and hierarchization of discipline-media, the need to develop a discourse to implement and justify it, and the consequences of the resulting ‘system of the arts’ in further art practices, is perhaps the single most defining moment in the development and theoretical discussion of art in modern Europe and belongs to its defining traits (the Greeks had nine Muses, but none of them was devoted to visual arts for instance). By correlation, attempts to challenge these separations have all been defined by the prior ‘classical’ worldview –attempts that are not new, as is testified by the classical genre of the ‘comparison between arts’ that tend in particular to explore the grey areas shared by poetry and painting, and the nature of the discussion of aesthetics (a field of studies born from this history) by Lessing, Kant and Hegel.

The separation of music and poetry, or in the same time period of architecture and sculpture to which it could be compared in many ways, obviously exceeds the boundaries of form individuation: in them we witness the birth of the very idea of artistic medium in the modern sense, which is the focus of a discipline on a certain type of material and the assignment of one of the five senses. But a more thorough study of this process through the lens of the individuation and circulation of forms could help us understand it better, the aspiration towards form individuation/development appearing to be a defining matrix of the drifting apart of media in artistic theory and practice.

3. Example 2: Perspective as a Form

Kant’s Critique of pure reason opens with a ‘transcendental aesthetic’ that examines the conditions of the process of perception, assessing that it operates within a predefined framework: our senses only ever perceive objects and the qualities they attribute to them through the grid of two fix hard-wired parameters, space and time, i.e. extension in area and duration. They exist a priori, and are described as the ‘pure forms of sensibility/sensation’ (reine Formen der Sinnlichkeit). Kant’s method in isolating these two ‘pure forms’ relies on his observation of the very possibility of existence of mathematics and geometry, that appear to be the consummate abstract formalizations of the framework of human perception existing outside from experience. We can easily imagine any mathematically described three-dimensional figure and its movement in time, but cannot imagine an object existing outside of space and time, in the same way that we cannot imagine a process that doesn’t submit to the principle of causality, which Kant later establishes in his ‘transcendental logic’, his study of the a priori conditions of understanding that complements his study of the a priori conditions of sensibility/sensation, as a pure ‘form of the intellect’ (Form des Verstandes).

This influential view has been challenged in subsequent research, both as a matter of principle by empiricists arguing that there is no such thing as the a priori, and on the scientific level by psychologists and neurologists studying the functioning of cognitive processes, arguing that there may be more than two fundamental ‘forms of sensibility’ and that their development in the individual (and in history) may be more complex.[12] Let us however take Kant’s view for what it is: the proposition of a model, grounded in the context of its time. Paraphrased in our vocabulary, this model consists in the idea that there are two a prioriforms that in-form all the other forms that we perceive, that indeed everything we call forms is not just patterns in which material is organized and perceived, but necessarily the organization of such patterns along coordinates of space and time. Space and time are, then, the meta-forms that condition and define all other forms.

It follows that all forms dealing with space in one way or another are bound to be limited by the space-meta-form, or to be interpretations of it. One interesting case in this respect is the technique of perspective in Western art. This ‘technique’ could actually, in our context, be described as a form. Let us remember that one of the appeals of the concept of form as a tool is that it doesn’t operate only on specific scales or dimensions, that it puts in correlation –and therefore binds in a holistic manner– microforms (e.g. rime patterns) and macroforms (e.g. the grid layout of a city, the fabula of a novel).

Within the tradition of Western graphic arts, perspective does truly function like a form: it operates like a pattern, actually in its most literal sense: when it is made visible in the sketching or analytical breakdown, it appears as a grid that converges towards a vanishing point, and to which everything that is depicted is ‘set’, to the point that draftsmen had grid-tools that facilitated the translation of any real-life view into this grid form. This is how it was formalized already in Leon Battista Alberti’s 1435 treatise De pictura, the first scientific study on the subject, grounded in optics and geometry, and displaying the famous grid model. It is therefore firmly drawn from the understanding of space as a perceptual meta-form, what would then become Kant’s a priori form of sensibility, also based on the paradigm of geometry as formalization of pure space. Interestingly, the study of this meta-form is both inspired by artistic practice –Alberti, an architect, also credits Brunelleschi for the first formalization of geometrical perspective in his work– and intended as artistically programmatic, since it offers guidelines for the making of new works in the medium of painting. The bond between the inception of the meta-form and the individuation of the artistic form could not be clearer.

Apart from this connection to the meta-form, perspective as a form also bears the trace of its relationship to architecture from which it originated. Mantegna’s illusionistic frescoes for the Camera degli Sposi of the Ducal Palace in Mantua (1465-1474), a work born in the moment of highest virtuoso perspective work of Renaissance Italy within the generation that followed Alberti’s, are a masterful blending and interplay of actual architecture and perspective painting. It relies entirely on the continuity between the space-meta-form and perspective-as-a-form.

The growing taste for illusionistic perspective and the development of such a genre as trompe-l’œil are testimonies of strong form individuation within the medium of painting, they are very much akin to the sonnet as described in the previous case study. And in this case too, form individuation appears to have set the objective of the medium of which it was considered to be the most technically meaningful example, leading to the trend of growing ‘realism’ in Western painting, ever more sophisticated, stopped only by the invention of photography in the 19th century. It is not only, as is commonly asserted, that ‘realism’ (a very vague aesthetic value) had been overtaken and had become obsolete: one could simply observe that technology had finally allowed to transcribe directly the image of the camera obscura, which is only a variation of the perspective-grid device, and hence left useless perspective-as-a-form in its original purpose.

In the meantime, perspective had a productive career as a circulating form. First as a driving force of baroque aesthetics, which shouldn’t be obscured by the taste for ornamentation, ornamentation being always structured by grids of strongly emphasized perspective plays. To take even the most pared-down example, the paintings of Caravaggio are based on exaggerated perspectives, amplified by his dramatic use of lighting. The model for Italian baroque theatres, the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, makes pompous use of the architectural paradigm that was later stylized in the aesthetics of theatre wings, painted flats and periaktos (two competing techniques), and stage machinery that prospered in the following centuries. Thus perspective-as-a-form became the main tool of theatrical design, and also of staging of the actors and singers, until the slow rise of naturalism. As a generic tool to create relief, it also became an increasingly important device of musical composition, as dynamic nuance (from pianissimo to fortissimo) entered the classical instrumental and vocal palette in the baroque era as a means for layering and contrast.

One crucial moment in the circulation history of perspective-as-a-form was the 19th century, due to the interest of Romantic artists for landscape as a genre, for the first time extended beyond the limits of painting and architecture. This interest grew probably organically from the golden age of landscape drawing and landscape gardens that the late 18th century had been, and it was fueled by a rising fascination for the dark forces of nature that had maybe not be entirely tamed by man after all. Goethe, typically, was an amateur artist and left thousands of landscape drawings, as was the convention at the time technically very scrupulous in their use of perspective (to the point of seeming to be exercisesin that technique), and he believed this granted him contact not just with the meta-form, but with the medium of nature itself[13]. His novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which already on the macro-level uses the epistolary form in order to place emphasis on direct subjectivity, makes also significant and creative use of landscape as a genre, and perspective as a form. Ekphrasis is a typical attempt to transform a visual form into a literary form, but such transformation doesn’t always retain distinct formal characteristics from the original, which one could argue is the case in the transposition of perspective-as-a-form in literature through the imitation of the structure of perspective itself. The description of the peacefully designed garden and of the large canvases of the landscapes that Werther as a character describes first-hand (at first harmonious, then threatening), are beautiful examples of the translation into the literary medium of the plays of perspective and organization of perception around the observer, with the intent of mirroring the latter’s mental state. Similar use of the form can be found in large poems by Hölderlin structured like landscapes, such as “The Ister” (1803), where the view on the eponymous river becomes, like in ancient perspective maps, a glimpse into the continent and its limits, matching the author’s wider civilizational project. Later in his life, Hölderlin kept on resorting to the form of perspective in shorter poems describing a view, some of them actually titled “Perspective” (Aussicht). In the same years, perspective-as-a-form makes its way in a similar fashion into the medium of music beyond the previous associations with genre (e.g. baroque pastorale) or singular illustrative tropes (e.g. music suggesting a tempest), with the concomitant rise of larger orchestral textures, longer symphonic forms and the taste for program music. Some famous examples are Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (1808) that draws from conventional precedents in a highly unconventional way, or Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides (1830) based on the composer’s visit to Scotland, both of which can be said to formally construct perspectives, by creating an interplay between a background and motives to convey the feeling of a layered, structured landscape[14]. Mendelssohn was, like Goethe, a keen landscape artist.

It is interesting that the circulation of perspective-as-a-form became wider in the arts in the 19th century, in a moment when there was wide interest in depicting precisely the ‘play of perspectives’ between individual humans and huge landscapes, in the fashion of C.D. Friedrich’s programmatically Romantic paintings. The matter of man’s place in nature from a critical point of view –literally, the putting of his previously assumed dominant position ‘in perspective’– became an important theme, and this is precisely when the formal technique of perspective became widespread in many different media. The timing, coherent with both the preoccupations of that generation and the newly established predominance of the aesthetic paradigm of Kant’s theory of perception and judgment within objectivated meta-forms, is telling both about the slow temporality of form circulation in general, and about the history of Western arts in particular, as we are able to analyze it with the tools of form ecology.

4. Example 3: 20th century: Medium over Form vs. Form as Medium

The model of form and medium we are trying out on the previous examples could make us doubt whether it really has any validity beyond the artworld we named as our starting point, namely classical aesthetics based on a rigid ‘system of the arts’ with fix and fairly compartmentalized discipline-media, that culminated in the Kantian model. Already the evolution of art in the 20th century seems to make our concepts obsolete, because the articulation of both medium and form moved into a distinctly different direction. One of the most radical views is Yves Klein’s claim that not only artistic forms, but even meta-forms that organize perception, are alienating, and should give way to a pure experience of sensitivity/sensation, best exemplified according to him in the total enjoyment of one color’s vibration:

… in front of any painting, figurative or non-figurative, I felt more and more that the lines and all their consequences, the contours, the forms, the perspectives, the compositions, became exactly like the bars on the window of a prison. Far away, amidst color, dwelt life and liberty. And in front of the picture I felt imprisoned, and I believe it is because of that same feeling of imprisonment that van Gogh exclaimed, ‘I long to be freed from I know not what horrible cage!’[15]

It is worth noting that Klein, rejecting in passing both figurative and abstract painting, aims at no less than rejecting the entire artworld he is supposedly operating in as a painter, taking the common trope, which we previously found in Pound, of dismissing the categories created by classicism to an entirely new level. In the world Klein is calling for, it appears the very concepts of medium and form are altogether useless, as they belong to an antiquated past, to art history.

Let us put Klein back into the context of the more general debate on which the 20th century art discussion has been centered (starting in the visual arts but ultimately propagated throughout all discipline-media), a discussion in which he undoubtedly belongs, although he is here subtly diverting our attention onto the abstract/figurative question. This discussion gave birth to two distinct trends or sides that have come to construct themselves in opposition to each other, and we shall argue that their relationships to form and form individuation are actually pivotal to the debate and the understanding of recent art history.

The first trend, which we will call modernism, is art practice that constructed for itself a narrative in which new art is the realization of a process where media have ceased to be used as means for reproduction of reality and now explore themselves, a turn presented either as the result of a long-term evolution of art or as a sudden revolution. Its mythical founding father in painting is Kandinsky (as Schönberg is in music), both as a painter and a theorist, and interestingly his advocacy for a liberation of all discipline-media stems from his advice to look into music for a paradigm, an inclination common in the Symbolist circles: “In manipulation of form music can achieve results which are beyond the reach of painting.”[16] He develops a method of painting described as ‘composition’, divided into ‘melodic’ and ‘symphonic’ styles, clearly described as form circulations but also largely metaphorical. But although he wishes that, based on this model, all disciplines emancipate themselves from imitation to become more ‘abstract’ and fulfill their role in a ‘spiritual revolution’, Kandinsky does remind that they are ‘peculiar languages’, and in his belief in a possible combination of the arts in a Wagnerian total ‘art of the future’, permitted by their shared parameters, he is not oblivious of their unsolvable differences. Much of the modernist trend that followed Kandinsky, even though coming from vastly different theoretical backgrounds, has agreed to this status quoof disciplines united in their aim under the umbrella of an unique ‘Art’, open to collaboration with each other, but firmly autonomous. “Equitable and friendly neighbors” that should respect each other’s privacies, as Lessing put it in his study of painting/poetry relationships[17]. Two generations later Clement Greenberg has come to be considered the foremost theorist of this paradigm: he too lauds music as a paragon for all disciplines, showing them the method of concentrating on their own medium. The underlying idea of the exploration of media by themselves is ‘the purity of media’, a topos we have already shortly mentioned in the first part of this essay, along with W.J.T. Mitchell’s argument against this purity, if understood as the identification of discipline-medium with material-medium and one of the five senses. Greenberg is one of the champions of this idea. “It is by virtue of its medium, he writes in a famous Lessingesquely titled paper, that each art is unique and strictly itself. To restore the identity of an art the opacity of its medium must be emphasized.”[18] We already see here a firmer tone compared to Kandinsky: the discipline-media have not only to protect themselves from the danger of the old paradigm of representation, but also from the intrusion of each other. This has become an increasingly important issue, as the Wagnerian influence has faded and the second trend we will now speak about has gained momentum.

This other trend, which we will call anti-artworld, is illustrated by avant-gardes as defined by Peter Bürger who himself opposed them to ‘modernists’[19]: artists and movements who refuse the existing system of the arts and the institution that embodies it, in short the dominant artworld, seen as a realm that has artificially separated itself from the other dimensions of life. Its most distinctive model is Dada, and it commonly advocates not for the Kandinskian spiritual mission of art, but for the ‘blurring of art and life’ and of the borders between disciplines. It creates ‘experiences’, is a resistance against society and in favor of freedom, but “signifies nothing” in the words of Tristan Tzara in the 1918 Dada Manifesto. Its favorite paradigm is not music, but collage, which brings together into one continuum (possibly also randomly) heterogeneous material, and performance, which is the unifying factor of everything that can happen between an artist and an audience member through the mediation of artistic creation, resulting in something like an artwork or not. In the second half of the 20th century, this trend has most importantly been illustrated by the Fluxus group, that had an international and interdisciplinary scope and claimed Dada and John Cage as forerunners, other examples including Viennese Actionism, Joseph Beuys, Allan Kaprow, and many others that came to be associated to the lineage of ‘performance art’, although the importance of visual arts in this history shouldn’t hide the fact that the paradigms in play here have also been more specifically transposed into the fields of music, literature and theatre itself. In light of such a description, Yves Klein, whose point of view we quoted earlier, clearly belongs to this trend. Minimal art and conceptual art are derivations from its main concepts, although these movements, that have come to a dominant position in the institutions and the art market in the postmodern age and crystallized into something like a discipline, do not really fit the values of this hardcore avant-garde. In any case, the anti-artworldtrend is by definition in a relationship of antagonism with the modernisttrend, which for them belongs to the artworld that they are set to destroy, or simply disregard. And for a defender of the modernist cause, such as Adorno, these makers of happenings and advocates of the “erosion” of arts that “eat each other” as they blend are relishing “ostentatious meaninglessness” and the destruction of the spiritual and utopian mission of art, an act that is nothing less than “sabotage” as, because of these creators’ fascination for everything “extra-aesthetic”, art loses its special status and “becomes virtually a thing among things”, ironically fulfilling the culture industry’s plan of destroying “high art” and creating a world without aim and values.[20] In the same years, ‘formalist’ critic Michael Fried also sides with the modernists against the other trend, which he sees as obsessed with ‘events’ and with objects taken at their “literal” face value that threaten the concept of the artwork, in an attitude that is “corrupted or perverted by theatre”, which becomes the designated foe, “the negation of art”[21]. Not only “art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre”, but this degeneration is creating the impression that the “crumbling” of the “barriers between the arts” is both close and desirable, “whereas in fact the individual arts have never been more explicitly concerned with the conventions that constitute their respective essences”.

Although the terms of this lasting feud are consistent and increasingly polarized and radical over time, this divide between two trends could of course be debated at length. Movements like Bauhaus and Russian constructivism had a strongly ‘modernist’ conceptual basis (especially in their functionalist inspiration in the field of architecture), but also gave birth to strong interdisciplinarity and emphasis on performance as the uniting medium, and advocated for proactive intervention of art in life and conversely. A finer observation of their history and dynamics would show that such movements were no unified blocks, and that they were actually made up of individuals both more inclined towards the modernist direction or the anti-artworld direction, their collaboration resulting in interesting intermediate solutions, even when the movements themselves were only short-lived (if decisive) moments in the career of these artists –in many instances, it is not only a question of programmatic tools, but also of analytical ones, and both say Hemingway or Updike and Nouveau Roman novelists could be understood as concentrating on the medium of novel in itself, although they understood it differently. Finally, most artists themselves do not belong to a singular ‘family’, and when they do they may simply define it differently, such as a mix-media artist who would simply consider that her classical discipline-medium has extended, rather than questioning its validity. The trends we describe are ideas and directions, geographical poles in between which the artist navigates according to the immediate and the general contexts and multiple other factors.

In order to navigate by ourselves the issues at hand, it would be necessary to have a closer look at the components of these various discourses that operate with concepts that are not as foreign to those analyzed in previous time periods, as both appear to result from an original awareness of form ecology. One way to rephrase the claims of the modernisttrend would be to say that form has been recognized as a possibly transmedia component of art in its new abstract and unifying understanding (all ‘external’ forms related to representational or illusionistic art having been singled out), and therefore has no more reason to be a defining feature in categorization of art; instead, precedence is taken by each individual medium that can devote itself to its specificity, by exploring of its own intrinsic possibilities. It should be emphasized that the logic in question is not a creation of the intellectual framework of modernism. Rather, it must be understood within the context of a much broader tradition of advocacy of the ‘separation of the arts’, that can be witnessed in the classical comparisons between the arts, in the ‘art pour l’art’ fashion and in the intensive debates that followed the trend of Wagnerism all over Europe. Let us not, either, be confused by the name ‘formalists’ that Greenberg and his followers gave themselves: the work of Jackson Pollock, championed by Greenberg, is precisely an eloquent illustration of form being negated by the medium, the texture and physical behavior of paint becoming the designing parameter, in place of an organizational pattern or structure. On the other end, the anti-artworld trend can be described as striving towards the abolition of media, according to the idea that no limits of disciplines, or materials for that matter, should anymore be recognized. Fluxus artist Dick Higgins’s use of the word ‘intermedia’, that encompasses also so-called extra-artistic media, is rather than a recognition of the persistence of said media, a farewell to them. Forms, on the other hand, are all over this trend: the one material trace of happenings is their scripts, usually consisting in simple patterns, and all objects produced by this form of avant-garde are saturated with formal organization and use of forms, in some cases in a ‘found object’ spirit. Even the most extreme example, the use of chance, is the use of form: aleatory form, here form being precisely the set of parameters that are to be defined by chance.

Hence, form being understood as the structure of reception of art by the viewer, one could argue that, in the same way that modernism is the negation of form in favor of pure exploration of the medium, in the artistic movements where performance is the paradigm, form is not rejected but on the contrary becomes the very medium that is being operated. This becomes particularly salient in any Fluxus happening where elements of text, visual arts and music are blended: the structuring and driving force is the way in which the art presents itself to the viewer, anticipating reactions it is trying to provoke, in a close interplay of emission and reception. There is then only one total medium, which is form itself.

The idea that form is the actual medium of performance in general would open multiple possibilities that are yet to be explored. Beyond this specific paradigm, the reading we are offering of the discussion on the opposed directions that polarize the many diverse contemporary art practices can offer bridges to create communications between seemingly scattered attempts to solve the problems of medium and form, always at threat of either rejecting these concepts because their association with the ancient artworld has bestowed a taboo upon them, or retreating into uprooted conservative paradigms.

(Temporary) Conclusion

Rather than an illusory demonstration that would claim to be holistic in any other way than in its intents, we have here attempted to offer explorations of typical examples and problems of the field of aesthetics with a tool to which we hope to give both analytical and synthetic value. We hope this model can be expanded with other theoretical tools from other fields of study to become ever more comprehensive, and closer to its goal of offering a coherent approach.

Form is of course not the ultimate entity through which art must be understood, and must not be mistaken for anything other than what it is: a structural element, fundamental to the workings of artistic creation and other cultural phenomena, but a means and not an end. Nevertheless it appears clearly upon careful study that it is not, either, antiquated, and that we do not live in a ‘post-form’ age. Rather, form seems to be the only tool that allows us to analyze as a coherent ecosystem various aesthetical practices, including extra-artistic, and both the products of the culture industry and those of artistic modernism and avant-garde, all of which can be understood in their relationship to form.

We have observed that there are strong ties between the concept of form and the field of ‘aesthetics’, a field that has endured severe criticism. Aesthetics is rooted in a specific socio-cultural context: the study of the relationship between individual and collective ‘judgment’ in the 18th century. It needs to be contextualized as such, i.e. as belonging to a moment when a theory was required for the rising ruling class, the bourgeoisie, to create an intellectual framework for its own artistic production and reception, based on the notion of ‘taste’ as defined within a class as Bourdieu analyzed it. This is the cradle from which the modern ‘artworld’ was born. We have incidentally seen that it has been challenged, and we need to acknowledge that aesthetics is not the science of form in general, but the science of form within the Western art world of the classical and bourgeois eras. What we now need is a clear secession: either enlarge tremendously the scope and tools of what has until now been called aesthetics, which as a field has been put to trial by art history, sociology, cultural studies and visual studies in particular; or recognize that aesthetics can only be the limited version of the ‘studies of form ecology’ of an era that has, in the face of its failure to describe the entirety of artistic and cultural practices in a satisfactory way i.e. offer a satisfactory paradigm of artistic creation and discourse, come to an end. 

Back to where art is being made, the awareness of form ecology, the study of it, bears the promise of a creative fertility akin to that of those key moments we have started to explore in the limited scope of this paper. It is, we may now be bold enough to offer it as statement, in moments when the gateways to transmedia circulation have been understood to be ajar that artists have most profoundly renewed or indeed redefined their own fields. On a more global level, in the same way that scientific ecology has led to awareness to environment translated into political action, thus blurring the lines between objective research and moral stands, the study of form ecology, too, must be seen as a matrix for values, principles and action. It is therefore to be hoped that a more systematic deepening of form ecology as a field of study will not only provide interesting models for research, but also be an incentive for bold creation in the arts, whether those making it operate within a field and discipline or not.


[1]Quoted from E. Pound, “How To Read”, essay for The New York Herald Tribune Books 5/17 (13 January 1929).

[2]About the method: the tradition of translation theory referred to in our analogy is not the one about which, according to Walter Benjamin, we commonly “say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language” (“Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers”, 1923) and which thus artificially fakes the comfort of reading a text without the help of a third party, but the one, illustrated despite their differences by Benjamin and Pound, where the process of the translation is critically aware of itself and made visible in the final product, and where both original and target languages shed light and broaden each other. 

[3]For a discussion of the purity of media, see W.J.T. Mitchell (“There Are No Visual Media”, in Image Science, University of Chicago Press, 2015), where it is argued that for instance both modernist and classical Western painting are more than purely optical: they contain words (in the sense of allegory or discourse), and the insistence on the visibility or invisibility of the painter’s brushstroke speaks to our understanding of touch, its sensations and its connotations: “seeing painting is seeing touching”. From the conclusion that “all media are mixed media” we must infer that the senses they speak to or the use of a specific material are not what define them, and they must be understood as more complex constructs.

[4]For a general introduction and exposition, see the 1938 classic by Willis D. Ellis, A source book of Gestalt psychology.

[5]We operate here within the framework of an ‘institutional theory of art’. The concept of artworld was further developed by Arthur Danto (“The Artworld”, 1964) and George Dickie (“Defining Art”, 1969). 

[6]G. Simondon, L’individuation psychique et collective, Aubier, 1989.

[7]Such were for instance the attempts in the 1960s to transpose kinetic theory of gazes and mathematical models into musical composition.

[8]“Use all the components of any given number of elements, don’t leave out individual elements, use them all with equal importance and try to find an equidistant scale so that certain steps are no larger than others. It’s a spiritual and democratic attitude toward the world.” J. Cott, Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer. Simon & Schuster, 1973, p. 101.

[9]J. Rancière, Le Partage du sensible : esthétique et politique, La Fabrique, 2000. Rancière highlights in particular how in The Laws, Plato refers to artistic forms as political paradigms and offers as the ultimate positive model ‘the choreographic form’, based on unity and synchronization.

[10]‘Adaptation studies’ have however developed recently into a field of research, focusing on this specific type of circulation. See e.g. R. Stam, Literature through Film, Blackwell, 2005.

[11]Alongside two other ‘means’ of poetry that are the ‘casting of images upon the visual imagination’ (phanopoeia) and ‘the dance of the intellect among words’ (logopoeia). This divide, highly dependent on the intrinsic values of a given language, is also instrumental to his theory of translation mentioned in the opening of this text. These concepts and all following quotations are taken from Pound’s historical and programmatic essay ABC of Reading (1934). 

[12]Among the extensive literature stemming from this part of Kant’s legacy, see for instance Jean Piaget’s inaugural lecture at the Department of Philosophy of Science and Psychology of the Université de Neuchâtel, “Psychologie et critique de la connaissance” (1925), an invitation to put Kant’s paradigm into the context of the science of his time. This allows Piaget to present his ‘historico-critical method’, which is bound to replace Kant’s Transcendental idealism with proper contextualization and understanding of the variability of historically rooted systems of scientificity, what Kuhn would later call paradigms (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962) and Foucault epistemes (in Les Mots et les choses : Une archéologie des sciences humaines, 1966). As is probably clear by now, we also operate here on the assumption that artworlds are historical paradigms subject to change and replacement.

[13]“We talk too much. We ought to talk less and draw more. For my part, I should like to lose the habit of conversation and, like nature, express myself entirely in large drawings (Zeichnungen).” (Letter to J.D. Falk, 14 June 1809)

[14]A later version of this form could be said to be realized in a very literal fashion by Steve Reich in his piece City Life for small ensemble and digital samplers (1995), that creates planes out of musical cells and sampled sounds recorded in New York City to convey a composed urban soundscape with effects of perspective. Many other examples could be listed to illustrate the idea of the soundscape as a form that individuated itself within the medium of music in the Western tradition.

[15]Yves Klein, lecture at the Sorbonne, 1959.

[16]W. Kandinsky, Über die Geistige in der Kunst, inbesondere in der Malerei, 1912. Also: “Whatever truth there may be in [the comparison between Debussy and the Impressionists] merely accentuates the fact that the various arts of today learn from each other and often resemble each other.”

[17]G.E. Lessing, Laokoön oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie, 1767.

[18]C. Greenberg, “Towards A Newer Laocoön”, Partisan Review, VII, no. 4, New York, July—August 1940, pp. 296-310. Referring to defined ‘identity’ rather than different ‘languages’ that can communicate is a shift that is also to be observed in political discourse in the 20th century. 

[19]Peter Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde, 1974. We quote Bürger mainly as an example of how the anti-artworld trend defines itself as opposed to the modernist trend, not for his overall analysis of recent art history.

[20]T.W. Adorno, “Die Kunst und die Künste”, 1966. Thirty years after he started his crusade against ‘culture industry’ and its minions (such as jazz musicians), and up to his death, Adorno has maintained his purist stance against, among other things, hybridization, that has made him a somewhat overzealous theorist of an extreme subcurrent of the modernist trend, to which it would be difficult to associate any actual artist.  

[21]M. Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, 1967.

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