Discussing art -- structured vs unstructured?
January 9, 2014 6:13 AM   Subscribe

Art and philosophy people -- I need your help figuring out how to talk about the difference between art that is highly constricted by form vs. art that is very open-ended -- sonnets as opposed to free verse, men's clothing as opposed to women's clothing, calligraphy as opposed to sketching.

In more structured forms of art, the thrill or the spice or the "art" itself seems to come from playing ever so slightly with firmly established elements -- for example (in menswear) you have suit, tie, shirt, and shoes. The style and fun comes in when you play with color, texture, the width of a lapel, the weave of a tie, etc. In women's clothing you can do just about anything at ALL. Both sorts of clothing are art forms, but both the product and the process are very different.

I have been finding parallels for this kind of duality in art almost everywhere -- but what I really need is a more sophisticated way of thinking and talking about it.

Japanese has a term ("iki"), that describes the more structured and refined sense of style, but it doesn't really come super close to what I am talking about.

Apollonian vs. Dionysian doesn't cut it either -- there is too much psychologizing and extraneous crap that is mixed in with those terms.

Could anyone please point me to discussions of this? I would appreciate it very much. Thanks.
posted by jfwlucy to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Regarding literature, looking at the Oulipo and their use of self-imposed constraints might be one starting-point. In his Lipo: Second Manifesto [PDF], the group’s co-founder François Le Lionnais writes;
Most writers and readers feel (or pretend to feel) that extremely constraining structures such as the acrostic, spoonerisms, the lipogram, the palindrome, or the holorhyme (to cite only these five) are mere examples of acrobatics and deserve nothing more than a wry grin, since they could never help to engender truly valid works of art. Never? Indeed. people are a little too quick to sneer at acrobatics […]
At the other extreme there's the refusal of all constraint, shriek-literature or eructative literature […]
Between these two poles exists a whole range of more or less constraining structures which have been the object of numerous experiments since the invention of language. The Oulipo holds very strongly to the conviction that one might envision many, many more of these.
posted by misteraitch at 6:54 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


I'm not necessarily sure the distinction you're talking about exists in the form you seem to be looking for.

Take poetry for example. I'd argue that there's a very real sense in which sonnets aren't any more "constricted" than free verse is. True, sonnets have to follow a very specific form. But if you think about it, free verse does too. Not in the sense that "If a poem doesn't have x, y, and z, it's not free verse," but in a sort of negative sense, i.e., "If a poem has x, y, and z, it's not free verse." If you're writing free verse, there is a sense in which you have to be careful about not inadvertently appropriating forms and conventions from more "constricted" forms of poetry, making the verse something less than free. It turns out that writing a poem that doesn't have meter, rhyme, or anything like that, is at least as writing one that does.

But there's a broader sense in which these "open-ended" forms do exactly the same kind of playing with rules that more "constricted" forms do. To the extent that being "open-ended" is what makes free verse interesting, a lot of that arguably has to do with the things you can do by deviating from established conventions. Less "Look at how free and unscripted I am!!!" as much "See, this is something you can't do if you follow that convention." Put it another way: free verse loses a lot of its inherent interest if you aren't already pretty conversant with the broader conventions of various forms of poetry.

Or consider the fashion angle. I think the distinction between men and women's clothing you're getting at is more one of degree than kind. Both derive a lot of their interest by working and playing with established conventions. The differences seem to come from two things. First, for whatever reason, men don't seem to wear as broad a range of clothing types. In the West anyway, it's basically shirt, pants, and maybe a jacket. That's about it. Whereas women get to mess around with Bob-only-knows what, e.g., skirts, dresses, blouses, trousers, layers, etc. So there's just a broader basis of conventions to play around with. Second, men don't seem as interested in playing with those conventions as much as women (or at least fashion designers) seem to be. The male business suit hasn't changed all that much in a century or so, whereas women's fashion seems to go through complete cycles every decade or so. But those cycles are basically just fiddling around with the same old set of parameters, i.e., hemline, neckline, loose v. tight, dress v. skirt, accessories, color, you name it. In short, just because female fashion is playing around with more conventions, and playing with them more dramatically, doesn't mean that it's any more free from conventions than male fashion is.

All of which to say that I don't know that I'd agree with the duality you seem to be trying to set up. I don't think art--or life--is divisible into things which are bound by rules and conventions versus things that aren't. Everything is. It's just a question of what you're going to do with that.
posted by valkyryn at 7:02 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Valkyryn, I'm curious what the missing word in your sentence here is; "It turns out that writing a poem that doesn't have meter, rhyme, or anything like that, is at least as writing one that does."

I understand what you are saying re: both art forms, and I agree with your points about free verse being just as demanding in its way (perhaps even more) than structured verse, and that women's clothing is also hemmed in (Ha, I'm funny) by a certain set of parameters.

But I don't think that those points obviate my original question, which is how do we discuss the differences between very structured and LESS structured art forms?

You clearly have a very different process going on in the mind of an artist at Hermès who sits down and has to come up with new designs for ties for 2015, and the mind of virtually any designer for female clothing, who has literally thousands of options and inspirations to work with. I'm not saying that the latter is completely unfettered -- just that the process and product are very different.

You quote the unstructured artist herself as thinking, ""See, this is something you can't do if you follow that convention."" Right, I get it. I'm thinking about how to compare her to the artist who is saying, "See, this is something I can do WITHIN the convention -- because I am just so cool!"
posted by jfwlucy at 7:21 AM on January 9


I'm not sure if you've encountered this already, but a keyword here is formalism. Any article you find on it will mention Clement Greenberg for good reason. His focus on form as the matter to appreciate and comment on in painting, etc., was extreme--maybe worth looking up if you want a critical vocabulary for art that highlights formal considerations. In literature, there are several schools of formalist criticism, e.g. Russian formalism and New Criticism. In game studies, formalism goes under the heading ludology.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:37 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


The debate over form vs. content in art is a long one. There are lots of views. My personal thinking is mostly geared toward the notion that forms in art and references to them are part of a narrative and are historically tied, which restricts the hermeneutic approach we can/ought to take with them. But the degree to which the form of a work ought to inform our understanding of it, as opposed to purely the content, is much debated. A lot of this hinges on what constitutes our idea of a 'work' of art. This all came to a head in the 60s, where form was completely done away with, leaving only content, and you get things like Fluxus.

For reading on this, I would probably start with Kant, who goes to great pains to distinguish all these various elements of art and what sorts of restrictions art should have. Critique of Judgement is where it's at. After that, I would probably read Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics, Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought. Lots of other great aesthetics books touch on this, like Benjamin (if we can reproduce art, then is there only form and no content?), Wittgenstein (if you like one form, like a sonata, will you certainly like another? No...) Croce, Dewey, Greenberg, Danto.

One really great book that looks at the notion of 'work' in music is Goehr's "Imaginary Museum of Musical Works." It deconstructs the historical idea of the art work in a pretty elegant manner.

It's a very deep subject, because we want to say that all art is some balance of form and content, like each make up a percentage of the art experience. But when you look at it more closely, you start to realize it's much more complicated, like what really is a form, can it be separated from content so simply (no), where does the form and content exist, ontologically. What role does the institution play in determining form (i.e. a sonata is a very strict form, but does noise played in a concert hall setting have a different form than the same noise made informally?).

There's a very real sense in which the history of art, and especially the history of art for art's sake (say, since Romanticism or about 1800), is just an unraveling of form - fugue form, for example, is very strict, and we can see how it has been deconstructed over the past couple centuries in very interesting ways. But it is of course tied very closely to the unraveling of content. For example, in fugue form when the second figure comes in at the dominant pitch, is that form or is that content? Arguments could be made for each.

In any case, it's a very interesting discussion. But start with the Kant I think - it's one of his easier books.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:16 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


I think it is a cultural argument rather than an artistic one.

I'd recommend looking at semiology through the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes in order to understand that there is reference points to 'established elements' in pretty much everything we do and say, even in abstract art.

The artist at Hermès and the mind of virtually any designer for female clothing both still have a set of cultural and technical frameworks they attempting to play inside, the frameworks are different, but they both still have rules and a set of tools to work with. I don't think it is constricted vs unconstricted as much as you describe.
posted by 0 answers at 9:24 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Lutoslawski, I am grooving very much on your words.

0_answers, as I said above, I'm not arguing that the "freer" forms of art are without frameworks and restrictions -- in fact they also have some that the more restricted do not, or in a different way. For example, men are always going to buy neckties. Some may be more or less popular, but the market isn't going anywhere. But if a new kind of skirt comes out that bombs big time, absolutely no one will buy it. I'm also well familiar with the post modernist thinkers that you reference, but I don't think they are offering anything new to my original question.
posted by jfwlucy at 10:20 AM on January 9


For example, men are always going to buy neckties. Some may be more or less popular, but the market isn't going anywhere. But if a new kind of skirt comes out that bombs big time, absolutely no one will buy it.

But the skirt market isn't going anywhere just because someone made a skirt that everyone hated, just as the tie market isn't going anywhere just because someone made a tie no one liked. Why is one skirt its own market, but one tie not?
posted by schroedingersgirl at 11:14 AM on January 9


Valkyryn, I'm curious what the missing word in your sentence here is; "It turns out that writing a poem that doesn't have meter, rhyme, or anything like that, is at least as writing one that does."

The word was "hard".

You clearly have a very different process going on in the mind of an artist at Hermès who sits down and has to come up with new designs for ties for 2015, and the mind of virtually any designer for female clothing, who has literally thousands of options and inspirations to work with. I'm not saying that the latter is completely unfettered -- just that the process and product are very different.

All I'm saying is that both are basically sitting down in a more-or-less deliberate attempt to interact with the existing conversation in fashion. The difference is that the conversation in men's fashion has a much smaller. . . dynamic range, if you will. Not as much is being said. As I suggested earlier, I think it's probably a difference of degree, not kind.

Unless, of course, you're contrasting the outlandish displays we see in headline-grabbing Fashion Week runway shows as compared to the latest styles from Brooks Brothers. That probably is a difference in kind. But I think it's also a category mistake, partly due to issues related to the commercialization of art which we kind of need to pass over for now.* It's not really fair to compare a clothing line that lots and lots of people are expected to actually buy with whatever the hell this is and say that the difference is merely the degree to which one is "unstructured". They're trying to do entirely different things, and the Brooks Brothers guys aren't nearly as interested in making artistic statements as they are about selling a lot of expensive suits. The appropriate comparison would be with something like the new Ann Taylor LOFT line. Not a whole lot of innovation there either, all things considered.

But even the wildest Fashion Week follies are still playing around with the same set of basic physical parameters,** and I maintain that a lot of what's interesting about what goes on there is precisely the extent to which they play around with the standard conventions of fashion which everyone knows. And the more you know about said conventions, the more interesting fashion shows become. Which leads in to:

You quote the unstructured artist herself as thinking, ""See, this is something you can't do if you follow that convention."" Right, I get it. I'm thinking about how to compare her to the artist who is saying, "See, this is something I can do WITHIN the convention -- because I am just so cool!"

I think Lutoslawski has basically hit on it, in that this is one of the main discussions in philosophy of art, and he spelled out some of what I was getting at more thoroughly than I did.

But it's not just the form/content distinction that I'm getting at. Having thought about this more since this morning, I think the rules/conventions in art that we're talking about here can be thought of not just as criteria and guidelines for the creation of individual works of art, but a big part of the contextual framework in which any given work of art is situated. Everything is more interesting in context. There's a freaking world tournament for rock-paper-scissors, and the participants are, believe it or not, very good at it. Some things are only interesting, or indeed even comprehensible, in context. Exotic fashion may be on the edge of that. The layman sees absurd frivolity. Which may be the point, come to think of it. But the fashion aficionado sees an expression of the designer's take on whatever conventions are being played with. To return to the poetry example, free verse would be a lot less interesting--if it were even identified as a distinct poetic form--if sonnets and the like did not exist. The whole point of these "unstructured" works we're talking about is precisely their deviation from established conventions.

This is what separates Picasso from pre-school fingerpainting. Indeed, context is what separates every human work of art and even arguably human works in general from objects created by animals or found in nature. Whether you're playing "within" conventions or "outside" of them, you're still interacting with them, and the resulting work will be situated in the context of the ongoing conversation that is human interaction.

This is why we care about artists' influences. It's also why we care about academic citations, dry as they may sometimes seem. Everything is part of a conversation. If the artist/author isn't forthcoming about that, then we suspect that either they simply haven't done their homework (a lot of teenage poetry and undergraduate writing goes here) or that they're being disingenuous or un-self-aware about their debt to earlier artists/authors.

*Which is kind of like saying we should factor out the electoral system in a conversation about national politics, but I think going there would be a derail. The commercialization of art is an entirely different but equally fascinating conversation. One of the questions on my Philosophy of Art class in undergrad was, and I quote, "Is Thomas Kinkade a whore?" In context, it was clear that the question was whether he was an "artistic whore," but I think the point is clear enough. The professor didn't even really care what we concluded as long as we could defend our position. Commercialization is an important part of any conversation about art in general, and fashion in particular, but this is an AskMe, not a philosophy of art forum. MeMail me if you want to go there.

**Gravity works, the standard human body has four appendages and a head, the physical properties of any given material are known and fixed, nobody looks good in polyester, etc.
posted by valkyryn at 12:10 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the follow up - my point was that we can't escape language or its structure, regardless of the creative act. Perhaps I explained it badly.
Going back to your original example:
calligraphy as opposed to sketching
In both forms, the artist first learns a language (say... letterforms and ink weight for calligraphy, composition and perspective for sketching), applies the language and then offers it to a reader or viewer as art. One isn't a more 'open-ended' process than another. Even free-form or abstract sketching will be decoded by an audience or culture in a linguistic way if it is to exist at all! Anyhow, I guess I am barking up the wrong tree, but I wanted to clarify all the same.
posted by 0 answers at 1:41 PM on January 9


There are a couple of historical debates that might fuel your thinking about this.

In drama there was an established neo-classical opinion that stage plays absolutely had to follow the rules laid down in principle by Aristotle. Such as the three unities. If you didn't follow these rules, your play didn't really qualify as a play. This attitude was represented by the French tradition.

However, stage plays were written that disregarded these rules. Such as all the plays of Shakespeare. This was one of the reasons for Shakespeare's work falling out of favor in Britain, as the public taste turned more classical. On the other hand, the thrill of the later discovery of Shakespeare in Germany was due in great part to the sense that his work was like a great chaotic natural force. The concept of artistic genius was then developed to describe creative action that was not rule-following.

In the area of painting, there were similar questions. Should one learn to paint pictures by imitating the works of acknowledged (classical) masters, which included a process of extracting rules from them to follow? Or should one observe nature directly and try to depict it as one could? The dichotomy between the conventionalized indoors approach of the academic style and that of the impressionists who took their easels out into the parks and meadows is one case of this.

The deep questions here are whether beauty in principle is a matter of following rules to perfection, or whether it's something totally different, with rules there for training in technique at early stages. Likewise was debated whether truth is something to any extent found in the phenomenal world that can be experienced by the senses first hand, or whether it is noumenal and transcendent, to be approached mainly by reason. In which case rules look like a good means to create art that reflects the truth.
posted by bertran at 2:28 PM on January 9


Oh, also: the concepts of mediocristan and extremistan as expounded by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Black Swan might be useful for the male fashion vs female fashion question.

He's interested in dividing the world into those realms where predictability and convention reign, and those where randomness and the unexpected create the significant action.
posted by bertran at 2:37 PM on January 9


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