Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Form and Content

On March 15, 2012, Peter Leithart tweeted “Playing off form against content is like scraping the ink from the page to get at the meaning beneath the words.”[1] Exactly so, yet this error seems characteristic of contemporary evangelicalism.

Here is one recent example. In the March 2012 issue of Credo magazine, hip-hop artist Shai Linne was asked, “In the past you have been criticized for redeeming such a ‘depraved genre’ as hip-hop. What is your response to this criticism?” Linne’s answer showed confusion on a number of levels, but for our purposes I want to point out that Linne invoked the belief that form and content have no necessary or meaningful connection. This is his answer in full:

To those who say, “How can you take that thing that is used for evil and glorify God with it?” My two word answer is “The Cross.”

But my response to that particular criticism is usually to simply re-phrase the objection. I would say something like, “Are you saying that you have a problem with me taking a medium that has been used to blaspheme God and using it instead as a medium to praise and exalt God’s holy name, proclaim His glorious gospel, speak biblical truth and magnify the infinite worth of the Lord Jesus Christ?” Arguments against “depraved genres” are ultimately arguments against redemption itself, because depraved genres are the products of depraved human beings, who need redemption. (In fact, “depraved genre” is a misnomer because it’s ascribing moral value to a medium, which by definition is morally neutral until informed by content.) Once God has redeemed a person, it’s fitting for the Christian to take the “genres” or vehicles (such as books, cameras, canvasses, the internet, language, musical forms, etc.) that he or she once used for evil and now use them to promote the glory of God. Those who make the objection (especially as they use the internet to do so) are often unaware that they themselves use “depraved genres” all the time.[2]

I contend that it is this kind of reasoning which has landed us squarely in the relativist bog. Meaning cannot be known apart from form, and the form is part of the meaning

Many are the evangelicals today who profess their admiration for C. S. Lewis. I hope that many of them consider seriously his thoughts in The Abolition of Man

[2] “10 Questions,” Credo Vol 2.2 (March 2012), 9.

1 comment:

Marshall said...

When one assumes all style to be merely so called “individual preference,” good art becomes almost impossible. In order to create great art, the artist must be acutely aware of how his form is affecting (enforcing, undercutting) the message he wishes to communicate. If the artist refuses to acknowledge the connection between the form and the content, then failure to achieve true art is inevitable. It has been my experience (in reading the works of artists about their work) that very few serious artists (I cannot think of any) fail to see the connection between the form of their work and the meaning they are seeking to communicate.
Good art happens when the artist blends a clear message harmoniously using both form and content. Good art does not communicate conflicting ideas that leave the reader or listener unsure of what is being communicated, but rather communicates a clear meaning (even if that message is that there is no meaning).
John Cage, the composer, uses form to communicate in his often mocked composition, 4’33”. This composition makes an artistic statement by having the pianist (or orchestra, or performing ensemble) sit silently for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The content of the work is silence (or in the interpretation of some, the atmosphere and sounds around each audience member). The form which Cage uses is that of complete silence — quite the opposite from what a typical concert-goer would expect to hear from the performer whose job is typically to create sound. Cage reverses this notion by having the performer create nothing but atmosphere. Cage’s work fascinates because, by its form, it challenges the roles of composer, performer, and audience. His work preaches the striking and original notion that every audience member should experience music differently and create from it what they wish.
James Joyce was one of the modern masters of the English novel. As an Irishman, he wrote in a style that has been called “stream of consciousness” wherein the reader is privy to the thoughts of the character — no matter how disjointed or difficult they were to follow. The novel generally considered Joyce’s greatest work, Ulysses, provides an explicit example of a work that uses its form to communicate meaning. Though it is possible to read Ulysses without an understanding Joyce’s schematic (or structure), understanding his structure enhances and provides meaning to the purpose of the novel. In Ulysses, Joyce paralleled the Homeric epic The Odyssey with each chapter following his common-man characters in Dublin reflecting a scene in Homer’s work. The message of this structure and form was unmistakable — the modern, common man was the new Homeric Hero and his life (no matter how dull) was the modern epic.
Because poets consciously direct the form of their work with more care possibly than any other art form, poetry contains striking examples of how form can affect the meaning a work’s content. Because all art is connected—these kind of applications apply across artistic boundaries, including painting, music, or the stage.