Quietism, the ‘vacancy’ of Formal Art

Ad Reinhardt Abstract painting
          6.42    And so it is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics.

          Propositions can express nothing that is higher.         

          6.421  It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.

          Ethics is transcendental.

          (Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)

         Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Wittgenstein argues in this seminal early text that “Ethik und Ästhetik sind Eins”.  The statement has an unequivocal ring about it.  It’s the outcome of a flat denial that language can claim to speak of the ineffable, since that would be a pretension, a raid on conjecture that can have no application where words – which are “pictures of facts” – are concerned.  It is thus that the Tractatus effectively shuts the door on metaphysical discourse as a viable branch of philosophy.

Later texts by Wittgenstein may have sought to push that door ever so slightly ajar again and to water down an insistence which science has subsequently taken for granted.  It is worth remembering, however, that Bertrand Russell considered the Tractatus the only book written by Wittgenstein that had any relevance to the development of philosophy.  For Wittgenstein recanted, so far as Russell was concerned.  He bowed to pressure from the respectable Viennese establishment, who were bent on maintaining the status quo with god-fearing wives and clergymen of a philosophical turn-of-mind.  Logical positivism was all very well for the British, but in Austria religious matters had to be allowed into at least the pen-umbra of modern enlightenment.  So Wittgenstein modified the views hammered out on the anvil of his youthful mind, just as Sigmund Freud had felt obliged to retract ‘the seduction theory’, under similar pressure from the city fathers.  Wittgenstein’s subsequent note-books are worth picking over if you wish to indulge in romantically aphoristic nonfinito.  Still, in my opinion, they dilute the essential theory of the Tractatus and allow conjecture to seep back into the cranium of the “handmaid of science” – the epithet the author originally chose for ‘Philosophy’, were she to be emancipated from metaphysics.  Thereafter, by allowing this “bleed” back towards conjecture, as the later notebooks make permissible, it was once again feasible to assert that ‘meaning’ mattered more than form.

But, if ethics and aesthetics are indeed one and the same, as the Tractatus maintains, what does this imply?  Does it mean that both concepts have become redundant, given that both may now seem flawed by the meanings which accrued to them before their synonymy was established?  Since their equation, form is not quite form, as in form alone; and meaning not quite meaning anymore, in so far as we suppose meaning only to concern some ethical issue.  Instead of either, we now have some other stuff compounded by the fusion of both. 

What are these older meanings?  The O.E.D. defines form first as “the visible aspect of a thing”, then as “an image, likeness or representation of a thing,” (we can say we saw his form moving through the mist).  And, apparently, in philosophy, form has come to mean “the essential determinant principle of a thing, that which makes anything a determinate species or kind of being.”  An aesthetic definition of form is the essential creative quality of a thing, or “the particular mode in which a thing exists or manifests itself.”  For artists, this ‘particular mode’ is a key notion:  it suggests that form can mean medium.

Ethics, on the other hand, is a term which relates to morals.  Ethics can be the science of morals, “the science of human duty in its widest extent”.  Thus ethics concern content – they are, or used to be the message:  that principle of duty or responsibility which one may be trying to put across.  It should be noted, though, that the O.E.D. defines content in a rather different way, essentially as “that which is contained: the tenor or purport (or meaning) of a document” – in the last sense therefore the message.  But since content initially means the substance or matter contained, what we are saying etymologically, when we say that we are ‘contented’, is that we are full – ‘contentedness’ concerns our satisfaction, in the sense that a good dinner fills us up.  However, in Freud’s homeostatic theory of the Pleasure Principle, we may be contented when we have relieved ourselves, thus disburdening ourselves of a pressure that was disturbing our equilibrium – in which sense our contentment would relate to our emptying ourselves.

Leaving the last notion aside, for now, we can hear Marshall McLuhan reinterpreting this statement from the Tractatus as “the medium is the message”, for it is clear that, at the level of their primary definitions, form and content have the relationship that a jug has to the water it contains.  However, the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus is saying something like ‘the jug is the water that it carries.’

If we take his insight to heart, we must make tangible the notion that the terms form and content are a unity. This strikes resonances with the mind-and-body debate.  For surely mind is body, and these two terms should never have been split?  Yet with both diodes, form/content, body/mind, their discovered unity must fundamentally alter our notion of the terms – in that we may no longer oppose them, in that we must find a way of working with an imaginary word, in each case, which represents their fusion, their coming together.

Of course many artists still purport to have a message, and they remain keen to find a form through which to get their message across.  For them, form occupies a subservient position to content.  Content is the master; form the mere vessel carrying content blithely along.  In mischievous mode, I may suggest that there is a feminist aspect to this.  Those who have the feeling that their views have been gagged for millennia may feel an urgency to communicate.  On the (supposedly) male side, however, it might be argued that those biologically deprived of wombs may simply wish to bring something into the world.  Frank Auerbach, for instance, speaks of ‘bringing something new to life’.  Here the imaginary womb of form is predominant, indifferent to the import of its progeny. You could say that form is humanity: content a mere product.  In the case of the political artist, on the other hand, or of the politicised feminist artist, content is invested with all the humanity, while form is an inanimate object, no more than a method of transport.

However, it is my purpose here to breathe more life into the notion of form, since it would appear relatively easy to bring home the humanity we expect from content.  Form remains the figure moving through mist, and I will try to dispel some of that term’s ethereal moisture.  One of the clearest exponents of its meaning is the German critic and playwright, Gotthold Lessing, who wrote his little book, Laocoön, or the Limits of Painting and Poetry in 1766.  Lessing was trying to establish which came first, a passage in Virgil’s Aeniad, describing the death of the Trojan priest, Laocoön, and his sons, in the coils of serpents raised by Neptune – or the Hellenic statue showing this event in marble:  in other words, was the statue inspired by the poem or vice versa?  During this academic enterprise, Lessing discerned a need to define the difference between poetry and visual art.  Of Homer’s description of an archer in the Iliad, which he termed a “poetical picture”, he wrote:

“From the seizing of the bow to the very flight of the arrow every moment is depicted, and all these moments are kept so closely together, and yet so distinctly separate, that if we did not know how a bow was to be managed we might be able to learn it from this picture alone.  Pandarus draws forth his bow, fixes the bowstring, opens his quiver, chooses a yet unused, well-feathered shaft, sets the arrow on the string, draws back both string and arrow to the notch, the string is brought near to his breast and the iron head of the arrow to the bow; back flies the great bent bow with a twang, the bow-string whirrs, off springs the arrow flying eager for its mark.”

(Gotthold Lessing, Laocoön, page 54)

But it’s misleading to call this ‘a picture’.  Better to call it ‘a telling’ – for Homer is not showing us, in two or three dimensional space, how an archer shoots; instead he is telling us how it is done.  Were we listening to his voice, and given we understood it, the telling would be entering us invisibly, through our ears, but rhythmically also, and spoken in time – just as the action described happens in time; in a sequence unfolding in the poet’s mind.  ‘Sequence’ is the operative word, for the archer is engaged in a series of actions, actions which succeed each other, “step by step in succession of time”.  How different this would be if it were a genuine picture, for if it were, it would resemble one of those photographic sequences by Edward Muybridge – a visible yet arrested set of actions, the different parts only occurring side by side in space. 

Form considered as medium takes on significance when we realise that poetry deals most effectively with actions happening step by step in time, whereas painting deals most effectively with bodies occurring side by side in space.  Lessing goes on to elaborate this point, and in so doing provides us with an essay in the formal analysis of the difference between media.  And while the sculpture of the strangled priest and his sons can show us how the coils wound massively around the bodies of their victims, it cannot show us how this has come about nor that the other two victims are his sons – for these are facts and relationships which require telling rather than figuration.

Any shift from one medium to another will involve a change of characteristics.  Say you have created some pencil drawings employing the strategy of never removing the pencil’s point from the surface; then you try to make paintings based on these drawings.  However, a pencil is not a brush.  Until it goes blunt, the pencil will give you a continuous line, which speaks of its analogue nature, in the sense that it can leave an unbroken trace all the way up your forearm and around your hand.  Brush marks, on the other hand, come with a limited load.  The mark you make is punctuated by interruptions every time you break off, of necessity, in order to reload your brush.  It is only by contrivance that an image generated by a continuous mark can be translated into an image created by a number of parcelled loads.  A paint-stick might be the answer.

This is an example of formalism at work.  And, yes, it weights the opposition of form and content in favour of form – by turning to the foundations of making, to art’s first principles, and endeavouring to define the essential characteristics of the media concerned in any operation.  It then may ask, What sort of content can this medium deal with most effectively?  Wittgenstein raised this question himself when he turned his hand to architecture.  Designed in accordance with the modernist principles of Adolf Loos, for whom all decoration was a ‘crime’ because extrinsic to the essential structural function of a building, the house Wittgenstein designed in Vienna in 1928 is significant for its lack of embellishment.  Flat-roofed, composed of right-angles, with  tubular steel railings, the house was conceived as a ‘laboratory for living’.  Living is therefore the ‘content’ of the ‘form’, house.  Nothing extrinsic to the service of this content is allowed.  For its designer, the living is the house, and, for the modernist of the nineteen-twenties, this entails Spartan simplicity: shadeless light-bulbs, unpainted corner-fitted radiators and latches engineered specifically to serve their purpose.  The house was perfectly suited to the austere life-style of Wittgenstein’s sister Gretl, for whom it was built, and therefore the medium is the most effective one for dealing with its content, or so it seemed at the time.


But the question – What content can the medium deal with most effectively? – is not a one asked exclusively in the modern age or only since the Enlightenment.  Well before Lessing, Piero della Francesca had understood how appropriate painting was for dealing with space.  In the Brera Madonna, an egg hovers above the head of the Virgin, but at a distance behind her, since it hangs down from the apex of a shell in the half-dome at her back, which makes up a niche. 

Madonna and Child with Saints4

Not only does the egg signify that this birth is the beginning of a new story – as the Latin tag ab ovo signifies, not only does its unbrokenness strike a chord with the intactness of a virgin birth:  quite palpably, it locates the painter’s subject in space, pushing her forward, and making that space above her and behind her as present as the lady herself.

Brera Madonna 1Fig-8

Painting deals with matters perceived in space, poetry deals with matters unfolding in time; though of course it’s possible to posit a more paradoxical state-of-affairs – painting dealing with matters of time as perceived in space, for instance, or poetry dealing with space as affected by time.   Essentially, however, each art contends with problems appropriate to its nature, and thus each medium gathers to itself a repertoire of formal characteristics.  The quest to identify these in music finds its paradigm in the work of Johan Sebastian Bach.  But if Lessing has helped us to differentiate between poetry and painting by seeking to define their capabilities, we now need to differentiate between poetry and music by taking our definition of poetry a stage further, for this may help us to grasp the nature of that formal endeavour which lay behind the construction of Bach’s favourite musical structure, the fugue.

While the Korean language uses semi-tones for semantic purposes in speech, European languages do not.  Each European language is a one-note samba:  rhythm is the main component, though  there may be a certain quantitive variety to the length of our syllables – moon sounding longer than tick.  A European language has qualities which are half-melodic, allowing for syllable colour, rhythmic variation and consonant variety, but without the fully melodic properties of music.  On the other hand, a word has two sides – its signifier and its signified – the former, to put it very simply, being the object that the word comprises in itself and the latter being the object to which that word refers.  The many meanings generated by metaphor and by ambiguity will vary the nature of the signified, just as variations in spelling will have altered the signifier over time.  But language is encoded, even when not written down, in a way which differs from music.  For while the notes written down on the stave may refer to a specific sound, the sound of the note itself has no object signified specifically by its being called forth, in the way that a word has when enunciated.  There are exceptions to this definition – the cuckoo’s call, the sound of the hunting-horn – but essentially a string of notes is not a statement in code.  Instead the notes celebrate qualities of tone, length and rhythm for their own sake, and we read the structure of a melody by registering the relation of the notes in it to each other not by translating them into referential meanings.

And whereas language is predominantly linear, even when spoken in chorus, and even when an abstract purpose is avowed, music is more often multi-linear, concerned with the resonances of chords as much as with the contiguities of melody.  Indeed we can speak of vertical and horizontal music.  Melody may be considered as horizontal, and we can follow it, in time, just as the eye can travel along the line of the horizon in space.  The harmonies, the chords struck along the way, may be considered as vertical music, since these chords occur when simultaneous agreements are generated with notes above or below that in the melody.  Now although language occurs ‘one word at a time’, these concepts of horizontality and verticality ‘strike a chord’ with Roman Jakobson’s analysis of what he conceives of as the two poles of language, a notion put forward in 1956.

Jakobson suggests that there are two methods of ontological or linguistic arrangement: metaphor and metonymy.  Metaphor is vertical:  it selects through the relation of similarity, being defined as a likeness between dissimilar things (a phrase which could define a chord).  Metonymy, though, is horizontal:  it defines words through the relation of contiguity, i.e. it puts words next to each other, lines them up – as a melody lines up its notes.  These may be the two most fundamental linguistic operations.  The French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, has sought to relate Jacobson’s theory to Freud’s notion of the workings of the brain revolving around poles of condensation (several meanings accruing to one object) and of displacement (one object being substituted for another, or pushed out of the way by another).  It is music which can demonstrate such structures so that they become tangible to us through the particular medium of sound.

Counterpoint is a technique involving the simultaneous sounding of two or more parts or melodies.  It’s a technique best exemplified by the fugue, and the adjective derived from it is contrapuntal.  J. S. Bach was one of the early exponents of the fugue, and perhaps the most celebrated exponent of a form which plays with these notions of horizontality and verticality and develops a paradox about their natures.  Beyond one prerequisite, there is no set form for a fugue, which may be thought of as a texture rather than a structure.  But while the passion which informs Bach’s compositions shows his fugues to be more than mere exercises in contrapuntal writing, nevertheless the passion resides in the structuring of the music.  Tradition articulates some general rules about that structure.  In simple terms, a fugue may be thought of as an elaboration of a cannon:  that is, a song or melody which is overlapped by the same song or melody starting a little later – like runners started at different times who will run the same course.  A third or a fourth repetition of the melody may also be started before the first version reaches its conclusion, and any of these repetitions may be sung or played at a pitch higher or lower than that of the original.  Modifications and counter-melodies develop, but in essence it is the notes of the same tune (the horizontal sequence) started at different times which coincide to form the chords of the vertical coincidences binding these separate yet identical threads together.   Thus a note occurring in the horizontal progression of one strand becomes part of a chord occurring in vertical relation to a note occurring in another strand.  All the notes are therefore in both a horizontal and a vertical relation to each other.

A similar dualism affects the metaphorical and metonymical relationships of language and the condensations and displacements of the psyche.  Anthropologists have shown that the narrative thread of a myth or popular story can reveal ‘chords’ similar to those of a fugue, chords generated by the single strand of the tale when its central incidents are folded back on themselves:  repetitions become evident, and meaningful reversals – suggesting a contrapuntal element in the social mediation which informs myth-making, story-telling and plot construction.  The dynamic of a narrative is thus supplied by the twists in it, though the twists are a formal element.  For all that, in most literary works, the words happen one at a time, though rhyme and repetition may cause many of these words to resonate with our memory of others, whereas, in music, the harmony can happen simultaneously.

Perhaps Bach’s manipulation of horizontal and vertical structure was his way of getting across his notion of divinity, and perhaps that sense of the divine mattered more to him than composition for its own sake.  It is more likely though that he conceived of composition as divine, and here we are once more in a situation where ethics and aesthetics are one and the same, where the jug is the water it contains.

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This posits jug and water as a unity.  Jug and water are one.  When defining tragedy, Aristotle identified three unities: unity of time, unity of space, unity of action.  The action had to unfold at a single time, though within that time, characters might relate what had happened at a time prior to that action, and the action had to occur in a single location – in the Greek camp outside Troy, for instance, or in the town of Thebes, but it couldn’t move from one location to another.  The action itself had to concern one related chain of events, and the theme of this had to be sublimely dreadful, in order for it to be worthy of a truly purgative catharsis.  The conjunction of these three unities brought about that intensification which is the hallmark of a fine Greek tragedy.

When assessed in Aristotle’s terms, the plays of William Shakespeare are revealed as displaying a tendency towards mannerism rather than adhering to the unities of classical drama.  They were after all written in the mannerist era, when antique theory was being called into question.  Their action often occurs at a variety of times, as in Macbeth, for instance;  the scene changes to a diversity of locales, as in Hamlet; and they abound in subplots, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Where the classical strictures of antiquity encouraged speech that was strictly concerned with its subject and pared down to the action – a fine example of this being Philoctetes by Sophocles – another mannerist tendency in Shakespeare is the love of embellishment, for he favours elaborate figures of speech in his nicely balanced exchanges, and employs a fair amount of ornament in his grand addresses and soliloquies.

Mannerism merits some attention here, for it seems to share certain traits with formalism while possessing others which clearly distinguish it from formalism.  The harmonious classicism  that formalism resembles – exemplified by the proportions of Greek temples – was what the mannerists felt qualified to question.  While purporting to respect the past, they valued variety over the unities of antiquity.  They also had an aversion to heavy subject-matter, for while their pyro-technicians delighted in creating extravagant hells, these were designed to amuse by their ingenuity rather than move their audience to repentance.  The pastoral intrigues enacted on the mannerist stage were the soaps of their time, and were derived from comedies, satyr plays and pretty Greek stories – such as Daphnis and Chloe – rather than from the great tragedies of the past.

Where Shakespeare differs from mannerist practice is in his subject matter – which is far too powerful for any dyed-in-the-wool mannerist or for a mannerist audience – which would have been exclusively courtly, and rather too caught up with the refinement of manners.  However, that doesn’t make him a classicist either, for classicism taught that the “suspension of disbelief” – to use Coleridge’s much later phrase – was better served by reported violence than by tomato ketchup spilt on the stage: it was indeed another dictum of Aristotle’s that the violent action, the tragic outcome of the play, should occur offstage.  Thus the great tragedians – Aesculus and Sophocles – dealt with the most ghastly horrors in a comparatively restrained way.   Shakespeare follows the ‘off-stage violence’ rule in Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth makes an exit to murder King Duncan – but he then follows the murder with some mannerist comic relief from the porter, and in other plays it is clear that he valued sensation too much to abide, at all times, by this classical piece of advice: for instance, he has the eyes of the earl of Gloucester squeezed out on stage in King Lear (in 1606), thus kicking off a sensationalist tendency that has subsequently become the rule for Hollywood blockbusters.  The mannerists of the sixteenth century generally did away with horrors altogether and created pastoral dramas divorced from the serious tensions of reality.  Mannerist writers preferred the daintily crafted sonnets of Petrarch (1304-74) to the more direct verse of Dante (1265-1321).  Mannerism is the stylish style and will countenance nothing so gross as the brutality of Cornwall’s violent attack on Gloucester.  One is not meant to be affected by a mannerist pastoral or by a mannerist poem: one is meant to be amused by it.

In literature, during the Renaissance, Sir Philip Sidney was furthering the cause of mannerism when he chose a pastoral landscape for his major work, and identified the principle entity of prose writing as the sentence.  Sidney was improving on the precedent set by John Lyly’s Euphues, published some ten years earlier, which utilised every device of rhetoric, in particular antithesis, which is pursued with a dandyish disregard for sense – the book gave rise to the term ‘Euphuism’, that is, an ornately florid style of writing bordering on abstraction.  Edmund Spenser’s The Faery Queen, published in 1589, was another influence on Sidney.  In The Duchesse of Pembroke’s Arcadia, published in 1590, Sydney demonstrated that finely constructed sentences contained a power of  appropriateness – the right word next to another – that was particular to prose.  Here Zelmane, an heroic knight disguised as an Amazon, is enabled, through this feminine disguise, to look on while his beloved Philoclea undresses and takes a bath in the river Ladon, aided by her dumpish servants Miso and Mopsa.  The knight is always referred to as ‘she’:

Zelmane would have put to her helping hand, but she was taken with such a quivering, that she thought it more wisedome to leane her selfe to a tree and looke on, while Miso and Mopsa (like a couple of foreswat melters)  were getting the pure silver of their bodies out of the ure of their garments.  But as the rayments went of to receave kisses of the ground, Zelmane envied the happiness of all, but of the smocke was even jealous, and when that was taken away too, and that Philoclea remained (for her Zelmane only marked) like a Dyamond taken from out the rocke, or rather like the Sun getting from under a cloud, and shewing his naked beames to the full vew, then was the beautie too much for a patient sight, the delight too strong for a stayed conceipt: so that Zelmane could not choose but runne, to touch, embrace, and kisse her; But conscience made her come to her selfe, & leave Philoclea, who blushing, and withall smiling, making shamefastnesse pleasant, and pleasure shamefast, tenderly moved her feete, unwonted to feele the naked ground, till the touch of the cold water made a prettie kinde of shrugging come over her bodie, like the twinkling of the fairest among the fixed stars.  But the River it selfe gave way unto her, so that she was streight brest high; which was the deepest that there-about she could be: and once cold Ladon had once fully imbraced them, himselfe was no more so cold to those Ladies, but as if his cold complexion had bene heated with love, so seemed he to play about every part he could touch.

(Arcadia, Lib 2. Chap. 11)

A trite enough matter, this voyeur in travesty getting his eye-full by the river’s bank, yet an agreement binds these sentences together into a paragraph which echoes the sequence of events in much the same way as Homer follows Pandarus as he draws back his bow.  In addition, the high rhetoric of the passage causes agreements between inanimate objects which correspond to the human action, thus creating, through the medium of language, an imaginary world where the river is enamoured of its bathers and even their garments receive “kisses of the ground”.

These elegant, even ornate, sentences are the result of Sidney concentrating on what was appropriate to his form.  However, content here is reduced to a trite nothingness.  The nothingness in itself could still render the Arcadia eligible as a formalist work, however the contrivance of this pastoral world makes it a mannerist realm, invented for the sake of its sentences – and thus artificial, to my mind, rather than formal – for as Cervantes points out in his Dialogue between Two Dogs, authentic shepherds pass the greater part of the day in hunting up their fleas or mending their brogues:

…and none of them are named Amarillis, Filida, Galatea, or Diana; nor are there any Lisardos, Lausos, Jacintos, or Riselos; but all are Antones, Domingos, Pablos, or Llorentes.  This leads me to conclude that all these books about pastoral life are only fictions ingeniously written for the amusement of the idle, and that there is not a word of truth in them… 

(Exemplary Tales, 1613)

“Some stories are pleasing in themselves,” says one of these dogs of Cervantes, “and others from the manner in which they are told.”  Classical formalism mediates between these two positions, finding an ideal balance between truth and the way of telling it. In seventeenth century Holland, formal art flourished with the development of trompe l’oeil, which delighted in letter-rack paintings and still-lives, showing the humblest of fruit and vegetables – where the quality of the painting itself, the “way of doing it” is the primary issue, the content, if you like, as in the “humble” masterpieces of Adriaen Coorte.

opnamedatum: 2005-11-17

This tradition persists down to the time of Cezanne and then on. But in emphasising the manner of its execution, letter-rack and still life can seem overly concerned with their own genre, and sometimes unrepentantly mannerist. Art informed mainly by sincerity, that boots out porcelain pastorals, elegant arrangements of difficult-to-paint objects and contrived letter-racks – to replace them with down-to-earth peasantry, factory chimneys, brutal portrayals of poverty and how life is may be called ‘realism’.  Cervantes was a realist of the fifteenth century, mocking the nostalgia for courtliness and chivalry, and so indeed was Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, back in the fourteenth.  However, Realism emerged as a considered historical style in the eighteenth century and persisted though the nineteenth century. Its champions include Zola and Courbet, and at first sight it can appear to be the style-less style – diametrically opposed to mannerism – and characterized by a transparency which simply aspires to be the mirror of visual reality – although in historical terms, Realism comes imbued with a commitment to a scientific approach, and a sense of history, and it aspires to convey the ordinary lives of ordinary folk with a breadth of subject matter that studiously precludes the more limited genres of still-life, letter-rack and landscape.  Ironically, it was Realism with its emphasis on authenticity that ushered in Impressionism – ‘how things really struck the eye’ – which in turn led to cubism (via Cezanne) and, ultimately, to the emphasis placed by abstract painters on the material reality of the painted surface, just as abstract writers like Gertrude Stein stressed the material reality of the words on the page.  To sum up this digression:  realism with a small ‘r’ might be thought of as one of the banks of the river of formalism, with mannerism ranged on the opposite shore.

With committed art and trenchant realism, the balance between matter and manner can be shifted to far in favour of matter to be properly formal, but then artificiality of subject can push the slider over to such an aesthetic extreme that the work is far too proper, and becomes mannered rather than a fusion of form with content.  Formalism is poised between artiness and artlessness.  And very often the authentic subject of the formal work resides in a real-enough world, whether that reality be that of some apples spilt from a basket, as in the paintings of Cezanne, or the ennui of life far from Moscow, as in the plays of Chekhov. In public estimation, though, what does happen, when an author or an artist devotes his attention to the power of his medium, is that the content appears to grow correspondingly innocuous:  harmless, not hurtful or injurious – quiet, if you like – undramatic.  This may lead the spectator to scratch his head.  We all know that art can provoke scandal by serving up the scandalous: De Sade, the ‘divine Marquis’ constructing some novelistic Versailles of debauchery, Nijinsky seemingly masturbating on the scarf at the first performance of L’après midi d’un Faune or Duchamp exhibiting his urinal at the Armoury show.  But it may be that just as these bold arts of subversion and sabotage horrify innocuous people who simply want to get on with their harmless lives, so innocuous formal art scandalises bespattered saboteurs eager to witness great annoyances!  In point of fact, it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Carl André’s innocuous, but very formal, arrangements of bricks appear to have annoyed a fair number of respectably innocuous persons.  Very quiet art provokes just as much annoyance as very loud art.

In philosophical terms, quietness or emptiness in art has often seemed a matter not of vacancy but of depth.  When content, especially dramatic or figurative content, is removed, one is not left with nothing, nor is one left with nothing when the ‘human element’ is of minimal significance.  Rather one is left with an abyss.  The abyss which emerges out of figurative subtraction has sublime consequences which have had an effect on the history of abstract art.  Kant perceived that the imagination could experience release by the removal of the limitations imposed by figuration.  He saw abstraction as a ‘presentation of the infinite’ – (see Grandeur).  This notion informs the work of abstract artists from Malevich to Rothko, most of whom are formalists, though Rothko’s work has grandeur in it too.  The emancipation from figurative (or, in literature, narrative) constraint releases an intense enthusiasm which might have become fanatical or obsessive had it been prompted by some specific religious belief or fetishistic image.  In abstract guise however, it’s an enthusiasm which generates what may amount to a marriage of beauty and sublimity – harmonious form wedded to ineffable content.  However it is a union often brought about not by an advocation of the sublime, as with Kandinsky, for instance, but rather by a species of objectivity.  Here the artist follows Wittgenstein’s lead and eschews the metaphysics of Kant, Schlegel and the Romantics.  With pragmatic objectivity, Ad Reinhardt sees abstract modernism as a chance to emancipate the arts from each other, not as an excuse to produce the all-embracing organon.  This advocation of separatism is opposed to Aristotle’s dictum that all the arts aspire to the condition of theatre.  As we have noted, quietism is undramatic.  In visual art, it represents a down-to-earth concentration, a formal concentration, on the concrete properties of paint, line and shape, well exemplified by the work of Kenneth Martin.

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But this is leaping ahead, before we progress too far in the art of painting, let us first go deeper into the innocuous tendency as it has affected poetry.  Quietism precedes formalism in the development of this medium, but there has always been a formal side to poetry in all literatures – indeed the rise of the ‘prose-poem’ in nineteenth century France was the result of an urge to emancipate poetic writing from metrical strictures which had become increasingly formulaic since the days of the Pléiade: that circle of poets in the sixteenth century whose verse reflected their veneration for the metres of antiquity.  Within antiquity itself, the pastoral lyrics of the Greeks, the Georgics of Virgil – with their measured descriptions of agricultural practices – constitute precursors in Europe, while the poetry of Li Po and Tu Fu indicates the strong vein of quietism which has always characterised Chinese poetry.  

Quietism has its roots in the idyllic pastorals of the Greek poet Theocritus, writing in the third century BC, and, later, in the Georgics of Virgil, which deal with agricultural subject-matter – stock raising and bee keeping – it’s a versified manual of husbandry: the inspiration for the peculiar Books of Good Husbandry (a translation from someone called Heresbachius) made in the 16th century by Barnabe Googe.  For me, the first person to write consciously quiet but intensely absorbing poetry in the West, was Statius, a professional poet of Greek extraction, who flourished in Rome between 48 and 96 AD.  His thirty-two Silvae were admired by Dante and Petrarch:  they constitute the best classical example of ‘occasional verse’ – that is, verse written for a patron or commissioned for an occasion such as a wedding (an ‘epithalamium’) or a death (an ‘epicedion’).  He also wrote poems on such humdrum subjects as country houses and private swimming pools – poems which are so meticulously descriptive that they are still referred to by architectural historians.  Ostensibly, he improvised these verses, when moved to pronounce them at a banquet given by a patron, and though this suggests a certain loose expressionism, this is never the case.  The emotions are expressed with tasteful dignity, and the poems actually obey exacting rules of metre, and of prefatory and concluding rhetoric, while the blandness of his subject-matter enables the reader to concentrate on the precision of his language and the aptness of each phrase.  But it needs to be reiterated that Statius is consciously quiet.  He is well aware how stylish he is.  Sometimes the syntax becomes almost willfully elaborate, and a poem may revel in mythical reference, piling these references on in a mannerist way that takes Statius beyond the standard classicism that had ensued in Rome after the death of Virgil.  So Statius is a ‘silver’ poet – rather than a poet of the ‘golden’ age, and this disqualifies him as a pure formalist.  Mannerism might be defined as an exaggerated deference to form; structure affected by caprice!

The poetry of Statius was nevertheless an influence on the first quietist in British poetry, William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649), a Scot who was a friend of Ben Jonson.  It is high time that his poetry was re-evaluated, since in many ways it is revolutionary, considering the date when it was written; the sentiments expressed seeming closer to those of Keats, who was influenced by him, than to the metaphysical struggles of John Donne.  Drummond’s sonnet on sleep is very nearly a translation of a poem on the same subject by Statius:

    Sleep, Silence’ child, sweet father of soft rest,

Prince, whose approach peace to all mortals brings,

Indifferent host to shepherds and to kings,

Sole comforter of minds with grief opprest;

Lo, by thy charming rod all breathing things

Lie slumb’ring, with forgetfulness possest,

And yet o’er me to spread thy drowsy wings

Thou spares, alas!  who cannot be thy guest.

Since I am thine, O come, but with that face

To inward light which thou art wont to show,

With feigned solace ease a true-felt woe;

Or if, deaf god, thou do deny that grace,

Come as thou wilt, and what thou wilt bequeath,

I long to kiss the image of my death.

Note how the rhymes of the first quatrain are carried over into the second quatrain, emphasizing the musicality of the form.

Quietism continues as a largely unacknowledged stream in English poetry, but it gives us The Seasons, a long descriptive poem in four parts by James Thomson, inspired by the ‘immortal honey’ of Virgil’s Georgics.  The first collected edition of The Seasons was in 1730, so it was published right in the middle of the Augustan Age, whose baroque grandeurs, satires and philosophical tours de force, were not to Thomson’s taste.   His matter is simply the changes annually affecting the landscape, and these changes are conveyed with an unsurpassed attention to detail wonderfully sculpted into the requirements of his metre.  This is not to say that grandeur cannot be found in The Seasons, but it is natural and unaffected – the description of a wintry storm – or the all-embracing scope of the project itself.  The editor to the Oxford University Press edition of his works tells us that Thomson “cherished a passion for correcting and improving.  As long as he lived, and had the leisure (he never wanted the inclination), he was revising and altering.  He added and he modified, withdrew and restored, condensed and expanded, substituted and inverted, distributed and transferred.” 

Just such an urge to improve the work – engaging in it with the ardour of fetishism – distinguishes the practice of others working in a similar vein.  Take the French ‘rule-omaniac’ Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), whose poem called La Vue – published in 1904 to complete critical indifference – is reminiscent of The Seasons.  Roussel felt obliged to abandon several other poetic projects, ultimately; because the task of polishing the verse would have taken up several lifetimes.  Roussel’s concept of literary beauty was that the work should “contain nothing real, no observations on the world or the mind, nothing but completely imaginary combinations: these are already the ideas of an extra-human world.” The quote is from Dr. Pierre Janet’s observations of the author, pp. 175-183: The Psychological Characteristics of Ecstasy, in his book, De L’Angoisse a l’Exstase.  Perhaps this vaunted artificiality of subject matter should  disqualify Roussel.  Admittedly, in his elaborately contrived novels, his tendency is more mannerist than formalist.  Nevertheless, La Vue contains concise descriptions of an everyday scene on a real-enough beach.  The quite innocuous subject-matter is represented as a frozen moment caught in a tiny photograph mounted on a pen-holder that you can only see if you bend so close that the eye-lash brushes the surface of the photograph itself.  A boy is about to throw a stick for a dog and the dog is leaping up at him.  Roussel then goes on to describe every person and thing on the beach, returning, hundreds of lines later, to the boy, still in the act of throwing the stick.   His concern seems purely formal and his scansion is meticulous, but one might argue that his form is being put to an inappropriate use, since what we have here is really ‘a picture within a poem’.

Quietism informs the work of William Wordsworth, in the Romantic Era, and indeed amounts to a philosophy of stoicism and resolute inactivity – although his verse can also achieve a transcendental grandeur.  But in general quietism deals with the humdrum and the ordinary rather than with great romantic visions or subjective aspirations for the Absolute.  It makes objectivity its summum bonum, and humbly reiterates its small, downbeat mercies.  Thus it provides us with a masterpiece in Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough, written in 1849, which deals with the letters of young people as they go flitting about Europe.  This is a poem of yearnings and ennui. Conceived as a series of letters in verse, it conveys little beyond the airy meanderings of conversational observation, which, however, it does with consummate wizardry, for it’s a pleasure to read the extended line the poet employs and to realise how skilfully he fits the epistolatory small talk of his butterfly characters into it.  In formal terms, the poem is devoted to this extended line, and to a need for lightness in its usage, so the lightness in the content is a product of this formal concern.

“Now supposing the French or the Neapolitan soldier

Should by some evil chance come exploring the Maison Serny

(Where the family English are all to assemble for safety),

Am I prepared to lay down my life for the British female?

Really, who knows? One has bowed and talked, till, little by little,

All the natural heat has escaped of the chivalrous spirit.

Oh, one conformed, of course; but one doesn’t die for good manners,

Stab or shoot, or be shot, by way of a graceful attention.

No, if it should be at all, it should be on the barricades there;

Should I incarnadine ever this inky pacifical finger,

Sooner far should it be for this vapour of Italy’s freedom,

Sooner far by the side of the d*d and dirty plebeians.

Ah, for a child in the street I could strike; for the full-blown lady-

Somehow, Eustace, alas! I have not felt the vocation.”

(Arthur Hugh Clough, Poems, p. 189)

In the twentieth century, this wry tendency towards the innocuous operates in the novels of Italo Svevo, Henry Green and Barbara Pym; in the experiments of Stéphane Mallarmé, in France; and in the poetry of William Carlos Williams:



I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox


and which

you were probably


for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

(W. C. Williams, Collected Poems, p 187)

Quietism also comes into operation in certain poems by Laura Riding, and in the work of F.T. Prince and his admirer, John Ashbery.  With each of these authors, the subject matter often seems to be chosen for its lack of significance.  There is no political dimension, no emphatic moral promulgated by their writing.  But it is this very absence of import which allows us to appreciate the smoke-rings of language blown onto the page by Mallarmé, the dry wit of Svevo, the perfectly turned sentences of Green, the poetry within the prose of Pym, the spaced simplicity of Williams, the combinations of vocables in Riding, and the mastery of syntax and rhetoric that we find in the verse of Prince and Ashbery.  In all cases, the politics resides in the structure – form constitutes message.  Here is a poem called Proximity from a collection by Ashbery:

“It was great to see you the other day

at the carnival. My enchiladas were delicious,

and I hope that yours were too.

I wanted to fulfil your dream of me

in some suitable way. Giving away my new gloves,

for instance, or putting a box around all that’s wrong with us.

But these gutta-percha lamps do not whisper on our behalf.

Now sometimes in the evenings, I am lonely

with dread.  A rambunctious wind fills the pine

at my doorstep, the woodbine is enchanted,

and I must he off before the clock strikes

whatever hour it is intent on.

Do not leave me in this wilderness!

Or, if you do, pay me to stay behind.”

(John Ashbery, Wakefulness)

This poem is a masterpiece of mood: its syntax rises and falls.  It begins with words evocative of humour and excitement (carnival, enchiladas), trails into mournfulness and then the word rambunctious enters the poem as a threat in itself, unsettling the poem, which ends with a request as cold as a divorce settlement.  Yet this is all done by the words rather than through them, that is to say that the words do not signify some clear narrative or convey a sense of a specific image.  Formal properties, or the properties of the medium itself (in this case language), become topics for consideration whenever the creative instigator ceases to be concerned with what can be got across through the medium.  Through is the preposition apposite to the obligation to conceive of the medium as transparent, to be looked through, as through a window; the viewer intent on the content revealed.  Instead, the artist or writer concerned with form may focus attention on what the medium can do – in this case on what a word like rambunctious can ‘do’.  Of course the quietude of formalism, its constraint, is not something that can only be achieved through abstraction, and indeed the poem quoted above becomes less abstract the more you read it – and one finds oneself drawn in to its quietly melancholy subject.  

Italo Svevo and Barbara Pym are not in the least abstract:  they are both writers who accept the convention of narrative, just as did Clough.  The poetry of F.T. Prince alludes to specific subject-matter.  The quietist grouping concerns practitioners on both sides of the abstract/figurative or abstract/narrative divide.  What defines the grouping is their willingness to work within formal constraints – to concentrate on a genre, or to engage only in small-talk, or to make syntax their chief concern.

The British poet J. H. Prynne writes with such density of meaning that his poetry may be read as abstraction – and substituting figuration for narrative, much the same could be said of paintings of Auerbach.  In point of fact, Prynne refuses to constrain himself solely to the abstract, and a poem such as One way at any time is clearly narrative though it seems shorn of significance – a scene in a cafe described simply for the exercise of describing the variety of languages converging there – from ‘yokel talk’ to the ‘truly common’ dialect of a lorry’s rumbling to the language of gesture “an urban, movie-style flick of a nod”.  Other poems seem more removed from description, and more preoccupied with the metonymy of the words employed, though “the ghost of a meaning” can usually be detected.  But all of them are distinguished by a certain formal ordering: a taut rhythm structure and in many cases an almost regular verse-form.  Very often these verses lend the poems a closure which seems contradictory to their removal from simple narrative.  Take this passage from Rich in Vitamin C:

Under her brow the snowy wing-case

delivers truly the surprise

of days which slide under sunlight

past loose glass in the door

into the reflection of honour spread

through the incomplete, the trusted. So

darkly the stain skips as a livery

of your pause like an apple pip,

the baltic loved one who sleeps.


Or as syrup in a cloud, down below in

the cup, you excuse each folded

cry of the finch’s wit, this flush

scattered over our slant of the

xxxday rocked in water, you say

xxxxxxthis much….

(J. H. Prynne, Poems, p. 188)

*       *        *        *

But it’s not so common for the formalist novel to engage in abstraction.  The evolution of the novel is very much bound up with the impetus towards realism that informed the work of Cervantes and increased during the enlightenment.  Fielding, Smollett, Austen, Trollope and Dickens are all engaged in negotiating reality.  However, Flaubert is a realist who inclines towards formalism, or vice versa, as is Goncharov.  Very often, when seeking out the subject appropriate to the medium, the novelist who is taken up with questions of form will turn away from adventure, abandon the notion of a stirring tale.  An exciting sequence of actions may detract from the sense of the way sentences are made and paragraphs unfold.  Instead, these novelists select characters notable for their inertia – Gonacharov’s Oblomov, for instance, who seldom gets out of his dressing-gown, or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who suffers terribly from boredom.  Inertia translates as ennui.  Then, again, reality may be defined rather than described, and this gives rise to the philosophical novel, which is much favoured by those with formal concerns.  Such a novel is Goethe’s Elective Affinities, in which nothing much happens.  The main characters are principally engaged in working with an architect to improve and extend their residence.  A formula is posited, related to the “Laws of Attraction”, a formula similar to the law of strong interaction which states that particles must maintain a distance in order to attract each other.  Goethe’s idea is that should couple AB encounter couple CD, A and C will be attracted to each other, and B and D will be attracted to each other, since strangeness is more fascinating than familiarity.  Taken up with her somewhat wistful thoughts along these lines, a young woman absent-mindedly allows a child to drown. 

This death disturbs the surface of the novel’s quietness, and in truth it is hard to come across the ‘purely quiet’ novel in quite the same way that a painting can be still.  After all, the form of the novel requires that the end should act as a lure, impelling the reader forwards, albeit ever so gently.  This creates a problem, for while a short poem may be enjoyed for the magic it generates in a line, such localised appreciation is at odds with the urge to read on.  In Loving, Henry Green can write about taking tea with buttered crumpets in such an exquisite way that one returns to the few sentences that deal with this episode again and again, and may lose any desire to get to the end of the book.  Readers may arrive at a similar impasse when reading the stories of Jane Bowles, or her one novel – Two Serious Ladies.  The narrative in any of these may set out quietly enough, but is often subject to disconcerting changes of direction, while the sentences that carry it seem to be fitted together in an unusual way, though the tone is pretty dead-pan.  It’s not that the sentences are artificial or overwrought: they follow each other naturally enough, but there’s never a cliche, and each sentence reads like a discovery, while the characters themselves are prone to capricious changes of mood.

If the writing of Jane Bowles mingles formalism with caprice, then the marvellous stories and novellas of Adolfo Bioy Casares adulterate their formal strength with a strong dose of the uncanny.  Much the same could be said for the uncanny writing of Gustav Meyrink, for his great novel The Golem is clearly the work of an author preoccupied by the form in which he was working.  Bioy Casares, however, is similar to Jane Bowles, in that he identifies surprise as an essential ingredient in writing; yet at the same time he acknowledges a force that contradicts the inconsistency generated by arbitrary inclusions and capricious twists and turns.  These two forces moving in opposed directions echo the conflict in any reader teetering between wanting to re-read a perfectly constructed paragraph and wanting to finish the book.  But then, with a really good book, one has no wish to get to the end.

This brings me to an important element in the formal novel, which is, the power of delay. Just as Vermeer – very much a formalist painter – may deliberately delay the line of perspective leading the eye from foreground to background by interrupting it with blemishes such as the chips along the edges of a window-ledge, so the formal novelist understands that delay is of the essence: it is not so much a matter of what happens as a matter of how long can you put off it happening.  Oblamov puts everything off:  commitments, assignations.  In formally inclined romances, vacillation is the name of the game.

The Invention of Morel, by Bioy Casares, is a case in point.  Its narrator is trapped in an environment so bizarre that at first one imagines that one is engaged in reading some sort of abstract text that will go on shifting its scenery like a dream, as does surrealist novel Hebdomeros by De Chirico.  This turns out not to be so.  The narrator is a fugitive from justice who has escaped to a remote island furnished with a few strange buildings – a museum, a swimming-pool and a chapel on the high ground, a mill somewhere in the lowland marshes that get flooded at regular intervals.  We learn as much in the first few paragraphs of the novel, and for a while one senses that these paragraphs are simply repeating themselves, each time expanding on their content but allowing little to transpire.  Even in the first short section of the book we have been apprised of the fact that visitors have arrived on the island, and the rest of the book is taken up with who these visitors are and how the fugitive comes to terms with them.  Initially he hides from them, only to discover that they have no inclination to acknowledge his existence.  His predicament strikes me as being similar to that of a camera that has somehow developed its own conscious awareness while observing the actions of characters who feign not to recognise its existence.  Ingeniously, the author delays our discovery of the reason for this lack of acknowledgement – but it would be a shame to spoil the reader’s enjoyment of this brilliant novella by giving away any more of the plot.  Suffice it to say, that in this novel, delay conspires with repetition to create an astounding work of the imagination.

*        *        *        *

If we take up our theme of quietism again and apply it now more thoroughly to visual art, it will become clear that it pervades the content of much that is formal in painting – landscapes, still-lives and geometrical abstraction in particular.  While not falling into the mannerist trap – of espousing an artificially contrived content – formalism chooses to work with humble matter – a back-yard, a Meerschaum pipe, the simple fact of a colour or a shape – but this is because that content is only the ostensible subject, as the more genuine subject is a concern with some ordering of the surface and with the texture of that surface.  In figurative work, this retreat from significance may announce a world of reflections in crystal, or in fruit-segments, or reveal a preoccupation with geometrically considered interiors and narrowly defined genre scenes, though the Renaissance precursors of formalism – Piero della Franscesca and Uccello in particular – sometimes dealt with more obviously exciting subjects such as battles and prancing horses.  Nevertheless, there is a drawing of a vase by Uccello which passionately invests the study of perspective with the accuracy which we may expect from work inspired by contemporary design draftings – Richard Hamilton’s car-tire drawings for instance.

The objective formalism of the seventeenth century is epitomised by the Harlem painter, Pieter Saenredam.  This artist had no time for the enthusiasms of Catholicism.  Denying himself such transcendental visions as enabled his baroque counterparts to see up the skirts of floating choirs, he concentrated on the bricks and mortar which held up the religious structures he favoured.  So he came to specialise in church interiors, often rendered in shades of white punctuated by the occasional diamond shape of a shield on a pillar.  He made elaborate preparatory drawings, including fully worked out perspectival projections and diagrams.  Just one of his meticulous drawings could take six days to complete.  The accuracy with which he recorded these churches has few parallels in the history of art, yet what are we meant to get out of a subject as vacant as his View across the choir of the St. Bavokerk, Haarlem, which is in London’s National Gallery?


In the first place, the ‘vacancy’ is merely an appearance.  The artist’s eschewal of Catholic pomp and circumstance was a belief held with some intensity.  Miracles and angelic creatures were simplistic notions of the divine emphasising the extra-terrestial quality of an obsolete propaganda.  The natural laws were miraculous in themselves, the scientific basis of the universe an adequate reason to believe in God.  There was no need to clothe reality in fantastic raiment.  Reality was worthy of its maker.

Returning to the picture under discussion, we could embark on a more perverse reading.  The interior is a tall, sparsely furnished edifice, from which all Popish imagery has been removed.  Three massive pillars in the foreground utterly dwarf the few figures inhabiting the space, and since these pillars are brought very close to the surface of the painting, their weighty bases very nearly sitting on the bottom edge of the canvas, they serve to emphasise the building at the expense of the people in it – seemingly emptying the picture of any human interest whatsoever.  But now notice how the somewhat awkward view chosen begins to affect your gaze.  You are not looking through the three columns in any symmetrical way.  You are looking directly through the gap between the middle column and its neighbour on the left of the picture and only obliquely through the gap between that middle column and its neighbour on the right.  If you extend the geometry of the picture forward and out of its frame, you can find out exactly where you are standing, by computing where your direct line of sight will bisect the oblique line.  Thus you are standing at some distance from those pillars, as you can today, directly in front of the chapel beyond the central nave of Saint Baro’s church.  And what you may have noticed is that the little dog belonging to the toddler sitting among her baskets at the foot of the middle pillar has run away from her and is sniffing suspiciously at the dark figure of the preacher; whose shadowy front is hidden by the wooden pulpit directly in front of the little girl.   This unorthodox moment is emphasised by the comparative normality of the distant group of church-goers we perceive at the far end of our oblique line of sight, out of the corner of our eye, to the right.

Reading the tensions in the little figures contrives to give this formalist work an almost immoralist interpretation.  But apparently these figures were added to the painting at a later date, possibly to render the work more saleable!  Thus the immoralist reading is spurious, so far as Saenredam and his intentions are concerned. Yet in some way, the sheer innocuousness of formalism seems to attract such perverse additions and corrupt glosses.  Many will persist in seeing the slash which comprises some concetto spaziale by Lucio Fontana as a vaginal image for instance. Perhaps this desire to discover lurid content is inadvertently generated by the formal concerns of an artist: what you can see from here is what may be hidden from there.  Formalism purports to keep the lid on the perversities of content, but are we not sometimes impelled to peek beneath the lid at some hidden agenda?  Don’t illicit thoughts rush in to fill the vacuum created by content’s removal?  One of the effects of a constrained impetus may be that a concentration on structural qualities is capable of unearthing deeper and darker meanings than it might be plausible to consider within the context of appropriate content.  Indeed formal manoeuvres can operate as a lever, the long handle of the spade which carries out the job of psychological excavation – unearthing a content the conscious mind may resist.

Let us meditate here on the nature of what might be termed ‘the artistic oxymoron’, that is, on the fulfilment to be got from emptying oneself.  To be rid, at last, of one’s burden, or meaning, in creative terms, is to be liberated from imposed messages, obligations to one’s social roots, to one’s obsessions, or to the force of one’s will.  To let go of such content allows the subjective demand that stains judgement to be put aside so that the creative spirit can move forward with an impartial love; a love simply for the medium which has so often rewarded that spirit with engrossment; when the artist moves deeper into mysteries of process, oblivious to the self and consciousness.  This impartial joy in creativity, divested of extrinsic motive, is one of the rivers of art-making which has flowed through humanity since time immemorial, producing the Greek Kuoroi, and Dutch landscape painting, and the flower paintings of Fantin-Latour, as well as the minimal work of the nineteen-seventies.

An impartial delight in the interiors of chilly apartments is manifested in the work of the Danish artist Hammershoi, who was working towards the end of the nineteenth century.  His characteristic subject seems to be absence itself.  The whiteness of generally empty rooms, the way one door way opens to reveal another, the thin rectangle of light that we see when a door is slightly ajar, and the light itself a thin, Scandinavian light.  Small flaws in the architrave get meticulously recorded.  If there is a figure, the head is, as often as not, turned away and the body becomes a shape; a presence, yes, but a presence without physiognomy – though the back we see may ‘speak volumes’.  We become fascinated by the sheen of the polish reflecting what light there is on a circular table.  About his paintings, there is this feeling of rectitude, a rectitude more aesthetic than moral.   Each work is painted just as it should be.  The atmosphere in each interior is focussed on with an intensity which increases in our perception as we wander from work to work, but there is none of the violence of Van Gogh, no desire to promote some “shock of the new”.

Hammershoi sunbeamssmall2

*        *        *        *

In fact, very often, the quietist impulse in formalism reads as a betrayal of the avant-garde.  The artists who engage in it seem like throw-backs.  Svevo’s prose, for instance, is far less obviously innovative than his friend James Joyce’s.  If excessive in any way at all, Svevo’s narratives are excessively normal.  The originality of his novels – The Confessions of Zeno and As a Man Grows Older – resides in their inimitably dry tone, in the general debunking of high romance, in the deadpan nature of the author’s wit and in the psycho-analytical strategies which all to often impel the main character to do the opposite of what he has set out to do.  Action is so delayed that inaction and anti-climax end up being substituted for dramatic tension.  The writing is deeply ironic, even failure being seen as a species of strength which often carries the day.

Or take the quietist paintings of Otto Müller.  Often these are of emaciated nudes in natural surroundings.  Müller was a member of the expressionist group called the Brücke, but his skinny gypsies are rendered in a manner which is not in the least violent.  You could say that he betrayed expressionism and substituted suppressionism for it.  But in my view, suppression is at the heart of a formal concern.  Formalism proceeds by negation, what you leave out is more important than what you include.  Once you have established what is to be left out, what remains may well look after itself.  Müller’s work is intensely languid. It recalls the ‘Sumatrism’ of the Serbian writer Milos Crnjanski, a longing for far-awayness – though Müller did actually spend some years in the Far East, and was married to an Oriental woman.  The angles of the limbs find echoes in the angles of the branches of trees.  There is a bleak idealism about the paintings, the subjects seem underfed yet in paradise, inhabitants of a sad Utopia.


The portraits of Gwen John achieve an intensity often lacking in the work of her more celebrated brother Augustus.  She’s another exemplary quietist, and there’s an intriguing, dry ‘overallishness’ to the material surface of her canvases.


Speaking of Chardin, whom he admired, Giorgio Morandi emphasised “that quality known as matière” – the painted skin of the work.  Quiet formalists are generally obsessed by the paint, about finding some integrity to the composition of its matter on the canvas – a unique, personal density that informs every inch of its application.  This is very much the concern of Robert Ryman, whose white surfaces are all studies in such densities – for he has left out colour in order to concentrate on this issue of matière, and on the rich variety of ways that paint can be applied.  For the quietist, the paint of Rubens is too oily: its glossy, wet slipperiness suggests an adjectival excess, while the varnished finish is exaggeratedly lavish.  Rembrandt ends too thick, Courbet scumbles overmuch.  Formalist writers share such concerns and can level similar criticisms:  Shakespeare is too prolix, Conrad never manages to grasp the niceties of the English language, Joyce makes lazy sentences, substituting quantity for quality. The formalist writer may compare the verbal surface of poetry or prose to density of grain in different types of wood.  The compact density of ebony, the solid consistency of oak, the attractive grain in ash or maple – these may be contrasted to the looseness of deal.  The grain of deal is ubiquitous and uninteresting, yet, because it’s a soft wood, you can build elaborate structures with it easily enough – but these remain inveterately flimsy.  The humble structure perfectly fashioned out of oak has more integrity, more innate strength.  By their choices, contemporary readers demonstrate how little they appreciate the grain.

morandi_natura morta 3

Albert Marquet began as a Fauve, showing his work in the Paris exhibition of 1905, but this was a misleading debut.  He developed into an out-of-date impressionist, and until 1947, when he died, he was painting impressionist canvases.  Bear in mind that Degas died in 1917 – which makes Marquet a throwback by more than a few decades.  Yet his paintings have a quality possessed by no other artist of this movement.  He makes his own a species of limpidity.  The serene light, and the sense of depth that he manages to convey through his representations of sea and sky have never been rivalled.  In a sense, he paints the air.  As much as he may be a latter-day impressionist, he is also a precursor of minimalism since the views that become the subject matter of his canvases undergo a pruning – only the most necessary lines and shapes are retained.  Perhaps this makes him a reductionist rather than a minimalist, since he proceeds from the complex to the simple, whereas the average minimalist begins and ends with simplicity.

Marquetimages (1)

Marquet’s paintings operate under a strict economy, as if he were refining some exegesis of the formal concerns broached by the impressionist precedent.  His backsliding into impressionism was not a problem for his friend Henri Matisse, any more than the figurative (and quietist) conservatism of that fine painterly realist Fairfield Porter was a problem for his friend De Kooning – despite the difference in their styles, Porter helped instigate an interest in De Kooning and was a life-long admirer of his work.


In his essay Redemption through Painting: Late Works of Morandi, Kenneth Baker wrote astutely about one of the most private of all painters, a painter whose initial metaphysical style was developed some eleven years after the demise of the Metaphysical movement in painting pioneered by Carra and De Chirico.    Thus Morandi can be dubbed a latter-day metaphysical painter; one who devoted his career to flower compositions, landscapes, and, in particular, to still-lives which deal repeatedly with common objects; vases, tins and beakers used over and over again.  However, Morandi’s pictures of these rather drab objects in a variety of groupings are only superficially similar to each other.  Working within the limitation of these still-lives, the artist executed every sort of painting: loose, extravagant treatments of his subject; romantic, lyrical ones; neatly etched classical ones; groups which make manifest their metaphysical origins – since they remind one of the collections of tailor’s dummies and mathematical instruments in the works of De Chirico.

In later years, Morandi made still-lives which seem more abstracted, where the little boxes and obscure containers seem ‘re-made’ in paint, recreated rather than merely represented. There are others where one vase may camouflage the contours of another – suggesting the ambiguity of appearances or relationships in collections of things that suggest families grouped together for photographs.  Other arrangements of objects may remind one of villages, or streets overlooked by apartments.  But one cannot always ‘humanise’ these still-lives through their affinities, for sometimes the group gets blocked together to form a cube of solids residing below the horizon line of the table’s edge – emphasising purely formal qualities.  Baker observes of this work:

“Its lack of obviously confrontational aspects causes some people to regard Morandi’s painting as a largely decorative or formal achievement.  This view ignores the exemplary character of Morandi’s art.  Every painter’s work is in fact a record of his use of time, and of a continually renewed commitment to the activity of painting.”

(Kenneth Baker, Redemption through Painting)

He goes on:

“Morandi’s art is proof that a man gave his time to painting.  It reiterates his choice of painting, practised as a discipline, to fill his days.”

Here the dedication to the activity becomes its very content, for when an art empties itself of matter which goes beyond the concerns of form a vacuum is caused, and, since we seek for meaning, meaning comes to fill this formal void.   As Kenneth Baker puts it, earlier in the same essay:

“Meaning results from our activity as well as from the artist’s.  While the artist is wholly responsible for the physical art object, we may make meaning from our experience of an artist’s work, even if he consciously intended none.  We usually assume that meaning is one ingredient of a painting, but the reverse is closer to the truth.  In making a painting, the artist lays a basis for meaning.  He or we can then construct meaning on this basis by giving an account of what we see, and of what we feel and think in response.  In the absence of such mindful activity on someone’s part, any work of art will be without meaning.  Physical objects persist in themselves, but meaning must be sustained by people to whom it matters:  it must be embodied to be real.  In speaking of paintings as if they contained meaning, we try to see them as its embodiment, try to project onto them our share of responsibility for the sense of what we see.  To speak and think in such terms is really to treat paintings as emblems of the meaning-making activity we are usually to hasty, lazy, or inhibited to perform.”

But art can stimulate in us a search for some message better than it can foist a message upon us.  Consider the fecund emptiness of Edward Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room”.

Hopper sun in empty room

Where there is a lack reiterated, the stimulus to seek to assuage it may gain in strength. This is readily felt when one comes across the paintings of Algernon Newton (1880-1968)..   

Known as the “Canaletto of the canals” – canals of North London, that is, there is an enigmatic vacancy to be found in Newton’s work: an empty field or two between trees, a simple house in Kentish Town. Dismissed as “peculiar” in his time, his work is steadily gaining status. It is as if a vacuum were created, in some of his finest work, which it seems our nature to fill, as there is in the art of Morandi and other quietists.

On the other hand, we may feel some coherent message as imposition.  This is where the politics resides in the structure.  However radical the message, if it is put to us too stridently it becomes imperious by its insistence.  For message-laden art is phallic in the sense that it projects the stiff authority of its meaning onto the passive recipient.  Often spectacular rather than dialogue-provoking, it usually demands little from its audience, beyond the endorsement of its message.  The emphatically issue-laden and committed art that gets foisted upon us from time to time by the Savanarola-tendency’ among academics, is populist rather than radical, for it is actually the staple fare of mass-culture and the entertainment industry.  Mass-culture invariably beats out a message, even if this is as banal as ‘Crime doesn’t pay’ or ‘Breaking up is hard to do’.  When the tax-payer’s bemusement is cited as a reason for cutting grants to artists or as the basis of a demand that the work should become more explicable, available and comprehensible, we are usually listening to some veiled justification for the banalities of mass-culture.  If we abdicate from the activity of seeking meaning and making it for ourselves out of the art we explore, we rapidly transmogrify into mass-culture’s passive objects; lolling open before it, our poor, dulled consciousness abused by its stridencies. 

*        *        *        *

More often than not, an avowed meaning will demand an onwards-rolling structure, a firmly advancing narrative – for meaning requires development.  Repetition, which is much favoured by formalists, either in the work itself or from work to work, usually calls such development into question, substituting for it an intensification of its preoccupations.   Gertrude Stein delighted in repetition when writing her abstract and near-abstract texts.  Formalist art in the latter part of the twentieth century has increasingly concerned itself not only with a reiteration of its own issues and an adept use of delay, but also with repetition for its own sake.

Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet made sensational use of repetition’s capacity to generate filmic rhythm in L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) – as Robbe-Grillet already had in his nouveaux romans.  Both Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were inspired to collaborate on the script for this film by reading The Invention of Morel by Bioy Casares, and it’s fascinating to read this novella in the light of the film and realise how the book changed the course of film history; for Last Year at Marienbad – to give its title in translation – introduced the notion of a film in which nothing much happens, brilliantly exploited later by Michelangelo Antonioni, the director of L’Aventura.


In Marienbad, the use of repetition subjects the viewer to a constant reiteration of the same scenes: views of the baroque palace hotel where the action takes place, a game played with matchsticks, the corridors of the hotel, enigmatic confrontations between characters rigid with formality.  This resonates with a remark by the narrator of The Invention of Morel:

“I felt elated.  I thought I had made this discovery: that there are unexpected, constant repetitions in our behaviour.  The right combination of circumstances had enabled me to observe them.  One seldom has the chance to be a clandestine witness of several talks between the same people.  But scenes are repeated in life, just as they are in the theatre…”

(Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel, NYRB edition, p. 41)

Little gets resolved in the plot of Marienbad, and it seems no more, and no less, than a fugue in celluloid, revelling in the silvery qualities of a stunning cinematography that takes full advantage of the starkly sculptural properties of black and white projection.  Yet the film has always provoked controversy:  “It’s either some sort of masterpiece or meaningless twaddle,” says The Time Out Film Guide, and less sophisticated commentators have no doubts about which of these it is.   In fact, the film was only developing a discovery of the dynamic qualities of repetition first made by Mondrian with his abstractions which came from his desire to achieve an art of pure plasticity: an art restricted to rectangles alone, since, structurally-speaking, this was the most stable angle, and a pallette restricted to the primary colours, since these were the irreducible elements of colour.  Many modernist buildings of the 1920s seem like the work of Mondrian, but scaled-up, extended into three dimensions and repeating the rectangle everywhere. 


Repetition was a formal quality made further use of by Vasarély and Bridget Riley – who discovered its potential for inducing disconcerting optic shifts – while Frank Stella developed the repetition of stripes, ultimately achieving works of considerable grandeur.  Andy Warhol chose a soup-can for his innocuous subject when engaging in a seminal work celebrating the qualities of repetition, which also made a sly reference to supermarket displays.  Many of the minimalists made repetition the mainstay of their art – among them Sol Lewitt, Carl André and Walter de Maria, while minimalist music was pioneered by Steve Reich and Philip Glass: their compositions made use of systemic repetition and permutations that only gradually caused these permutations to deliver a significant change.  Most of these creative practitioners are perceived as emperors without clothes.  “But nothing happens!”  “It’s only stripes!” “Why should we look at mere bricks?”  These are the comments aroused, and one can see from them that the artists stand accused, not of provocation, but of innocuousness.

A play without a plot might seem equally innocuous, yet in Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), Luigi Pirandello demonstrated that drama could also be seriously stimulating as a form concerned simply with its own issues.  In this play a bemused theatre director is confronted by six characters who interrupt his rehearsal of a play (thus this is also of relevance to the notion of plays within plays).  The characters are searching for some dramatic outcome to their roles, having been discarded by an author.  In order to ‘live’ they need to become the integrated parts in a work of art, since they can have no life other than this, being figments of an imagination, whereas once assembled in a play they might have a chance to live forever.  And yet because unformed, their motives prove immensely difficult to resolve into any unity, beside which, as the director points out, they are in themselves merely roles, with nothing to express and no means of expressing anything anyhow, unless actors step into them and give them body and form.  Pirandello’s play was one of the first examples of an abstract drama.

The quest for newness, or nowness, that modernism provoked, led to the promotion of abstraction in all media.  In dance, for instance, the American choreographer Georges Balanchine pioneered ballets such as Serenade which contain marvellous demonstrations of pattern in the changing configurations of the corps-du-ballet but remain devoid a narrative thread, such as we find in classics like Giselle and Coppelia.  This absence of plot scandalised traditionalist balletomanes.   More recently the American dancer and choreographer Mehmet Sander has created dances as rigorous as the visual permutations of Sol Lewitt by utilising a square wooden frame as the armature for one of his dances – Single Space.  The height of this frame is equal to the height of the performer.  Sander’s dance involves delineating the dimensions of the frame: its diagonals, its bisections, its verticals and horizontals.  At one point in the piece he clings to the upper length of the frame, and then simply drops, keeping his body horizontal as he falls through space, from ceiling to floor.  The piece demands an immense fund of energy.  Sander is HIV positive.  Increasingly, he has found that his creative drive obliges him to remove all direct reference to his condition from his dance work.  To shield himself from the onslaught of disease, he puts himself through a daily training course that takes many hours to complete.  The energy and the strength that he has built up in this way is employed in his dance.  For Sander, the energy is a message in itself.  Nothing else needs spelling out.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8bWLdIvpmY&feature=share  (Single Space)

Yet contemporary formalism is not a priori abstract.  Much underrated by the art-establishment, and all too often viewed as traitors to the avant-garde, the work of the super-realists – a term which includes certain painterly realists as well as photo-realists – deserves more serious attention than it has generally received.  There are several committed formalists working in this way, among them Philip Pearlstein and Ralph Goings.  As I have said, formalism is a matter of what you leave out.  Just as Ryman abolishes colour in order to focus the attention on handling and matière, so Pearlstein and Goings minimise the emphasis on handling and matière in order to focus on other, equally formal issues.  For Pearlstein, the framing of the image is crucial.  I have heard him described as the first figurative field painter.  His eye sweeps across the surface of the image as if it strove to emulate the dispassionate panning movement of some camera.  Heads may get severed by the edge of the painting, or feet – the very items which are usually the focal points of conventional painting.  Meanwhile mirrors placed within the figured space reflect alternative views of the subjects.  This leads us to read his figurative images in an abstract way, as patterns and parts of patterns rather than as bodies.

With Goings, as with several other photo-realists including John Kacere, Janet Fish and Richard McLean, a key issue is that of the subject.  What subject is appropriate to a bravura exposition of meticulous technique?   This is a preoccupation typical of mannerism as well as a question bound up with the history of illusion.  The meticulous realist understands that the choice of subject is as crucial now as it was to the Dutch masters of the still life.  Objects that gleam are called for, or reflections, or delicate, intricately decorated fabrics, or particulars of the contemporary world, the slight dreck we dismiss – oil-stains on a fore-court, for instance, or crud on a tire.  Goings concentrates on discovering such paintable details in everyday American realities:  pick-up trucks gleaming in the Sacramento sun, the dawn interior of diners, the still-life found on each Formica table-top – ketchup, serviette dispenser, personal creamer carton.  His intention is to deal with his subjects in a way which may look non-interpretive, though of course even such a dead-pan rendition of absolute reality can be read as an interpretation of that reality.  However, it is the void that his non-interpretation opens up, the absence of comment in the style, the absolute lack of expression, its innocuousness, which prompts that perverse contrariety in the viewer which will always seek for meaning, where meaning appears to have been removed, or more to the point, fill the lack this removal exposes with meaning.

In the same period as the minimalists and the super-realists, the medium of film concerned itself with a materialist approach to its subject, in that structural sense of the medium being the principal subject appropriate to it.  Avant-garde film-makers exploited the capabilities of the lens, of the projector and of the projection beam, as parts of the process which could generate possibilities to be looked at in their own right.  Films were made which constituted one continuous magnification of the image (Michael Snow), or which utilized looped film constantly repeating its frames as it winds through the projector (and in the case of Annabel Nicholson through a sewing machine as well, so that the frames became increasingly punctured and finally disintegrated).  Other film-makers, like Stan Brakhage and David Larcher, worked directly onto the frames of their film-stock.  In Line describing a Cone Anthony McCall increasingly delineated a circle with a white line etched into each frame of black celluloid, thus describing a cone in the projection beam and creating a sculpture out of smoky light.  More recent pieces may turn the cone vertical and engage in repetition to create interiors of luminescence.


Tony Hill and Chris Welsby, constructed armatures to hold the camera and put it through innovative paces.  Often the scene filmed, if there was a scene, was one divested of actors or set – in Michael Snow’s case a bare room with a few windows at its far end was the subject of his exercise in diminishing perspective, while Chris Welsby’s camera pointed at a stream which it was crossing whenever the sun came out, and pointed towards the sun whenever that went behind a cloud.  The history of these experiments is well documented in Materialist Film by Peter Gidal.

When we view the work of Michael Craig-Martin we become very conscious that its content resides in its form.  Craig-Martin is a contemporary of Victor Burgin and Sol Lewitt.  He exploits the conceptual aspect of making art.   His work addresses questions raised by the formal qualities of his medium.  For instance, the issue of gesture and mark-making in painting.  Is the idiosyncrasy of matière, individual expressionism of surface, essential to painterly success?  These artists call this into question.  Burgin was at one time interested in making art which resided in a textual statement.  Lewitt has always been interested in achieving works which utilise the dynamic of minimalism without recourse to some supposed quality in his innate gesture.  His work can be considered as being in contradistinction to that of Robert Ryman, who, as I have said, paints for the most part in white so that every iota of attention can be focused on the gestural rhythm which informs the surface – sometimes as choppy as a Van Gogh, sometimes as smooth as Formica.


But Burgin, Lewitt and Craig-Martin are opposed to the notion of genius as an ineffable quality, a sort of finger-print of style, unique to the creator, which dispels argument and simply convinces the viewer by its distinction.  It seems to them that such a notion simply pitches us back into the pen-umbra of aesthetic metaphysics.  Lewitt creates recipes for his works – one of these could be a certain number of lines of a specified length and of a specified curvature on a wall of specified size.  Having delivered these instructions to the gallery, Lewitt is happy for the work to be undertaken by an assistant.  In Craig-Martin’s case, it is a matter of urgency that the line in a drawing is not created by his own hand, for the work needs to succeed simply because it is conceptually sound.  Eschewing gesture therefore, Craig-Martin projects line drawings onto the wall.  Both the original drawings and the projections they generate are made with architectural tape which creates a strictly regular line.  Can a painting be achieved without gesture?  Lewitt and Craig-Martin have shown that it can be.  However, Seton Smith reverses this question in photography.   It would seem obvious that no gesture afflicts the quality of a photograph.  Anyone can press the button, and the button is a mechanism which reacts in the same way to everyone who presses it.  But Smith takes hand‑held photographs, and sometimes she feels shaky, or perhaps it is just the slight tremors that pervade existence which cause the doubled edge to the outlines of several of her images.  For her, taking a photograph is as much a gestural act as handling a paintbrush.  The image is seismographic, in a sense; registering how she feels that day ‑ fragile or firm, determined or distracted.

Serious art, aware of its form, and divested of obvious content, offers a more regressive lure than the intrusions of messages imposed upon the medium.  Its apparent void, its innocuousness or lack of meaning is a vacuum the consciousness is expected to fill.  The work is a stimulus to our ability to generate meaning.  It is designed to arouse us, to entice us into this meaning-making activity, so that we have some intercourse with art, as we attempt to penetrate its mysteries.  Such a void is wonderfully demonstrated in the work of the seventeenth century painter Claude Lorraine, whose work combines quietism with grandeur.  His paintings resemble stages where the actors take second place to the set and its backdrop.  Tiny figures retire into the tall trees which constitute the wings of his proscenium-frame.  The eye is led away from them into the distance that beckons the gaze to follow it over the horizon into the unknown land beyond.  Claude was orphaned young, and left France, his native land, to serve as an apprentice pastry cook with his uncle in Italy.  The emphasis in his paintings for a land beyond the country depicted suggests his own home-sickness and nostalgia for his childhood.


Lacan has said that we “lay down our gaze” in front of a painting, in that we substitute the painter’s view for our own.  I think the situation is more complex.  With a formal work that presents us with species of vacancy that amounts to an absence, that absence acts as a lure, and our gaze rushes in to fill the vacuum of meaning with our own reading.  Thus our gaze is actually activated by such a picture.  The void created by the paintings of Claude allows my imagination (and my gaze) this exercise.  However, the strident impact of an advertisement does indeed demand that I lay down my gaze.  But this, along with the continuously exciting feature-film which thrusts its message at me may prove far less memorable than some ‘regressive’ painting by Claude.    Perceived this way, the demand that art should deliver its meaning in some immediate way becomes a heavy-handed, chauvinistic cry.

Anthony Howell, November, 2003.

Click this link to Introduction for a list of the eight essays that constitute the “Rivers of Art”

About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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8 Responses to Quietism, the ‘vacancy’ of Formal Art

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