• Austin Parenti

How to Study Art: Form vs. Content

I attended a secular high school in New York. One year, my English class read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Despite our intensive study, I only learned in recent years that Dostoevsky was a devout Christian whose writings deeply reflected his faith. How did I not notice this in high school? Why are his Christian morals so painfully obvious now? I believe my blindness was due in part to the way I was taught to study the book. My teacher lectured on Dostoevsky’s skillful use of symbolism, foreshadowing, and metaphor, but never of his thematic or moral content.


I feel a distinction must be made in the production and study of art. Perhaps this distinction has already been made, and if so, I invite wiser persons to bring this to my attention. Until then, let us distinguish between the “what” and the “how” of art; what an artist is depicting and how the artist is depicting it. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to the “what” as a work’s content and the how as a work’s form.


Content refers to a production’s basics: plot, story, morals, themes, or elements. The essential components of a piece are its content. For instance, the content of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is the story of a creation gone wrong which evokes themes of fatherhood, science, and God. Or consider a painting; the content of Rafael’s “The School of Athens” shows Plato, Aristotle, and others urgently, yet joyfully discussing philosophy in their marble academy. Content is how a piece of art would be described by one layman to another.


Form is a different matter. Form refers more to the style, technique, or lens of a piece—how the author or painter chose to depict the elements in the scene. The form of Frankenstein (the 1831 edition) is romantic, descriptive, and natural which paints the story in a highly dramatic and fanciful landscape. The long and descriptive passages of natural scenery not only reflect the style of the Romantic Era, but also call the reader’s attention to God’s creation, which amplifies and enhances themes already established by plot (content). Rafael’s School of Athens uses bright, natural lighting to liken the birth of philosophy to the birth of a new day. The painting’s vibrant colors add a tinge of energy and excitement to the Academy. And thus, content is, while form comments, enhances, and amplifies. In more philosophic terms, it may be said that content is the essence or motif of a work, while form is the means by which the content is conveyed, transcribed, and expounded upon.


Which is more important? Though content and form are—to a degree—interdependent, they are not equally so. An artist may create content without form; he or she may give no heed to technique or style. Of course, small bits of form will arise unintentionally, but they will likely be insignificant and of low-quality. Similarly, an artist may try to create form without content. He or she may try to craft only technique, style, or tone without any subject at all, but this proves more difficult, if not impossible. How can one create style in a vacuum? Style does not exist apart from content. Style is only visible when it is attached to something.


What if a writer tried to tell of an aging oak tree (the content) with no consideration for form? The writer has something tangible to consider: the tree actually exists apart from diction or metaphor (the form). He may incidentally use words which create strong diction or metaphor, but the tree does not necessitate either. Contrarily, our writer cannot write of diction or metaphor without attaching it to the tree. A poet trying to use a tone, style, or lens must attach that form to something tangible. Content is while form is used and thus, form only exists when it is in use.


Meaningful form cannot exist without content, but content can exist without intentional form. Since form is completely dependent on content (and the opposite is not entirely true), form must be the servant of content. Content must be king and form must be its steward, as the former precedes the latter. Brush and stroke type, color, light, composition, etc. must service the chosen subject of a painting. Diction, metaphor, rhythm, symbolism, voice, etc. must service the story of a narrative writing.


Perhaps this seems obvious, but I would contend that to some, it is not. Like my high school English teacher, there are many who study the great thinkers for the wrong reasons, wasting their time praising the form of their writing and not absorbing the wisdom within the content of the work.


When or how this switch began, I do not know. Perhaps we assumed that content was obvious or self-evident and thus, the academic thing to do was to study the obscure, challenging world of form. This, I believe, is a grievous assumption—especially for a generation of uncritical readers. Or perhaps formal studies are simply more fun and pretentious, as extracting technique and style boosts the ego: for it gives one individual a unique “knowledge” that he or she holds above others. But I think this shift likely came about at the death of objective Truth. Why look for Truth in a book if no such Truth exists? Therefore, the only thing that remained to be studied was the form of a thing—its style, texture, and pleasantries.


What must we do? We must begin by treating content as king. I propose the most important questions to ask about a work of art are: “What is happening in this work? What do the events of this work mean? What is the work’s moral? What is the author trying to say? What mood and emotions do this work evoke?” If these questions are answered in a satisfactory manner, then and only then, turn to questions on form, asking: “How does the author evoke mood and tone? What techniques did the author use to create this work? How does the author’s style add to or subtract from the work?” After all, who approaches an unknown thing and first asks how it works before asking what it works for?


There is a simple beauty in studying content. Themes and morals can be instructive, revealing, inspiring, and challenging. And let us remember that most consumers only notice content. They watch a film and see its story; they do not notice how the use of shadow and light heightened the film’s drama. This, I think, is a perfectly acceptable thing. In fact, if most consumers only see content, perhaps this too is a reason to prioritize it in the creation of art; it is where most of our audience lives.


To clarify, I don’t think there is anything wrong with studying or loving form. It can be very fun and beneficial, especially for aspiring artists. The greatest works of art combine content and form to create something that moves both critics and consumers for ages. But I think it dangerous to study form that is divorced from content. I have heard many people defend films or novels on the grounds of form, saying “The author’s words were pure poetry” or, “The filmmaker’s shots were gorgeous.” I often reply with, “But did you notice how the author promoted value X? I know you aren’t great fans of value X. Doesn’t that change your opinion of the work?” I do not wish to subtract from someone’s appreciation of beauty, but we must remind ourselves what those “beauties” are aiming at; to what those forms are forming. When used properly, form enhances and amplifies the content of a work, whether or not the content in question is valid or invalid, true or false, good or bad.