Every year, The Lebanese National Conservatory holds an “Open Day” where one member of each section in our Orchestra demonstrates their instrument to visitors (mostly children and teenagers) for the purpose of attracting potential music students. Last year, I was chosen to represent the Double Bass section.
The Double Bass is such a big and beautiful instrument that all the kids were curious to try it. I set up a chair they could climb to reach the top of bass. A long cue of eager children formed, waiting to play this massive violin. At one point, a boy climbed up the chair as his mother prepared to take a photos of him. As with all the other children, I began giving him general instructions on how to produce sound from the instrument, how to hold the bow, where to press with his left hand, etc. The mother started to show impatience, she poked me and said: “It doesn’t matter how he holds it, let him do it anyhow. I just want to take a picture”. Immediately, I responded: “Madame, don’t be in a hurry. He should know about the content of his doing, not only the form”. I doubt that I made myself clear, but because I had been thinking of the topic of form & content for a while, that phrase came out on its own.
Form and Function in subjects:
I will briefly explain what I mean by form and content (sometimes referred to as: function). Let us take the example of a medical doctor. A doctor is a human being who has a specific mix of form and content that makes him easy to recognize among all other people who have their own mix.
Form: Our doctor’s name is “F”. He wears a white coat, a Stethoscope hangs around his neck. He has an intelligent and confident look about him, his Facebook name is “Dr. F”. He behaves a certain way that is attributable to the educated class, and he works at a doctor’s clinic which has its own specific signs that suggest it is a clinic.
Function: This doctor treats specific diseases, accumulates knowledge from experience, reads the latest medical journals, attends seminars, holds himself responsible for his patients’ well-being, and does his best not breach the ethical code that comes with being a doctor. That is the function of what we agree to be a good doctor.
In other words, Form is how a person comes across to us through our senses. Whether it’s their clothing or the way they smile while conversing, a person’s form will evoke certain and standardized reactions from people. Content is what the person does out in the world, why, how, and so on.
Form and Function in objects:
In Soviet Russia, content was favored over form. They intentionally wanted buildings to look similar with less focus on aesthetics (form) and a lot of the function (content): well-built, inhabitable, and practical. The form of the building directly affects how it comes across and what it says. It promises that all people are to be treated equally, and no man should have a more prominent house than his neighbor’s. It says that the aesthetics of an object are not to overweigh the functionality, purpose, and quality of that object. It reflects the tenets of Communism.
If we were to build a structure that focused much more on form than content, it would be a structure that would look very intriguing, but in fact it would be a poor, non-functional living space.
When the boy’s mother told me it doesn’t matter how her son holds the Double Bass or the bow, nor where he places his fingers, she dismissed the importance of playing the instrument properly. She simply wanted a picture of her boy pretending to play the Double Bass, no one would know the difference. This is over-emphasis on form.
Form and Content in Lebanese Culture:
I want to make it clear that this is a problem that spreads across the world and has done for millenia, but today’s Lebanon is my focus because it concerns me more than other places.
We all know of people who chase PhD’s and medical degrees mainly to hear their name preceded by ‘Doctor’. We all know of politicians who have the matching title, the convoy, the sharp suit, the well-articulated press conferences, but have actually done very little to serve the interest of the country or those who have elected them. We all know of people who present themselves as altruistic, spiritual, and all loving, but in fact are very harmful and toxic.
My uncle, an interior architect, told me a story about a rich fellow who approached him to design his home. They spent hours talking about the entrance, the salon, the guest rooms, and the main bathroom. But when they reached the bedrooms, the client said “They’re not as important as all other things. After all, people (guests) will not walk in to our bedrooms”.
Excerpt from Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" in which Architect Howard Roark talks to a client.
Perhaps this is a form of hypocrisy: the contradiction between form & content. It’s like opening a bottle of cheap wine and pouring the contents into a fancy glass, then serving it at a good restaurant. It is still terrible wine, but because the form in which it has been served it appealing, our minds might overlook the fact that it is terrible. The other side of the coin is also worth noting. We hear people say that looks don't really matter if we fall in love with someone. The fact that we are in love (content) will directly affect the perceived form in a positive way and we will always see our beloved as good looking. The opposite is also true.
Similarly, many famous celebrities and musicians are glamorously and respectably presented by the media. Examine the content of their work and they will have little to show; even worse, their work might actually be soliciting terrible societal trends: Think of songs about guns, violence in TV shows, sexual objectification of men and women, etc…
It is easy to be swept away by form because of its sensory nature; it always enters our consciousness through one or more of the five senses. Content is not as easily recognizable, we cannot sense it. It is an intellectual/conceptual affair that drags with it complex issues such as morality & ethics, and so it tends to be generally avoided altogether. Yet, every action we perform has its consequences on those who witness it or who are subjected to it. In the case of art, people are affected with what they hear and see, that is a fact. A fact that suggests that the artist must be highly responsible for the content of his work. None of that: “I’m only responsible for what I say, not how you understand it”.
Finally, I don’t think it is false to give importance to form. Form is after all the immediate promise of what a person/object stands for and how it will serve the world. Form in art also determines whether people will be attracted or put off by what they see. I do think, however, that it is dangerous not to back up form with proper and matching content, then we run the risk of pretending, and pretending is lying.
More than 12 years ago, Lina Khoury, a teacher who has influenced me a lot once told us in a lighting for video/theater class: “In art you must be able to justify what you choose to do”. What I understood from her is: Don’t choose something only because it looks good, it must also serve the related scenario. Some people might disagree with that, but I favor art that is deliberate, be it beautiful or ugly. My kind of art has to have a lot of thought put into it rather than art made simply for the sake of coming across as art.