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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The History of Form B. While the first sense of form
(A) refers to arrangement or order, the second sense
(B) refers to the appearance of things. The correlates
of form A are component elements, parts, colors in
painting, sounds in music; in form B, the correlates
are content, import, meaning. The impressionists stress
the importance of form in appearance, and the abstract
painters stress form in arrangement.

Formalists have been advocating both form A and
form B, and occasionally confound the two concepts.
Yet as early as the thirteenth century, Saint Bonaven-
tura drew a clear line of division, using figura as a
synonym of form: Figura dicitur... uno modo disposi-
tio ex clausione linearum... secundo modo exterior
rei facies sive pulchritudo
(Quaracchi ed., V, 393). Here
“form” (figura) has a twofold meaning: first, it is an
arrangement enclosed within boundary lines; secondly,
it is an external appearance or beauty of a thing.

(1) The ancient Sophists were the first to single out
form B and to emphasize its importance, e.g., in the
realm of poetry by separating the “sound of words”
from their “significant content”; the “sound of words”
and “beautiful rhythm” constituted the form in poetry.
The distinction between form and content was pre-
served in Hellenistic poetics. Posidonius' definition of
poetry distinguished the word from its meaning, or
“verbal expression” from its “content” (in Philodemus,
ed. Jansen, p. 25). Following Demetrius another for-
mula contrasting form with content was used: “what
the work communicates” and “how it communicates
it” (De elecutione [1508], p. 75). This formula is the
vaguest and most flexible of all.

Some trends of poetics in late antiquity not only
selected “wording” as form, but attached special
importance to it as the very essence of poetry. Cicero
and Quintilian believed that “judgment of the ears”


(aurium judicium) is important in oratory and poetry;
even as early as the third century B.C., for some Greek
scholars the judgment of the ears was the only judg-
ment that mattered. The names of these ancient
formalists are known; one of them, Crates, maintained
that pleasant sound makes the only difference between
good and bad poetry; Heracleodor was even more
specific when he considered good poetry as a pleasing
arrangement of sounds, thus uniting forms A and B.
Hellenistic scholars not only contrasted form with
content in poetry, but also regarded form as superior.

In the Middle Ages, form (compositio verborum) and
content (Sententia veritatis) were even more sharply
opposed to one another, as external and internal factors
of poetry. The scholastics called content “the internal
sense” (Sententia interior) and form “the external verbal
ornament” (superficialis ornatus verborum). They dis-
tinguished two kinds of form: one purely sensory, i.e.,
acoustic (quae mulcet aurem) or musical (suavitas
); the other, mental or conceptual form, the
manner of expression (modus dicendi), embraced tropes
and metaphors and was on the whole optical in kind,
employing images and constituting the visual aspect
of poetry. These distinctiones were elaborated chiefly
by Mathieu of Vendôme (Ars..., ed. Faral, p. 153).
Form B thus includes ornatus verborum and modus

In medieval poetics beside two kinds of form there
were two kinds of content (Sententia interior); one
comprised the subject of a work (fondus rerum) and
the plot of the events narrated, the other consisted of
the ideological content, the religious or metaphysical

In Renaissance poetics the dividing line between
form and content was just as distinct. The terms used
were verba and res. Invention (inventio) and thought
(sententia) were included in content; wording (elocutio)
belonged to form. Some writers like Fracastoro and
Castelvetro called form an instrument (stromento),
intimating thereby an inferior role for form (B.
Weinberg). On the other hand, writers like Robortello
saw the real purpose and value of poetry in beautifully
and properly ordered words, that is, in form B.

Form acquired a still higher status in the aesthetics
of literary mannerism; while one trend within manner-
ism, called conceptismo, aimed at subtlety of thought
(that is, of content), another (culturanismo) strove for
subtlety of language—that is, of Form B (Gracián).
However, if we are to contrast form with content in
line with Demetrius' formula (“what is said” and “how
it is said”), then we notice that the whole movement
of literary mannerism was centered on form exclu-
sively. However, the term “form” was rarely used
because the Aristotelians in taking possession of it
employed it in a different sense (discussed below as
form D). The ideas of form (B) and its content were
employed only in poetics, in which domain they were
used for many centuries and occupied a position of
paramount importance.

(2) In the eighteenth century the problem of the
relation of form to content ceased attracting attention;
in the meantime other problems came to the fore. The
term “form” and its synonyms were seldom en-
countered in poetics. The problem was revived in the
nineteenth century not only in poetics but in the theory
of all arts. By the middle of that century “form” (i.e.,
form B) appeared in the theory of music (E. Hanslick)
and soon after in the theory of fine arts. This change
was fundamental because previously the concept of
form B had been applied only to poetics.

In the art of the word, form and content were two
separate items because only in this art do they form
two different, clearly divided, and very dissimilar
strata, viz., words and things (verba and res). Here the
form is linguistic, the content material. The reader is
presented directly only with words by means of which
he may indirectly represent things. Such a duality of
form and content does not exist in other arts.

However, musical works express something; works
of painting and sculpture express, mean, or denote
something, and what they express, mean, or denote
seems to constitute their content and not their form.
Nevertheless, the situation is different in these arts
because in none of them can we find two strata as
dissimilar as words and things. The content of a novel
lies beyond the printed page seen by the reader; on
the other hand, the content of a picture (for instance
the river Seine in Monet's picture), is seen in the
picture. What lies beyond the picture is not the content
but its subject, its model, or whatever the painter

The concepts of form (B) and its correlated content
changed when applied to the visual arts; one might
even say that next to the old concept of form in poetics,
a new concept of form (B1), more universal and vague,
came into existence. For a long time no occasion arose
to confuse these two concepts, form A and form B,
because the first was applied mainly to the visual arts
and the second only to poetry. Confusion arose when
form B was introduced to the theory of the visual arts
in addition to form A. “Form” was then used in both
senses at the same time. “Only form is important”
intimated, first, that only the appearance (not the con-
tent) is important, and, secondly, that within the ap-
pearance only arrangement (not the elements); that is,
only form B matters, but also form A within form B,
thus overlooking the distinction between the two
meanings of “form.”


(3) Another important turning point in the history
of form B occurred when a new question was raised:
Which is the more important in art, form or content?
Formerly considered equally necessary and comple-
mentary, form and content, in the nineteenth and
especially in the twentieth century, began to compete
with each other. The debate was intensified by radical
supporters of “pure” form; the years 1920-39 heralded
the ideas of formalism, suprematism, unism, purism,
neo-plasticism; also, Malevitch's pronouncements in
Russia, Clive Bell's in England, Le Corbusier's in
France, the formists' in Poland, P. Mondrian's in

The moderate statement of formalism appears in a
formulation like Le Corbusier's that in a true work
of art “form is the most important thing.” According
to extreme formalism only form is important, or stated
negatively, content does not matter. The extreme view
implies that the subject, narrative content, corre-
spondence with reality, the idea itself, the thing repre-
sented by the work of art, and even the feelings ex-
pressed by it are all unimportant. In extreme formalism
content is unnecessary, only form is needed; content
will not help but may harm art. According to the
formula of H. Focillon, forms are neither signs nor
images since they signify and express only themselves.
On the other hand, W. Kandinsky remarked: “Form
without content is not a hand but an empty glove filled
with air. An artist loves form passionately just as he
loves his tools or the smell of turpentine, because they
are all powerful means in the service of content”
(Cahiers d'art, 1 [1935], 4).

Finally, an important distinction between two kinds
of form was made: those with a corresponding content
and those having none. In fact there are figurative
forms representative of things, or reproducing objec-
tive forms, and forms which are abstract or nonrepre-
sentative. This duality of forms had been noticed as
long ago as Plato, who contrasted “the beauty of living
beings” with “the beauty of a straight line and circle”
(Philebus 51C). In the eighteenth century this duality
of form had been recognized in the theory of art; Kant
distinguished between free (freie) and dependent beauty
(anhängende Schönheit), and Home similarly had dis-
criminated between “intrinsic” and “relative beauty.”

However, the sharp contrast between the two kinds
of form has been questioned; Kandinsky, himself an
abstract painter, regarded abstract form as no more
than an extreme link in a continuous chain of forms
from the purely representative to the abstract. To say
nothing of the fact that various abstract forms are
inspired by real objects and that the effect of abstract
forms on the viewer is frequently due to associations
with real objects. In any case, the twentieth century
has seen form B elevated to the highest place in the
theory of art.