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The Shape of Content (Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1956-1957) (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) Paperback – January 1, 1985
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“To find a lucid painter speaking lucidly of art is a thrilling discovery… [He traces] the formation of painting from idea to completion, both generally and specifically with a clarity of thought and a precise use of language which should be a very archetypal model for all critics and painters alike.”―Virginia Quarterly Review
“A remarkably interesting book, which puts the reader in rewarding contact with a questing mind and a humane spirit.”―The Atlantic
“[Shahn] sets forth his views on both the practice and the purposes of art with a clarity, cogency, and incisiveness that any professional writer might envy, and he manages to interweave with this a good deal of interesting material about his own development as an artist, as well as a running summary of his opinions on contemporary painting in general…the book is highly controversial…also highly stimulating.”―New Yorker
“Points made in the collection are pertinent, lucid and most readable. A valuable addition to the appraisal of the condition of the arts.”―Kirkus Reviews
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"Attend a university if you possibly can. There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do. But before you attend a university work at something for a while. Do anything. Get a job in a potato field; or work as a grease-monkey in an auto repair shop. But if you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle — yes, even potatoes! Or, in the auto shop, the smell of oil and grease and burning rubber. Paint of course, but if you have to lay aside painting for a time, continue to draw. Listen well to all conversations and be instructed by them and take all seriousness seriously. Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice. In college or out of college, read. And form opinions! Read Sophocles and Euripides and Dante and Proust. Read everything that you can find about art except the reviews. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many artists. Go to and art school, or two, or three, or take art courses at night if necessary. And paint and paint and draw and draw. Know all that you can, both curricular and noncurricular — mathematics and physics and economics,logic and particularly history. Know at least two languages besides your own, but anyway, know French. Look at pictures and more pictures. Look at every kind of visual symbol, every kind of emblem; do not spurn signboards of furniture drawings of this style of art or that style of art. Do not be afraid to like paintings honestly or to dislike them honestly, but if you do dislike them retain an open mind. Do not dismiss any school of art, not the Pre-Raphaelites nor the Hudson River School nor the German Genre painters. Talk and talk and sit at cafés, and listen to everything, to Brahms, to Brubeck, to the Italian hour on the radio. Listen to preachers in small town churches and in big city churches. Listen to politicians in New England town meetings and to rabble-rousers in Alabama. Even draw them. And remember that you are trying to learn to think what you want to think, that you are trying to co-ordinate mind and hand and eye. Go to all sorts of museums and galleries and to the studios of artists. Go to Paris and Madrid and Rome and Ravenna and Padua. Stand alone in Sainte Chapelle, in the Sistine Chapel, in the Church of the Carmine in Florence. Draw and draw and paint and learn to work in many media; try lithography and aquatint and silk-screen. Know all that you can about art, and by all means have opinions. Never be afraid to become embroiled in art of life or politics; never be afraid to learn to draw or paint better than you already do; and never be afraid to undertake any kind of art at all, however exalted or however common, but do it with distinction."
As for the book itself, it is my chosen book to write a paper on for one of my art history courses. I'm not that far into the book yet, but from what I've read so far I really enjoy it.
The eponymous essay, The Shape of Content, is a linchpin for any narrative artist. If you have a message to deliver this goes right to the very heart of content in art.
Not for those chic artists in black clothing we see cadging free wine at gallery openings, but for those who are in it for the long haul, for those who understand that art is a profession not a sacred calling or a fashion accessory but, for those who understand there is a visual language that is quite separate from a verbal or literate language, this book will prove useful.
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