What matter’s most? — that your work has content. In the final analysis it’s the only way a serious artist can be content with what they’ve done. And, of course, if you are a serious artist you are probably rarely content with what you’ve done. That tells us something easily recognized but impossible to explain: content is the essential ingredient in the experience of any work of art. Any art form — poetry, performance, painting, etc. — without content is empty, a shell without its sea, without its life. It may be entertaining, it may be decorative, it may even be commercially successful…but if it has no content it is dead. That much is easily recognized.
Not so easily explained is ‘the why.’ Content is ‘the why’ of a painting or any work of art. ‘Saying’ what the content of any particular work of art is however isn’t going to happen! If content isn’t there there’s nothing to talk about; if it is there, anything you say will be about the content but it will not be the content itself. The content of any art worth the while is not reducible to words. Clement Greenberg puts it this way:
The content or ‘meaning’ of a Mondrian can’t be put into words. The content of ‘The Divine Comedy’ can’t be put into words either, nor can the content of a Shakespearean play nor that of a Schubert song…. The content of a work of art is ‘ineffable.’ (from Homemade Esthetics)
The most common error in thinking about content is thinking about it…because thinking inevitably confuses or conflates ‘content’ with ‘subject matter.’ You can point to, discuss, analyze, critique etc.the subject of a painting, for example, but not its content. With a landscape, a still life, or a portrait subject matter is rather obvious. With abstract or non-representational forms the subject matter is less obvious; it none the less remains accessible to naming or thoughtful discussion. Not so with content. Meaning does not come to mind in so many words because content is not a ‘thing.’ It is an experience, a wholistic one, one in which form & subject & content are deeply inter-related, distinguishable but not identical.
What then can we point to that signals content or, what I prefer, presence in a work of art? Presence is felt rather than thought. Feeling is a signal, not a conceptual tool, a signal that stirs intuition, awakens imagination, or disturbs one’s experience without one being able to say quite how or why.
Ironically, one of the more powerful signals of presence is an absence, the absence of that self-conscious distance or a separation between oneself, as audience/viewer, and one’s experience of the art. The subject/object dichotomy disappears if only for a moment and yields to something like, “Wow!” and the feeling that “everything is right” — even when the subject is disagreeable. Jenny Saville says, “When [a painting] is really good, it makes your eyes widen, your breath deeper. You know your standing in front of something incredibly important about your existence, but you don’t know why.” Simon Schama describes it as “an obvious exercise of sight in an unobvious way — it triggers your imagination in ways that are impossible in routine life.”
Experiencing presence, or content, is a profound opening of the intuition to wholeness. Wholeness is not merely a ‘thing’ describing the components or the social constructs that make an artwork possible. It is a dynamic process, an aliveness of moment, not an intellectual assessment. For Robert Irwin it is “a continuous examination of our perceptual awareness and a continuous expansion of our awareness of the world around us.” It’s what matters most. As an artist friend has said, “the totality of a work of art is not reducible to the sum of its parts. In each part resides the wholeness of the work. [Like a jewel in Indra’s net] Trying to understand wholeness through rational thought is an exercise in futility; wholeness is not in so many words or so many thoughts so: stop talking; stop thinking; just look!”