Form | A Christian Guide to Beauty & Design
For something to be beautiful and well designed it must have form or more precisely multiple forms. And a form is something with a structure or nature or essence, a meaningful and intelligible structure. So a circle is a form, a hand is a form, a car is a form. And there are higher and lower forms. Higher in aesthetic, moral, and ontological value. So a pencil is a lower form than a panda. And a muskrat is a lower form than a man. Why? Well a panda has greater ontological properties, he is alive and a pencil is not. Man is more beautiful than a muskrat. Notice, you may love a muskrat but you would never want to unite in marriage with a muskrat. We intrinsically understand the hierarchy of forms.
And this is the way God designed creation. He designed the world with a hierarchy of forms: lower forms and higher forms. And these forms go all the way down. The smallest form we know of is a quark. And quarks have a nature, a distinct essence. There are actually 6 types of quarks. And each of these six types have properties that make them what they are: electric charge, spin, mass, size. And the form of quarks make up higher forms: protons and neutrons. And the form of protons and neutrons combine to make up higher forms: a nucleus. And on and on, higher and higher. Like Legos God builds larger things from smaller things, more complex forms with more basic or simple forms.
And notice what the world is not. It is not just one thing, an undivided, undifferentiated thing. Nor is it a smooth gradient or gradation of things. As if every thing seamlessly, without seams or edges, glided into each other thing. No, the world is made up of different kinds of things, different and distinct forms. Now of course all of these things are related, and we will talk about that, the interpenetration of things. But at this point, we must appreciate that things have natures or structures and edges.
So let’s talk about these three aspects of form: it’s nature, it edge, and the hierarchy of forms.
The first thing you do when you’re creating a work is make an edge. That is, you create the boundary between your thing, your painting, your web page, and the outside world, inside and outside, this thing and not this thing. In architecture you have a parcel of land with a perimeter. With music you open up a new piece of sheet music, in design you open up a new Illustrator or InDesign file and there are edges to the pages, there are new documents.
Now you may be thinking what if I want my work to be connected to the outside world, the things around it? Yes, absolutely and that’s a whole other topic will talk about because that’s one of the important decisions that needs to be made is how closely this relates to the other things around it. It has to and it should. Let’s think about this for a second, buildings have windows and the number of windows and the size of windows will determine how much the exterior, the outside, interpenetrates into the inside and vice versa. If you have glass windows then you are allowing the outside to be seen, to enter into the life of the interior and the interior world to be seen from the exterior. If you add screens then you are allowing not only the visuals but also the odors to interpenetrate.
In a piece of graphic design you must decide how much the new poster or brochure will use the previous visual language of the brand or previous brochures and posters and how much will use visual idioms of that local or that time in history.
In music, you could borrow rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic patterns from other genres, artists, or time periods.
In the visual arts, interpenetration between the forms in the artwork, between, for instance, two characters in a painting, allows for much variation. On the one hand characters could be shown completely unrelated, depicted in different locations in different clothing with different expressions or be depicted in the same location with similar clothing kissing. In the latter case the two forms, the two characters, are intertwined, sharing much or their interiors with one another.
And the ability to determine both the quality and quantity of interpenetration between the exterior and interior is a great skill that must be developed and discipled. These are very important questions and we will address in later videos.
The important thing for now is that when you make a work of art, a form, or a form made up of many forms, there is an edge even if it is small there is an edge, there is a difference between this thing and that thing, this song and that song, this house in that house. Form creates edges.
Forms have a structure, an intelligible nature that accounts for their unity. For instance, the nature of a circle is where all the points of the shape are the same distance from the center.
A note in music denotes a sound that has a specific pitch.
When you move up the hierarchy of forms, the nature become more complex because they are more composite, that is, there are more subforms that comprise the form. A car is a higher form than a screw, indeed a car contains many screws and many other forms.
In The Milkmaid by Johnnes Vermeer, you have the form of the woman and she is composed of head and hands etc. You have the form of the pitcher and the bowl and bread. And so on.
There is much freedom within which the artist may play, combining forms in different ways. The artist must not, however, not work with forms. This is, in fact, metaphysically impossible because even if you have indistinct things, the chemical structure of the colors will still have a formal structure. Indeed “artists” like Rothko tried hard to get rid of form but could never avoid the ontological constraints of creation. Or Jackson Pollock. As much as he tried to get away from form, there are constants of the gravitational force and the viscosity of the paint that brought consistency to the form of the paint drippings to afford an albeit minimal, but some unity to his works.
As an artist in God’s world, we want to aspire to the higher forms: God, God’s images, man and woman, and God’s creation. This was an obvious insight shared by the entirety of the artistic tradition until modernity.
Now, I’m not arguing for only drawing realistic pictures of people, we must remember the chapter on hierarchy. There is a whole panoply of things God has created and the highest beauty that God made is incorporating all these things into one creation.
Hierarchy of Forms
Higher forms are created by combining lower forms together in different ways. And once that higher form is created and added in a work of art the artist must work with it in ways consistent with its nature. That is, once some aesthetic decisions are made that disallows others. Thus the higher you go having to relate multiple layers of reality and multiple forms the more difficult the design and the possibility for higher and greater beauty. This is true of software, societies, and symphonies.
Harmoniously writing two simple functions is simple, but harmoniously integrating a hundred functions with hundreds of nested functions is far more difficult and wonderful and allows you to create something like Photoshop or Instagram. One function can accomplish a task or two but with hundreds or thousands of harmonious functions you can do things like write and receive emails, edit movies, and make music.
A portrait of Plato and Aristotle is great but 50 wise men, harmoniously and aptly depicted is even better.
Two lovers are wonderful but a family is better and a church even greater.
At each of these levels there is beauty. There is a beauty of a cell and the beauty of a woman. But with the advent of abstract and nonrepresentational art a great error snuck into our minds. And the error was not that there is a value from a van Gogh or Picasso but that there was too much. Just as there is the common moral mistake of paying too much attention to things which you ought to pay less attention to, there is also an aesthetic mistake of giving too much value to things that are of lower value. Van Gogh is not bad, he is just far inferior to Raphael. There is the beauty of a sunset but it is far lower than the beauty of a woman.
God is Form
Just like all the other aesthetic properties, something has to have that property for it to be beautiful because God has that property. God has form, or is form. That is God has a structure, an essence, a nature.
Thomas Aquinas says that God, “is therefore of His essence a form.” So what is his form? His nature?
The Christian tradition is clear: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is, God is not indeterminate, he’s not amorphous. He is form, the Form, the form of all forms. His particular nature is the triune God.