Content, Form, and Frame
For something can only be called art when it requires that we construe the work by learning to understand the language of form and content so that communication really occurs.
In a piece later entitled 'The Red Rag' (first published in The World, 1878) James McNeill Whistler defended his habit of giving his paintings titles of a musical or abstract kind:
Art should be independent of all clap-trap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense ofeye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it; and that is why I insist on calling my works 'arrangements' and 'harmonies.'
Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an 'Arrangement in Grey and Black.' Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait.?2
Whistler is referring to what is now perhaps his most famous work, one of painting's most compelling portrayals of an old woman, and one of the few non-French pictures deemed worthy to hang in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris (it was bought for the French national collection). Whistler's comments are usually taken as an extreme, and rather crude, statement of formalism, the idea that what matters in a work of art are its formal features, not its subject or content. Such a doctrine, now generally regarded as politically reactionary, was radical and progressive in 1878; and certainly the disposition of shapes in the painting and its austere colour range have been found
1 Gadamer (1986) 52.
2 Whistler (1967) 127–8.