The essential form


“The most deeply political work is that which absolutely silences politics”. Theodor W. Adorno, or as to how a masquerade might lead us to revolution.

In the debate on form and content, on autonomous art and committed art, which has defined the modern history of art and weighed upon creation over the centuries, a whole family of artists is moving away from the most scholastic dialectics between sic et non, blurring the dividing lines and murmuring to us "style is everything". Teresa, as she paints, does not think of the absolute, but rather about which combination of pigments is best suited for her beloved Sarah Bernhardt peonies.

When Don Giovanni, in scene four of the first act of Mozart’s opera of the same name invites everyone to join his masquerade with the famous announcement “È aperto a tutti quanti, viva la libertà”, he is doing politics. Or rather music is speaking to us of politics. After a sub scene of misunderstandings with Zerlina and Massetto,which ends with an E flat major chord, the whole orchestra, drums and trumpets burst in, in a majestic C major, with a clearly martial rhythm, underlining the great libertine’ s words with very daring socio political references. “In 1787, at the very time of unrest which enabled the North American Revolution and preceded the French Revolution, it becomes difficult to think that audiences did not notice a subversive element in a passage which in the libretto might seem perfectly innocent, especially after hearing ‘Viva la libertà’ repeated a dozen times and sung out strongly by the soloists accompanied by fanfares from the orchestra”. Charles Rosen identifies it as one of the rare cases in which extra musical considerations carry out a function in works of the classical style, in this case political considerations, hence those words sung in that manner, before a highly sensitive audience (Emperor Leopold of Austria was the brother of Marie Antoinette, brother in law of the ailing Louis XVI) and in a clearly pre revolutionary context, do not arrive unbiased to the ears of the audience. And even less so coming from a composer who was in a state of permanent revolt against the Ancien Regime which tried to keep him in servitude, a composer who the previous year had staged and composed Beaumarchais’ subversive work “Les noces de Figaro”. If in that opera the text was already striking enough, explicitly reflecting the class struggles of the time, and without needing the music to explain it, in Don Giovanni the music invades all, every nook and cranny of the text and the score, the music is the formalization of revolt, the music tells us all because it pervades the words, it saturates them to overflowing.! Thus we can go further than the explanation which Rosen gives in his greatest work on “The Classical Style”, where he attributes as an extra musical character this veiled reference to liberty mentioned by Don Giovanni, in this opera all is form! Any element which is external to the work is filtered through technique, through style. Because Mozart himself already has one foot in Romanticism, in the dawning concept of “absolute music”, in the modern hermeneutics which E.T.A.Hoffmann would affirm so wonderfully when he declared “the chord expresses love, the harmony of all things which, in nature, is spirit”, the spirit then clings to technical detail, and it is technical detail which bears the key to any intra or extra musical interpretation.

Nude on the beach at Portici, 1874. Marià Fortuny. Museo del Prado
Nude on the beach at Portici, 1874. Marià Fortuny. Museo del Prado

In the fine arts this selfsame, dense formal weave is worked upon by the nineteenth century Mariano Fortuny, with that precious, pre impressionist brush stroke which impregnates all his work, and where the spirit, the meaning, the misnamed content, cling onto the surface of the painting and the depth of the colour and the lines of the pencil. “Nude on the beach at Portici” (1874) or the family scene with his children in the Japanese studio, which he also painted during his stay in Naples, are the culminating works of the indisoluble fusion of form and content, which goes beyond the classical style and the balance defined by Rosen. Another artist from Reus, Gabriel Ferrater, the poet, a lover of painting, mentions it in several of his texts, “a pure image” which can only be constructed by turning away from referential language , see Salvador Oliva’s talk on “Gabriel Ferrater, on painting”. Needless to say, all this semantic and syntactic autonomy which has been constructed like a gilded husk around the work of art, be it poetry, painting or music, carried within it the germ of its own destruction when the authors cut off from the living weave of society would finish up by carrying out too many outrages on the language of their tribe.(“Da nuces pueris”, Gabriel Ferrater 1960), when self satisfied abstraction would cause them to fall into the same trap from which they were fleeing , pure decorativism stuffed with conceptual grandiloquence. But beforehand there was a pleasant moment, and that pleasant moment would raise its head every now and then in many halls full of tedium, of chromatic arias and earthshaking signs indicating the absolute and the infinite, from time to time a painter would appear with “the joy of painting a still life simply”, who faced with the objects in his studio or the landscape seen from his window would leave apart the dogma of faith and ask himself which colour is most suitable for doing the sky, “marrone, naturalmente” replied Giorgio Morandi. Because it is the internal logic of the language of the fine arts which determines that very brown in the sky. And is it not thus in Teresa’s works, where the subject decrees a brushstroke which pervades the whole surface of the canvas. In that great “Yellow tablecloth” which falls beneath a simple white porcelain pot with two pink roses, there is the delicate vibration of the petals of the cabbage roses which marks the rhythm of the painting, the whole reverberation of that first breath of beheaded life. In the glassware in the background of “Grocs”, the watery lassitude of the thick glass deforms the image which can be glimpsed through it and expands like a centrifugal wave all over the canvas. The subject crumbles to give way freely to the style, at just one step from abstraction, but without coming fully to it, not to insist too much on the stylization of referential language, to leave a thread of support by means of which it can be understood by the rest of the tribe. In Georges Charbonnier's magnificent interview with anthropologist and thinker Claude Lévi-Strauss (Amorrortu, 2006) the great structuralist defends the understanding of the fine arts within the codes of the group: "We shall be unable to understand them if, within our society, we form a number of small cliques each one with its own particular language, or if we allow ourselves to incorporate within our language constant alterations or revolutions such as those which we have been observing for a certain time in the field of the arts". Hence we head straight into the debate between abstract and figurative art, or about what limits the group is able to accept as to the stylization of language. Let us put it into other, more plastic terms: why does the brilliant Yasuhiro Ozu never bore us while on the other hand the brilliant Albert Serra does? (blog entry for the month of March)