Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content (Book acquired, 23 July 2021)

I went by my favorite used bookstore the other week to pick up the copy of Tatyana Tolstoya’s novel The Slynx last week. (I’m halfway through it, and it’s fantastic stuff—dirty, cruel, funny, unexpectedly moving—like a filthy generative loam that isn’t exactly poisonous, but will certainly yield side effects.) After seeing this diagram earlier in the week, I looked for a copy of Thomas C. Oden’s 1969 multidisciplinary

text Structure of Awareness. I was unsuccessful there, but I did spy something called The Shape of Content by the artist Ben Shahn. I’ve long been a fan of his work, so I picked it up and thumbed through. I ended up reading most of it this weekend.

The Shape of Content (the title now is not exactly ironic, I guess) collects a series of lectures Shahn gave to Harvard students in the late 1950s. The first lecture is a somewhat boring apologia, a kind of What the hell am I doing here?, but the following material is good stuff, if not exactly fresh. There are plenty of illustrations too, mostly unrelated to the, uh, content of the words (although they are of course intimately related). Illustrations like the one above, and this one, below, make the 144 pager seem, well, kinda short.

Here’s Harvard UP’s blurb:

In his 1956–57 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, the Russian-born American painter Ben Shahn sets down his personal views of the relationship of the artist―painter, writer, composer―to his material, his craft, and his society. He talks of the creation of the work of art, the importance of the community, the problem of communication, and the critical theories governing the artist and his audience.

Television #2 — Ben Shahn

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Television #2, 1949 by Ben Shahn (1898–1969)

We have got difficult days ahead

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Study for “Goyescas” — Ben Shahn

Study for “Goyescas,” 1956 by Ben Shahn (1898–1969). From Ben Shahn: His Graphic Art, George Braziller, Inc., NY 1957.

Triple Dip — Ben Shahn

Triple Dip, 1952 by Ben Shahn (1898–1969). From Ben Shahn: His Graphic Art, George Braziller, Inc., NY 1957.

Phoenix — Ben Shahn

Phoenix, 1952 by Ben Shahn (1898–1969). From Ben Shahn: His Graphic Art, George Braziller, Inc., NY 1957.

Harpie — Ben Shahn

Harpie, 1951 by Ben Shahn (1898–1969). From Ben Shahn: His Graphic Art, George Braziller, Inc., NY 1957.

We have got difficult days ahead

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Peter and the Wolf — Ben Shahn

peter wolf shahn

Bookshop — Ben Shahn