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Why is Form Essential to Creators?

True art takes note not merely of form, but also of what lies behind.” Mahatma Ghandi

I live in the neighborhood of San Pedro, California, which is a part of the City of Los Angeles. San Pedro is situated on the Port of LA, where all the big ships from Asia sail in to drop off their payloads. We have a fairly large Hispanic population here, and as a result of that cultural influence, there are street vendors who go around selling food and household items. 

There’s one cart that announces itself with the tune about a hapless cockroach, “La Cucaracha”, but it only plays the “Ask” theme: “La cucaracha, la cucaracha, da da da da da da daaa”. (Lyrics vary, but the gist of the song is that the cockroach has lost one or some of its legs and is having trouble walking. This is probably a reference, like the American song “Yankee Doodle”, to war and conflict.)  There is no answering resolution, it simply plays the “Ask” theme over….and over…..and over. 

As a musician and maybe just as a person, this drives me crazy. There’s no settlement to the tune, it’s an unanswered question that just…..hangs there. However, this is a great reminder about why form is important, and not something we can deal with lightly. It goes to the very center of what it is to be human; we need our questions answered, we need our songs complete.

Body, which is also a word that can be swapped in for form, is just that: it’s the bones or skeleton of our creative work. Without it, our work is chaotic, not pleasing and without any real and understandable meaning. Form gives us structure, something to hang our hat on while creating or experiencing the artwork, whatever it may be (writing, painting, sculpture, music, or anything anyone comes up with to represent their journey). 

Form forces us to become even more creative, because we have to figure out how to cram our brilliant ideas into a predetermined structure. This is usually not a comfortable or comforting process, as we’re terrified our brilliant idea will be lost in the rigid walls of where we have to build it. But to not use form will turn away our fan club, since it will convince them that we have no idea what we’re doing. Nobody wants to listen to a song about a hapless cockroach unless we have some inkling that we’ll find out if he makes it or not. There has to be a point to our art, and form helps us clearly get our point across.

A lot of our understanding of form comes from nature and math, and this also gives form (and therefore our creations) a feeling of familiarity, of deja vu and recognition. Humans love to have things broken down into threes, for instance, and this is why the so-called Rule of Thirds is so universal and revered in all artistic endeavors. It’s also why plays have three acts, why artists use triptychs so often, why musical composition is often structured with exposition-development-recapitulation: it works, and people instinctively understand it. 

If you look at a bridge, a tree, a human face, these all break down into three parts that we recognize, because they’ve been part of our human experience since coming into the world as babies. Past, present, future; birth, life, death; beginning, middle, end…these are all things we know about from a very young age. It’s familiar, therefore comforting, and we understand things that take this form.

Childrens’ stories are rife with triplets: three wishes, three guesses, three little pigs, three bears, three billy goats gruff. And creators use and understand it, because it mirrors life. 

When we go about our busy days, stuff happens to us and we leave behind what is familiar (exposition), we react to the stuff in various different ways (development), and something results from that reaction (recapitulation). Also, in the recap we learn something and return to the familiar, because we took the journey and saw in a new light how things either fit together, or didn’t. A story such as “The Wizard of Oz” follows this recipe to the letter. People love this story because they recognize the form it describes, and how that relates to their own lives.

The above examples are “time based” artforms, ones that transpire over a period of time. But what happens in a static artwork such as painting?

The Rule of Thirds in visual art divides an artwork into nine equal parts, three vertical and three horizontal divisions. When you start to compose, simply place what you want your viewer to pay attention to somewhere near the central box, preferably not smack in the middle. The human eye will feel more comfortable if the important stuff is somewhere near one of the blue dots.

This, of course, is a rule of thumb, a suggestion, not a hard and fast rule. But it’s been successful for some of the greatest artists of all time, as seen below. While Jesus is in the middle being, well, Jesus, the real action is off to his left and right, where the lines cross.

“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

I started out as a young musician thinking form was important simply because it had always been done that way and seemed to work. I was never taught and didn’t understand that form plugs into humanity in a way that is universal. It brings us together, it helps us to accept each other, and makes us realize that we have a way to understand each other that shows we have a lot more in common than we have differences.

This defines the importance of form.

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