Every year, The Lebanese National
Conservatory holds an “Open Day” where one member of each section in our Orchestra
demonstrates their instrument to visitors (mostly children and teenagers) for
the purpose of attracting potential music students. Last year, I was chosen to
represent the Double Bass section.

The Double Bass is such a big and
beautiful instrument that all the kids were curious to try it. I set up a chair they could climb to reach the top of bass. A long cue of eager children formed,
waiting to play this massive violin. At one point, a boy climbed up the chair as
his mother prepared to take a photos of him. As with all the other
children, I began giving him general instructions on how to produce sound from
the instrument, how to hold the bow, where to press with his left hand, etc. The
mother started to show impatience, she poked me and said: “It doesn’t matter how
he holds it, let him do it anyhow. I just want to take a picture”. Immediately,
I responded: “Madame, don’t be in a hurry. He should know about the content of
his doing, not only the form”. I doubt that I made myself clear, but because I
had been thinking of the topic of form & content for a while, that phrase
came out on its own.

Form and Function in subjects:

I will briefly explain what I mean by
form and content (sometimes referred to as: function). Let us
take the example of a medical doctor. A doctor is a human being who
has a specific mix of form and content that makes him easy to recognize among all other people who have their own mix.

Form: Our doctor’s name is “F”. He wears a white coat, a Stethoscope hangs
around his neck. He has an intelligent and confident look about him, his Facebook
name is “Dr. F”. He behaves a certain way that is attributable to the educated
class, and he works at a doctor’s clinic which has its own specific signs that
suggest it is a clinic.

Function: This doctor treats specific diseases, accumulates knowledge from
experience, reads the latest medical journals, attends seminars, holds himself
responsible for his patients’ well-being, and does his best not breach the
ethical code that comes with being a doctor. That is the function of what we
agree to be a good doctor.

In other words, Form is how a
person comes across to us through our senses. Whether it’s their clothing or the
way they smile while conversing, a person’s form will evoke certain and
standardized reactions from people. Content is what the person does out
in the world, why, how, and so on.

Form and Function in objects:

In Soviet Russia,
content was favored over form. They intentionally wanted
buildings to look similar with less focus on aesthetics (form) and a lot
of the function (content): well-built,
inhabitable, and practical. The form of the building directly
affects how it comes across and what it says. It promises that all people are to
be treated equally, and no man should have a more prominent house than his neighbor’s.
It says that the aesthetics of an object
are not to overweigh the functionality, purpose, and quality of that object. It
reflects the tenets of Communism.

If we were to build a structure that
focused much more on form than content, it would be a structure that
would look very intriguing, but in fact it would be a poor, non-functional
living space.

When the boy’s mother told me it
doesn’t matter how her son holds the Double Bass or the bow, nor where he
places his fingers, she dismissed the importance of playing the instrument
properly. She simply wanted a picture of her boy pretending to play the Double
Bass, no one would know the difference. This is over-emphasis on form.

Form and
Content in Lebanese Culture:

I want to make it clear that this is a problem that
spreads across the world and has done for millenia, but
today’s Lebanon is my focus because it concerns me more than other places.

We all know of people who chase PhD’s
and medical degrees mainly to hear their name preceded by ‘Doctor’. We all know
of politicians who have the matching title, the convoy, the sharp suit, the
well-articulated press conferences, but have actually done very little to serve
the interest of the country or those who have elected them. We all know of
people who present themselves as altruistic, spiritual, and all loving, but in
fact are very harmful and toxic.

My uncle, an interior architect,
told me a story about a rich fellow who approached him to design his home. They
spent hours talking about the entrance, the salon, the guest rooms, and the
main bathroom. But when they reached the bedrooms, the client said “They’re not
as important as all other things. After all, people (guests) will not walk in
to our bedrooms”.

Excerpt from Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” in which Architect Howard Roark talks to a client.

Perhaps this is a form of hypocrisy:
the contradiction between form & content. It’s like opening a bottle
of cheap wine and pouring the contents into a fancy glass, then serving it at a good restaurant. It is still terrible wine, but because the form in which it has
been served it appealing, our minds might overlook the fact that it is terrible. The other side of the coin is also worth noting. We hear people say that looks don’t really matter if we fall in love with someone. The fact that we are in love (content) will directly affect the perceived form in a positive way and we will always see our beloved as good looking. The opposite is also true.

Similarly, many famous celebrities and musicians are glamorously and
respectably presented by the media. Examine the content of their work and they will
have little to show; even worse, their work might actually be soliciting terrible
societal trends: Think of songs about guns, violence in TV shows, sexual objectification
of men and women, etc…

It is easy to be swept away by form because of its sensory nature; it always enters our consciousness through one
or more of the five senses. Content is not as easily recognizable, we cannot
sense it. It is an intellectual/conceptual affair that drags with it complex
issues such as morality & ethics, and so it tends to be generally avoided
altogether. Yet, every action we perform has its consequences on those who witness
it or who are subjected to it. In the case of art, people are affected with
what they hear and see, that is a fact. A fact that suggests that the artist
must be highly responsible for the content of his work. None of that: “I’m only
responsible for what I say, not how you understand it”.

Finally, I don’t think it is false
to give importance to form. Form is after all the immediate promise of
what a person/object stands for and how it will serve the world. Form in art also
determines whether people will be attracted or put off by what they see. I do
think, however, that it is dangerous not to back up form with proper and
matching content, then we run the risk of pretending, and pretending is
lying.

More than 12 years ago, Lina Khoury,
a teacher who has influenced me a lot once told us in a lighting for
video/theater class: “In art you must be able to justify what you choose to do”.
What I understood from her is: Don’t choose something only because it looks
good, it must also serve the related scenario
. Some people might disagree
with that, but I favor art that is deliberate, be it beautiful or ugly. My kind
of art has to have a lot of thought put into it rather than art made simply for
the sake of coming across as art.