Ben Shahn’s The Shape Of Content is hands-down the best book about making consequential art and design and the pitfalls thereof.
The book is comprised of essays for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1956-57 at Harvard and are so melodically written you’d swear you were listening to a live narration. “I have come to Harvard with some very serious doubts as to whether I ought to be here at all,” Shahn writes in the essay “Artists in Colleges.” “I am a painter; I am not a lecturer about art nor a scholar of art. It is my chosen role to paint pictures, not to talk about them.”
But talk he does. And brilliantly too. Especially the lecture “The Biography of a Painting,” about the rationale and turmoil over the painting below titled “Allegory.” The critic and ally Henry McBride (The New York Sun) had launched into “a strange and angry analysis of the work,” noted Shahn, “attributing to it political motives, suggesting some symbolism of Red Moscow, drawing parallels which I cannot recall accurately, but only their tone of violence … recommending that I, along with the Red Dean of Canterbury, be deported.” Shahn proceeds to trace the symbolism of “Allegory” in ways that astutely explain all conceptual art that is rooted in current events.
Rather than reprint or excerpt more here, I urge you to find and order a copy.
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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Design / Designer as Entrepreneur program, and writes frequently for EYE and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 190 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal, is in the Art Directors Hall of Fame and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →