“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless,” John Steinbeck
Near here, at the back of a liquor superstore, is the section where the fussy drinkers shop, and amid the calibrated jiggers, cherry swords, and seasonal bottle stoppers, are molds for making exciting ice cubes. The forms they create—spheres, giant and perfect cubes, bars, lips, dollar signs, and zeroes—are really only frozen water, as all ice is, but these vessels sculpt what flows from the tap into something more special than industrial cubes from my freezer.
They make ice notable again, give the commonplace shape, render it visible.
A certain kind of artist distrusts form. If you mean to write from a true place, they argue, you cannot impose or superimpose on expression. You cannot restrict or constrict. Once you do, you court artifice, and anything that arises from artifice will be false. Worse still is working to fill a frame or template, which is absolute chicanery.
I won’t reenter this debate because I’ve said enough already, but I think about a still life. Even the most photorealistic communicates choice. You arranged the objects as you did. You lit them as you did. You placed the edges of the painting, the proportion of its focus, your angle of attention, determined how you will represent texture, color, and shade.
Whether these decisions were conscious or not, what is art without them? When do these choices shift from representation to imposition? When is form absent? How can it be right or wrong if it is inevitable?
The quotation, “Form follows function” derives from Louis Sullivan, the Chicago architect. In 1896, in An Autobiography of an Idea, he said:
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.
The quotation has always bothered me for philosophical reasons. It assumes utility is the highest standard, that each function suggests one proper form that only needs to be discovered, that only the essential belongs in any design, that surplus is never an option. I could go on.
As a Chicagoan, I’ve seen a lot of Sullivan’s work and certainly understand the statement as it applies to skyscrapers and the steel beams that simplified their form and permitted their skyward stretch. Yet the statement makes less sense when you consider Sullivan’s ironwork, especially the elaborately tangled, storms of shapes I see as I walk in the city. They seem to have no function other than ornamentation, and it’s their excess—albeit geometric, neatly symmetrical and controlled excess—that makes them impressive.
Were I channeling Sullivan, I might say arresting a viewer’s attention is their function, and something simple might not achieve it as well. Perhaps these baroque, proliferating, woven, fever-dream effusions of dramatic contours are a type of utilitarianism too, but I’d rather they weren’t. I’d rather they were born of their own necessity, reflective of Sullivan’s mind unwound, taking a form that brings his soul to light.
As is often the case with creation myths, the Mayan story of the first humans is a complicated affair. It involves twins seeking to rescue their father’s severed head from the underworld and, after their success, their ascension to the heavens to become the sun and moon. Only then can men be properly formed.
What’s intriguing to me, though, are all the failures in the account. Once the gods decided they needed someone to worship them and be “keepers of the days,” they tried to shape humans from mud. These mud creatures, however, wouldn’t hold souls, and soon the gods sent a great flood to wash them away. Then the gods tried wood, which didn’t work either, though these wooden beings became monkeys.
Finally, in defeating the gods in an underworld ball game, liberating their father’s noggin, and rising to illuminate everything, the miraculous twins permitted humans’ true form. Men were made of white and yellow corn.
Which says something about corn’s importance in Mayan culture but also begs the question “Why corn?” If the Mayan gods sought a race to be “keepers of the days,” maybe organisms that germinated, grew, and died marked time in ways gods could not. Maybe the gods sought something that would rely on light, moisture, and soil to echo humans’ dependence on them. Maybe corn is more sturdy than mud and more pliable than wood.
“We need poetry because names die,” John Vernon says, “because objects resist their names, because the world overflows and escapes its names.”
My daughter told me a version of the Mayan creation myth as interesting as the original. The way she remembered the story, the gods first tried water (which wouldn’t hold together), then stone (which could not move), and then turned to corn.
I still wonder, “Why corn?” but more important is the linearity of her description. In offering a cleaner plot, her revision presents each stage as an important step toward the ultimate ideal, as if the earlier forms weren’t properly “mistakes” at all because they led the Mayan gods to the answer. Each had utility.
That’s very different from the narrative I’ve learned since, which bends into odd, dream-like curlicues and rises in smoke. I like my daughter’s story. I like the Mayans’ more.
My son took me to a bar that served cocktails containing exotic ice. His drink arrived with a single cube so large it barely found room to move in the glass, and mine included an equally large sphere that, every time I tried to imbibe, avalanched onto my nose.
We laughed about how challenging the experience was, speculated that the bartender was playing some whimsical trick on us. But the jester bartender didn’t stop us from drinking. Or ordering another.