By: Kat Mulligan
Photo Credits: Kat Mulligan, photo of architecture mentioned in this piece taken near Atwater
I was standing on the front stoop of my friend’s apartment building, waiting for said friend to come down and join me on an evening escapade, when I noticed for the very first time the transom window nestled above the lobby door. Encircled by a stone archway and base, this was a yellow stained-glass window, with a black grid pattern separating it into smaller segments, and the whole thing further framed by a wooden trim. The light from the lobby bored through it, livening its color to a full-bodied amber. I stared at it and wondered if anyone else who had lingered on the front stoop had ever been struck by the same awe that was corrupting my senses in that moment. The only way I could conceive of translating this awe was by taking a photo of it, hoping that someone, too, might pause and narrow their gaze to this clearly delineated fragment of reality, displayed in the designedly stirring and easily consumable framework of art. In the vacuum that a photograph, with its restricted dimensions, creates, so might the viewer pay attention and understand.
I am no photographer, and I did not even intend to share this picture with anyone, nor persuade anyone to visit my friend’s building and resign themselves to a window-induced reverie. The reason I was moved by the sight of the small window above the door is the same reason a photograph is most apt to represent it. The truth of the situation is that I cared little about what the window actually looked like. In fact, I had to go digging for the picture in order to describe it on the page; its individual markers of beauty did not cling to my memory. What was infinitely more compelling, as well as what lays the foundation for photography and its appeal to the brain, was the compositional elements that comprised my line of sight. The colors, textures, angles, lines, and depths all converged to create a polished scene in miniature. From this perfection comes inexplicable intrigue.
If Polish artist and writer Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, known more commonly as Witkacy, had ever stumbled across this transom window, I believe he would have understood. Witkacy dedicated his life’s work to illuminating the concept he called pure form (czysta forma), which is the metaphysical wonder inspired in an audience when they are exposed to the absolute unity of art. He attempted this by emphasizing the structural components of an artwork while suppressing its content, content through which the audience is unfortunately wont to perpetually draw connections and invent meaning. In the world of Witkacy’s design—in which the audience should never stably accept any premise—madmen became sages, the dead came alive and walked around even as their corpses hung above the stage, and random shouting permeated the air, all while colors and discordant noises resounded and flashed about. It was of the utmost importance that the audience, through the primacy of generic conceits over variable content, did not forget even for a moment that they were consuming art. According to pure form, my wonder at the transom window came not from the window itself, but from its position in space relative to its surroundings. Thus, form triumphed over content.
I say that he attempted to achieve pure form, because Witkacy just as well recognized that it is ultimately unattainable. There are some art mediums that are better suited to pure form—for example, prose is unlikely to achieve pure form, as it is mostly content and little form, while theater possesses a wide range of structural elements to highlight Witkacy’s ideals—but it is nonetheless a dead end. We cannot confront the senselessness of our world if we continue to assign sense to it. What Witkacy was more interested in portraying in his work was man’s insatiability for pure form, man’s irrevocable desire to glimpse life in its full metaphysical horror.
In the early twentieth century, the period in which Witkacy was active, society began to put less stock into religion and philosophy, which Witkacy considered inadequate forms of reassurance for the human condition anyway. It was a world flipped on its head, where a cruel god was a dead god and movements lost out to the manifestos charged with spurring them on. Art, however, in Witkacy’s view, was the vessel through which our frightening existence may be affirmed. It was a precious time for art as well, for Witkacy foresaw a future in which man’s metaphysical consciousness is eradicated and art and beauty are rendered superfluous. With time running out, he advocated for the stretching of art to its full potential and the cherishing of the genius that blooms on the edge of madness.
Witkacy contended that striving towards pure form was the only way to instill a metaphysical purpose in one’s art. I should say, though, that in this paradigm the art no longer belongs to the artist. Rather, the director, the actors, the psychology of the characters, the sound design, the opinions of the villain, the lighting, etc. contribute equally to the essential unity of the piece. When the unity of a piece is prioritized, its wonder bursts forth as if the door to heaven has been thrown open.
In art, pure form may always be hindered by the human urge to draw significance from all stimuli. However, in everyday life, there is no reason to reject the content of beauty in favor of its makeup; the two can and should exist as a complementary couple. It is nonetheless a rewarding experience to pause in front of a scene elegantly composed and marvel at the ingenuity of our universe.
Goddard, Michael. Gombrowicz, Polish Modernism, and the Subversion of Form. Purdue University Press, 2010. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/17342.
Tarn, Adam. “Witkiewicz, Artaud, and the Theatre of Cruelty.” Comparative Drama, vol. 3, no. 3, 1969, pp. 162–67. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41152501.