“There is no work of art without a subject,” said Ortega — and with him here I do not demur.
Subject-matter isn’t the only component of art — nor is it the most complicated — but it is the most fundamental.
It is the component toward which all others are geared.
Subject is what the artist presents; it is the ends. All other attributes are the means.
In the following sketch, for example, the subject-matter is the human eye:
The paper, the medium, the artist’s style, and so on — these are the means by which the artist has presented her subject.
Because art is selective and because the artist is the selector, an artist’s choice of subject-matter discloses precisely what that artist regards as relevant in human life.
The same is of course true of writers and the art of writing.
What does a writer write about?
That is the most fundamental question a reader can ask — and answering it will tell you exactly what any given writer regards as existentially important.
Or a writer might choose horror.
Or any one of a number of other things.
The point isn’t in the specific. The point is that it’s the subject in collaboration with the theme that projects what the artist believes the human place in the universe to be.
And the drive to present this is, I say, the driving force behind all art.