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Artistic style

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Most of the theories of style discussed so far have considered style from the historian's point of view. It is, for example, a third-person viewpoint which treats Beethoven as working within certain constraints and as making certain choices. A different approach has been taken by Richard Wollheim (Lang 1987), who argues that there is an important theoretical distinction between the individual style of a particular artist and such general style categories as school style (the style of the school of Giotto), period style (Baroque concerto-grosso style, Augustan poetic style) and universal style (the geometric style, the heroic-epic style). General style categories are the invention of historians, who try to organize a body of knowledge according to their own interests and purposes. By contrast, an artist's individual style has 'psychological reality' and can be captured only by a 'generative' conception of style that picks out and groups together elements of the artist's work which are 'dependent upon processes or operations' characteristic of the artist's acting as an artist. Wollheim restricts his theory to pictorial style, since he is thinking of style processes not only as psychologically dependent on the artist but also as physically embodied in motor habits and motor memory. However, the theory can be generalized to the other arts if style is thought of as a way of doing or making something which is expressive of the artist's character, qualities of mind, attitudes and sensibility. This way of thinking about style is reflected in Arthur Danto's maxim that style is 'what is done without art or knowledge' (1981).

« Artistic style Artistic style is a problematic notion in several ways.

Sometimes the term refers to style in general, as it does in 'Good style requires good diction'.

Sometimes it refers to style as a particular, as in 'Van Gogh's style' or 'the Baroque style'.

In antiquity, style was a rhetorical concept referring to diction and syntax; consequently style is very often identified with the formal elements of a work of art as opposed to the content.

However, the kind of subject matter an artist chooses may itself be a significant feature of style.

One way of thinking about style is as a set of recurrent features of works of art that identify them as the product of a particular person, period or place.

This may be adequate for some purposes, but it ignores the fact that a style has a unified 'physiognomy' or expressive character.

The relation between style and expression is complex.

A period style is often thought to express the cultural attitudes of the period, but it cannot do so in a very direct way.

What a style expresses is a function of where it occurs in the history of style.

Similarly, a work of art in an artist's individual style will be expressive only in the context of the possibilities of that style.

According to the Romantic tradition, individual style is a genuine expression of the artist's self.

But according to others, style is simply a construction by readers, viewers and listeners. 1 Historical background The concept of style in the arts was first elaborated in Ancient Greek and Roman treatises on rhetoric - the art of public speaking.

The ancients distinguished style from invention (subject matter) and organization (the arrangement of subject matter into parts).

Style is diction, or word use, and composition, or the way in which words are combined into sentences.

It is form rather than content: not what you say, but how you say it.

Good style consists in correctness, clarity, ornamentation and decorum (appropriateness).

However, since all good speech should be grammatically correct and clear, what chiefly makes the difference between one style and another is the use of ornamentation or rhetorical 'figures' and tropes.

The principle of decorum stipulates that the style of a speech be appropriate to the total situation in which it is delivered, including who the speaker is, what they are talking about and what audience they are addressing.

The ancients distinguished three kinds of style - plain, middle and grand and each was appropriate to different occasions and purposes.

It was very important to know how to adapt your style so as to secure the desired intellectual and emotional effect in your audience.

Finally, style is sometimes thought of as an image of the speaker: Cicero's style to some extent reflects Cicero himself.

The rhetorical concept of style endured largely unaltered through the Enlightenment, and extended its area of application to music and the visual arts.

The same 'subject', such as a portico or a representation of the Crucifixion, could be presented in different styles to achieve different effects.

Different styles were individuated and organized into hierarchies. Decorum remained important: just as the epic poem demanded a more elevated style than the lyric, so in painting the grand style was suited to history painting as opposed to still life.

Critics such as John Dryden took issue with Shakespeare because he mixed the grand style of tragedy with the low style of comedy in such works as Hamlet and King Lear, and the music theorist Johann Joseph Fux insisted that the styles of church music should not be confused with those of theatre and dance.

The advent of Romanticism and German Idealism radically altered the way in which style was conceived.

The Romantics rejected the hierarchy of genres and the idea that a particular subject demanded a particular appropriate style.

They argued that style and subject are not independent and that style cannot be defined in terms of a list of rhetorical ornaments.

Coleridge, for example, celebrates the poem as a living, organic whole in which style and content are fused.

To the Romantics a work of art was an emotional expression by an artist with a unique sensibility, whose emotional responses to a subject were embodied in both the style and content of their work.

Individual style was the expression of all the peculiarities of the artist's qualities of mind and feeling.

On an altogether more grand scale, Hegel argued that different period styles are expressions of culture in general.

For Hegel, art is a sensuous manifestation of Spirit, and the successive phases of art correspond to the inevitable movement of Spirit towards self-realization (see Hegel, G.W.F.


Each phase corresponds to a style - the Symbolic, the Classical and the Romantic (post-Classical or Christian) - and each is expressive of a different culture - the Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greek and modern.

Shorn of some of their metaphysical underpinnings, these ideas re-emerge in the theories of period style and style change developed by the great nineteenth-century German art historians, Heinrich Wölfflin, Alois Riegl, Paul Frankl and others.

For example, Wölfflin identified five contrasting style qualities - the most famous being 'linear' versus 'painterly' - through which he defined the contrast between the art of the High Renaissance and that of the Baroque period.

He argued that there was a necessary evolution from the first set of qualities to the second, that this pattern of development recurred in most historical periods, and that it was due to principles internal to the history of art. 2 Style and form. »


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