August 3, 2020

About Style: Food for thought by Joan Hus

About Style

Yesterday night I went into a heated argument with Ed about style.

He said that the paintings of R., an artist about whose life and work we had recently seen a documentary film, had style, which proved the originality of his work. I couldn’t disagree more. In reply, I made some wisecrack about his bookworm understanding of creativity. “To study the visual arts when you yourself are not an artist is just as impossible as to study brains when you yourself have no brains!” And suddenly losing control, I added: “Canned laughter: hahahahaha!” Ed reacted angrily. He thought my repartee had gone way beyond the joke. With a menacing look in his eyes he slowly repeated his statement about style, emphasizing every word. Now, it was my turn to be annoyed. Irritated by his stubborness I explained my view.

‘Style’ refers to a particular way of using language. From being used as a concept in literature, and hence also in the literature about art, ‘style’ has become a feature of art itself. The untruth of this view is obvious. You can not assess the quality of something which is not literature by the standards of literature.

The literary idea that language is ‘the matter of which visual works such as paintings, drawings, sculptures,and so on, are made, is erroneous. The literature about art, starting in the middle of the 16th century with Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Most eminent Painters, Sculptors ad Architects’, which led to a literary approach of he visual arts, ultimately boiled down to the belief that both ‘subjects’ are essentially the same.

This equation is not the result of careful thinking. There is no comparison between literature and the visual arts. The main reason for this is that there is no such thing as ‘art’. There is no feature that is shared by all things created by man. Those who believe that, might just as well say that the verb ‘to make’ denotes a feature that is common to all what is made.

What we refer to as ‘the visual arts’ is completely different from literature. Literary works are composed of words and grammar, whereas works of the visual arts are created of physical substances. Literature cannot exist without an intellectual effort from the reader (the cerebral cortex), whereas works of the visual arts cannot act upon the viewer without the use of his senses, in particular his eyesight (the optic nerve).

A painting does not speak. A child can see that! Matter has no meaning. Ink has no meaning. Paper has no meaning. Oil has no meaning. Paint and dyes have no meaning. Bronze, wood and metal have no meaning. Only thoughts have meaning. Visual works are mute. To enjoy them you must use your eyes. And because of their material, their physical quality we must deal with them separately, one by one. As soon as we start comparing them with the information which we have in our mind, we are no longer looking – in order to see, but theorizing – in order to know.

An important corollary of this point of view is that the visual arts can not be judged. You can not know something only by looking at their appearance. And a visual work is a visual appearance, a ‘presence’ that has something which makes people notice and admire it. We can not explain its meaning. We can not discover its truth. We can not determine, neither its originality nor its style.

Turning back to my starting point, I repeated that the concept of style came from the realm of literature, that it still could be useful in serving the purposes of literature, but that there was absolutely no use for it in the realm of the visual arts.

Ed nodded. I smiled in return. A fragile truce, that would not last long.

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