The Humanistic Tradition I

From the Ancient World to The Reformation

The Matter of Style

    Because in this course we will use repeatedly the term style (as in the Roman or the Gothic Style), it will be useful to have a clear idea of just what we talking about.  James Smith Pierce, in his From Abacus to Zeus: A Handbook of Art History, provides a starting point with this definition:
The distinctive and characteristic way of making and arranging the forms of a work of art by which it may be assigned to a particular period, place, artist or period within an artist's life.
    Suggested here are two important points which must be isolated.  Style, first of all, deals with how an artist/writer/composer depicts his/her chosen subject matter.  Second, the term style may be applied to an historical period, to a geographical location, or to an individual artist.  Richard Wollheim refines this definition by suggesting in Painting as an Art (1987) that there are two different conceptions of style, individual style and general style.  Under the rubric of the latter are clustered:  universal styles, such as classicism or romanticism; period or historical styles, such as the Romanesque or the Gothic; and school styles, such as the Giottesque or the Rembrandtesque.  A general style is, further, a convenient way of referring to a set of characteristics, to what is distinctive, about a universal concept, an historical period, or a school.  But, while recognizing the essential usefulness of such ideas in making communication feasible, it must be recalled that the characteristics of a given style are assigned by scholars, historians, and critics and, as a matter of common agreement, they are, far from being immutable or true in any absolute sense, subject to change.

    For our purposes, style will refer to what distinctive qualities individual artists and writers have in common as they seek to create works of art, architecture, literature, thought, or music at a specific historical time and within a restricted geographical space.  We will be using the term, in short, in Wollheim's sense of a period or historical style.

    While some style probably exists at all places and in all times, there are rare and special historical moments when a single style so dominates all the creative arts that it appears to unify as well as integrate them.  At such times, the style of the individual artist is frequently subsumed if not overwhelmed by the dominant style, and artists, for the most part, work within this larger framework, even while the more creative and original push at its boundaries.  It is such infrequent moments in history, from Periclean Athens to Renaissance Florence, that will receive our attention in this course.  Accordingly, we must now examine a few of the factors shaping such a dominant style.

1. Historical and geographical factors.  Each artist, not to mention every human being, lives and works within an inherited world; the artist, in other words, works within limits established by the conventions, rules, traditions, and beliefs of his/her time and place.

2. Political and/or social factors.  Important here is the role or function of art in society (frivolous, serious, edifying?) and the matter of patronage (who commissions and pays for the arts? the community, the Church, the nobility, the affluent middle classes? and why?).

3. The role of ideas.  What predominant spiritual, religious, or philosophical movements are present and how do they, if at all, shape the arts.  What ideas are the common property of people in this time and place?  Have powerful new ideas appeared?

4. Technical factors.  What media, techniques, etc. are available to the artist to select from?  What innovations are possible?

5. The personality of the artist.  Artists, especially those of the first rank, even though they work within or against the limitations of an inherited style, struggle to innovate, and those who do so successfully often cause other and perhaps lesser artists to imitate them, creating thereby a school.

    These several considerations of the matter of style lead to a further question, one that is even more challenging to approach.  Why at rare times and only in privileged locations do explosive outbursts of cultural creativity take place?   From the historical study of such cultural centers as Periclean Athens and Renaissance Florence, it is evident that certain factors, some combination of at least the following, are usually present.
A specific and limited geographical center
An advanced level of civilization
Economic prosperity
Peace, or at least the absence of debilitating wars
An adequate educational system
Existing groups of artists and artisans
A pervading sense of confidence and purpose
At least some freedom to question and innovate
Patronage from enlightened and confident individuals or institutions
   with powerful convictions
    And, of course, once a great movement in the arts is underway, it will develop a momentum of its own, partly from the inspiration the dominate style gives artists, partly from artists competing to outdo each other, and partly from the reciprocal and stimulating relationship that develops between individual artists and the dominant style.

    But, even when all of these factors are present, it is never inevitable that a cultural flowering will occur.  Exactly why it happens remains elusive, one of those many mysteries that makes the study of human beings and their history forever exhilarating and rewarding.

This Page is Maintained by Robert W. Brown
Last Update:  21.VIII.2006

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