< >


 

 

YURI BOREV

AESTHETICS

AESTHETICS: THE ONTOLOGY OF ART
The Branch of Knowledge that Deals with the Social Being of Culture

STYLE IN ART

Style as a Category of the Ontology of Art

The concept of style has many aspects and is used by different sciences, including literary criticism, art criticism, linguistics, the history of culture and aesthetics. The broader the interpretation of this concept, which now can be applied to clothes, fashion, behaviour, play, work, management, thinking and way of life, the broader its meaning as an element of culture. Style becomes the quality of a certain culture which distinguishes it from any other culture, a constructive principle of the formation of culture. Acquiring cultural value, an object also acquires a certain style, which says that it belongs to a certain social and historical segment of a certain culture. An object's style is not only its appearance but, first and foremost, an indicator of its material and spiritual function within a given culture; in other words, style reveals the functional characteristics of an object or phenomenon.
The approach to style as a quality of culture has proved a fruitful one and is used both by aesthetics and literary and art criticism. The goal of a work of art – to affect the recipient in a certain way – lies beyond the boundaries of art. But by virtue of the principle of feedback, this goal influences the whole process of creating a stylistically expressive work and its future functioning. Art criticism interprets style as limited multitude of elements which are stable, qualitatively definite and expressive.
Style in art is neither form, nor content, nor even their unity. Attempts to define style through these categories have been fruitless. Style relates to form, content and their unity as the "form" and "content" of a living organism relate to a set of genes in its cell. The genes determine the organisation of a given being, its characteristics as an individual and a member of a certain family and species, and its type as a whole. Style is "the set of genes" which determines the type of culture. It is a representative of the whole in each "cell" of a work of art. Subordinating every detail to the overall constructive intent, style determines the structure of the work of art and its place in a culture.
The selectivity of style is both spiritually and historically conditioned. Style is the tendency of all the elements in a work of art towards its centre, the centrifugal force which unites them in a single whole. Style "centralises" a work of art and becomes the pivot of the creative process. Style determines the most general features of a work of art and the basic principle of the organisation of the artist's world.

The Functional Diversity of Style

What are the functions of style? The very understanding of the social and aesthetic nature of this phenomenon depends on the answer of this question.
1. Style is a factor of the creative process which unites it, gives it direction and provides the artist with landmarks to be guided by when evolving his world outlook. Style makes sure that the varied impressions of life fall into a harmonious system, thus allowing the artist to avoid the trap of eclecticism.
2. Style is a factor of the evolution of art which helps the artist to find his place in the art of his time. It ensures continuity of tradition and makes possible the cultural interrelation of different epochs without disrupting the structure of a work of art, which corresponds to the personality of the artist and to his time.
3. Style is a factor of the social being of a work of art, i.e. the factor which points to the artist's social views. Thanks to style, a work of art acquires completeness and begins to exist as an independent social phenomenon.
4. Style is a factor of the influence exerted by a work of art. It determines the nature of the aesthetic effect it has on the audience making the artist address his work to a certain section of the public, and the public, to accept a certain type of art.
The channels through which style operates show that it is selective towards the material provided by life, cultural tradition, social goals, and the public.
Style is the carrier of the immediate influence of art on human consciousness. The meaning and concept of a work of art appeal to the reason, and the system of images – to the mind and feelings of the recipient. Style gives an idea of the quality of a work of art as a whole through a single momentary spurt of information which contains no details. Having formed an idea as to the style of a work, the reader or spectator is frequently able to say a good deal about it, even whether it is worth finishing, although he may have read through the first stanza of a poem or seen the first act of a play only.
Here, we come up against the informative aspect of style, with its role as the focus of artistic communication which gathers all the threads connecting the artist with the audience through his work. At this point, the creation of a work of art becomes its existence and later, perception.
Working on a book, the writer has the reader in his mind's eye. The latter looms behind the process of creation as the goal for which the artist is working. In his turn, the writer is always present in the reader's consciousness. The charm of the artist's name, the attraction of his fame, the authority of his taste, his professional status established by literary criticism and accepted by public opinion, the reader's familiarity with the writer's earlier works, which reflect his personality – all this constitutes both the psychological background of perception, its incentive, and the motive behind the intellectual process as a whole. In other words, the writer and the reader will meet only if both intend to do so, if each sees the other as the goal, if the desire to attain intellectual and spiritual union is mutual. Style is the point where their wishes come together, their meeting-ground. It is through style that the writer passes on proof of his authority and the stamp of his personality which is manifest in every single element of his work down to the individual phrase with its structure, rhythm and intonation. Style allows the audience to recognise its favourites and feel their proximity to its collective frame of mind.
Style builds (or interrupts) the chain life – artist – work of art – executor – recipient – life, with life being both the beginning and the end: it provides the artist with material and it is changed by the public under the influence of a work of art. In this sense, style affects culture as a whole.
Style reflects the character, direction and degree of man's aesthetic mastery over the world and is also the carrier of aesthetic value, since aesthetic exploration of the world is prompted not by the needs of consumption but by man's intellectual needs. The meaning and value of art become united in style. Style is a source of enjoyment derived both from grasping the general message of the work of art and from endless penetration into its in-depth layers.
The enjoyment of art begins when the recipient forgets about its conditional nature, draws a parallel between art and life, and recognises the real in the figurative. Art for the elite deliberately complicates recognition seeking to afford maximum pleasure to a minimum number of connoisseurs. But such works run the risk of remaining completely obscure or even losing all meaning. In the art which belongs to the so-called mass culture on the other hand, symbolic representation is almost absent; as a result, it requires hardly any intellectual effort to be understood. It is accessible to all but is not very informative aesthetically; owing to the ease with which reality can be perceived through the figurative, it gives minimum pleasure to the maximum number of ill-prepared recipients. Only the golden mean: the balance between lucidity and obscurity, a combination of clarity with the difficul-to-grasp "residue of meaning", easy recognition of reality through the figurative but not their coincidence, a blend of familiarity and novelty produce a truly valuable work of art and form a style which does not fade with time and does not oppose the general public to the connoisseurs but makes a connoisseur out of everyone. This disposes of the fatal contradiction of art – that between art for the elite and art for the masses.

The Structure of Style

Style, be it the style of an individual work of art or culture as a whole, is a complex structure which has many levels. It reflects the author's integral personality, his intent, the characteristic features of the trend the artist represents, and the entire cultural heritage which has formed the basis of his work.
The deepest, "generative" level of style is that aspect of it which is known as the original phenomenon of culture. It makes it possible to trace the emergence and being of style both in the history of culture and in the creation and existence of an individual work of art.
The first thing to appear when a poem is written is rhythmically organised intonation which conveys the poet's emotional state and reflects the value-aesthetic relationship between the process of creation and the theme. After that, the whole is given verbal form. In other words, the "generative" level is the level of theme and intonation, and the generated level is that of meaning and value. Similarly, the first products of culture were united by theme and intonation, which was determined by the common history of the peoples and the similarity of their historical experience; later, they affected the art of a given region both as concerns its meaning and the values it upheld.
This first stylistic level embraces, for instance, all phenomena of Indo-European art.
The second stylistic level comprises the national stylistic features of a culture. Here, the regional style (a single store of themes, intonation and rhythm) acquires a concrete quality resting as it does on the cultural experience of a given nation in history. A national style is easy to distinguish. Guided by style, it is possible to tell a Russian work of art from a German or a French one. A good poetic translation can preserve the national colour of the original, for the national style does not amount to the language but makes itself felt in the rhythm, intonation and theme as well.
The next level of style is the national style of a given period of the nation's historical and cultural development, e.g. French classicism or Italian baroque. At this level, it is sometimes possible to single out the style of an individual art, e.g. Russian Empire-style in architecture, or even of an individual genre, e.g. the style of the Faiyum portrait. On the other hand, this level of style can be extended not only to the phenomena of art but also to culture as a whole. It is quite legitimate to speak of mediaeval culture of the comic, the penetration of the carnival into all aspects of the style of mediaeval man's activities.
A more recent level of style is the style of each of the competing art trends. Up to a certain point in history, art had not been split into opposing trends, which emerged eventually with the evolution of art. Within each trend an individual style has been evolved. For instance, dissimilar realistic works all have certain stylistic features which allow us to recognise the trend they belong to.
The style of a trend is changeable. It may expand to embrace landscape design, etiquette and fashions, as classicism did, or contract and become manifest only in the works of certain schools or movements included in a given trend. In this case, one may speak about yet another level of style – that of movement.
The most recent level of style historically is the individual style of the artist, which reflects the type of his figurative thinking. The individual style emerged as soon as man has been shaped as a personality and acquired self-awareness and individuality of tastes, principles and actions. Alexander Blok, the famous Russian poet, said that the style of each writer is so closely linked to the content of his soul that a discerning eye can see the soul through the style. In our epoch of condensed time, human life has become more capacious than ever before. The formerly stable characteristics of a mature personality, i.e. individuality, type of mentality, value orientations – can now undergo drastic changes in the course of the artist's life, as a result of which the style of his work also changes and can be described as the style of the artist's this or that period. Picasso's "blue" and "rose" periods differ stylistically, but at the same time both bear the stamp of the painter's individual style, since throughout all metamorphoses, even qualitative ones, the personality retains its kernel, and what the others see is the same but different man.
The tempo of the inner life of a genius may be so quick that any single work of his can have a style of its own. Every section of such work will have something of the whole linking it to the other sections, but the work in its entirety will differ stylistically from the other works by the same artist. In other words, there is also such a thing as the style of a work of art.
In the 20th century, yet another level of style has emerged – the style of an element of a work of art. It is clearly perceptible in collage with its mosaic-like quality, especially in music and painting. Collage does not merely "quote" other works, as was the case with Bach, but mechanically assimilates incompatible fragments which are stylistically alien to each other. One of the first to explore the possibilities of collage in music was Igor Stravinsky. A polystylistic work of art is perceived as a complete one thanks to the existence of other levels of style.
A separate stylistic level is the style of the art of different countries produced by the same epoch. French, German and Russian classicism, for example, have common stylistic characteristics, due to, first, common features of that stage of historical development which produced similar ways of life and modes and forms of activity and, as a result, a similarity of cultures; and, second, international cultural communications, with France as their centre.
The most extensive stylistic level historically is the style of the epoch. It embraces the stylistic diversity of all the works of art produced by a given epoch even when they belong to stylistically opposite trends.
Style is a manifestation of culture as a whole, a visible sign of art as a system. As the complexity of this system increases, its common features become more and more obscure. Certain critics refuse to acknowledge that modern art has any common style at all considering this a feature of art at the earlier stages of its development. But even today, the style of the epoch exists which characterises modern art as a whole despite the fact that its evolution has become very complex indeed and that individual art trends, and within them, individual works, grow increasingly more dissimilar stylistically. As the most general feature uniting a multitude of individual phenomena and groups, the style of the epoch records not only the individual and inimitable but also that which makes every artist a representative of a given historical period.
In the course of the evolution of culture, the number of common features of style increased and at the same time the structure of style became more diversified and both the individual works and the process of the development of art as a whole grew more complex. In other words, a regularity of the evolution of art is a dialectical process in the course of which the structure of individual works becomes more complex and the number of stylistic levels in it and the degree of its dissimilarity and at the same time unity with the other phenomena of culture increase.
It is well known that man can stay apart as an individual only in society. Similar dialectics of the general and the particular is a feature of culture as well. As art progresses, individual works diverge from the principal trend sometimes to become a genre in their own right marked by an inimitable style: recall, for example, Goethe's Faust, Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman or Gogol's Dead Souls. At the same time, common features of style also develop: 1) the "generative" regional style; 2) the national style; 3) the style of the art created by a given nation in a given period; 4) the style of an art trend (or school or movement); 5) the individual style of an artist; 6) the style of the artist's given period; 7) the style of a work of art; 8) the style of an element of a work of art (the collage quality of style); 9) the style of the epoch, which leaves its stamp on all the style levels mentioned above.

The Life of Style in a Work of Art

Let us trace the life of style in a work of art using Pushkin's poem The Bronze Horseman as an example. The images of the poem are of a general philosophic, allegorical and symbolic nature.
The River Neva, which "like a charger panted from field of combat newly fled...", emerges not only as a natural but also a social force. The consequences of the flood are socially destructive. Acquiring human characteristics, the river proves a robber, a brigand, a villain. Neva is now regally calm, now rebellious. Drawing a parallel between the flood and the power of public wrath, Pushkin uses the image of the besieged Winter Palace, which looked like a "lonely isle" in the midst of the flood.
The Bronze Horseman is the person who has got astride the elements managing them with an iron hand. The horse – the Neva – state power – the people – the rebellion – all these are links in a chain of metaphors, a cascade of transferred meaning, allegorical parallels and a profound content. This short poem is a quintessence of meaning. Its shortness is not only the result of the poet's unerring sense of measure in art but a sign of its condensed meaning. Of course the flood is not identical with a popular insurrection but is does help to reveal the nature of the latter: at times, there is a likeness between the two, and at times, a direct link appears between the flood and the real people lining the banks of the river waiting for the outcome:

Stricken

By God's unlooked-for, awful wrath,
The people wait for certain death!...

From the allegorical point of view, it is important that the river, which Peter has imprisoned into granite, is hostile both to the Bronze Horseman, the embodiment of state power, to Yevgeny, an impoverished nobleman, and to the people whose welfare and property are irrevocably damaged.
The opening and the conflict of the poem conform absolutely to the canons of classicism: the idea of personal happiness represented by Yevgeny clashed with the idea of the statehood represented by Peter. But the outcome of the conflict is not a classicist one. Neither of the protagonists is given advantage; the poet poses the question of a balance between history and the present, personality and the statehood, happiness and legality. The concept of The Bronze Horseman is treated realistically: Pushkin was acutely aware that the individual and society cannot resist the pressure of history which must interfere into all the events and change them. All Russian history is concentrated in the idea of statehood, which means order and discipline. The flood symbolises historical chaos. As the embankment and the bridges built by man to curb the elements are swept away by water, so does rebellion break into statehood destroying it – after it has destroyed the private life of Yevgeny who stood up to statehood.
In The Bronze Horseman, Pushkin has made a veritable discovery in the realm of linguistic means, using the poetic language of the ode as the language of Aesop. The verse itself has become his defence against censorship: the poem produces a distinct impression that Pushkin extolls Peter, St. Petersburg, his creation , and the life style of his epoch. Evading the obstacles put up by the strict tsarist censorship, the language of Aesop at the same time serves a purely literary purpose, conveying irony. All these are signs of the complex, multi-tiered structure of the poem.
The form of the ode has traditionally been used to convey lofty ideas. Pushkin has broken and changed this tradition rooted in Russian 18th-century literature. The style of the ode in his poem serves not only to extoll the sublime – Peter's idea of a new capital of Russia and the stately city created by his will – but show the humdrum daily life of Yevgeny and his quest of personal happiness, and even the base and the negative, such as the tsar's wrath directed at a man who is no match for him, the Bronze Horseman's persecution of Yevgeny, and other inhuman acts of the despot. Organically ingrained in the elevated vocabulary of the poem, words borrowed from ordinary speech acquire a disguised critical force. The internal contradiction between the traditional elevated form of the ode and the content with its wealth and diversity of meaning produces an impact which has an explosive effect: a phrase which is first perceived as expressing admiration is suddenly seen as a carrier of criticism contained both in its meaning and style. Pushkin has put the ode in the service of both extolment and exposure, a fact which testifies to the poet's professional skill, his novel approach to the material and his ability to use traditional literary technique to deal with a new set of ideological and poetic issues.
Pushkin develops the theme of Yevgeny mostly using everyday language. But when brought together by genius, ordinary words add up to great poetry:

And so, once in his house, Yevgeny
Shook out his rain-soaked cloak, undressed
And went to bed. He tried his best
To go to sleep, but failed: too many
Thoughts filled his brain.

However, as soon as Pushkin passes on to a description of Yevgeny's rebellion, his language changes to the elevated verse formerly used only to portray Peter: from an insignificant man who is "a clerk and in Kolomna living", Yevgeny grows into an opponent of the "wrathful" tsar and thus merits the same language as Peter himself. The man whom the tsar did not deem necessary to consider when making plans for his state and executing them suddenly becomes an object of his attention and comes to be regarded as a force which equals that of the man "who had in sway held half the world". In The Bronze Horseman, Pushkin managed to attain a perfect balance between the contemporary and the archaic, the humdrum and ordinary and the elevated and worthy of poetic exaltation. Style is the ruler which extends its power over each element of a work of art. Therefore, in order to grasp the style of The Bronze Horseman, it is sufficient to analyse just one phrase, stanza or part of the poem, in the light of the whole. Such analysis should bring to light the principle underlying the poem's style which will act, show itself and determine the progress of each part, stanza and line.
Everything in Pushkin's poem has two sides to it: St. Petersburg, the flood, Peter, and Yevgeny. St. Petersburg is both beautiful and horrible, the flood is an evil force and a free play of the elements; Peter is great as a statesman and cruel towards the individual; Yevgeny's poverty is pitiful but his love is great; his life-status is humiliating while his dreams of independence and honour elevate him; his insanity is pathetic, while his rebellion is sublime. Even his death is both undignified and highly meaningful: insane, he dies on a desert island, but this island is either the place or reminds one of the places where people are buried whose "insanity" was of the highest order – leaders of the historically doomed Decembrists' Uprising against despotism in Russia.
Style represents the whole in every unit of the text, while the thing which makes the poem a single whole is the duality of all its elements. Everything in the poem is split in two, double-faced, has two ends, two sides and proves its own opposite: good and evil, baseness and sublimity, wretchedness and grandeur, insanity and reason. The style itself shows the poet's awareness of the dialectical quality of life, its great controversies, changes of one thing into another, the kinship and hostility of opposites and the hostility and kinship of that which is similar.
Another aspect of the style of The Bronze Horseman is its allegorical character. The text, which deals with a concrete situation, is at the same time superimposed on the three historic periods present in the poem: that of Peter – the building of St. Petersburg, of Alexander I – the flood, and of Nicholas I – the time of Pushkin. It is this superimposition that accounts for the profoundly metaphorical quality of the poem. At one end of the metaphor is the reality of art depicted by Pushkin, and at the other, the historic figures, events and problems of the three epochs which form the background for the characters and situations of the poem. All this produces that internal dynamics and the universal character of the text of The Bronze Horseman which allows its images to become projected onto new historic situations and figures making the poem eternally topical.
Ordinary and elevated poetic narration and extolment, criticism and admiration, the sublime and the base – all these opposites are blended in the style of The Bronze Horseman into a single whole. In each phrase, stanza and part of the poem, one of the opposites plays the leading role, but the other is also present, and their harmony becomes obvious only when each of the segments of the poem is seen in the light of the whole.
The poem's stylistic principles have a single root: the dialectical quality of the style of The Bronze Horseman is a tense harmony which unites the profound controversies of life and of the poet's consciousness into a harmonious poetic world built in accordance with the laws of beauty.

next