At art school in the early fifties, as I recall, there were two five-letter words that were as taboo as any with four letters: style and taste. I speak only of the students, for I cannot recall what the position of our lecturers was on these issues. Taste was a rude word signifying a person who knew what he liked- usually translated as meaning a person who liked what he knew. Style was a no-no, I think because it was seen as something trivial, not part of anyone's great vision. Yet it is difficult to conceive of either a painting or an example of literature that does not display a style of some sort. If it is pared to the bone, that in itself is a very distinctive style.
How times do change: only last week we were reading of Damien Hurst's former girl friend who owns a painting by him, his first according to her, given to her by Damien while they were still an item. It is a perfectly straight-forward painting of a cat. She has been fondly imagining herself to be sitting on a fortune, but alas, when she took it along to Sotherby's recently, she was told that it was worthless. Why? Well, not because it was an early, immature work - which it was, of course. And not because it was poorly conceived or crudely executed. Any of those would have been good and valid reasons for declaring a painting worthless - in my humble opinion. But, no, she was told that it was of no value because it was not in his trademark style. Translated, that means, it is a painting and not something preserved in formaldehyde. Okay, someone has now offered her £5000, but she still wants - or wanted, I might have missed out on the final chapter of the story - at least ten times that figure. (Yes, quite!) In the same paper I read a piece on Gerhard Richter, an who insists on swimming against the current tide by refusing to limit himself to a single (trademark) style. A trademark style, he insists, is not necessary for success. All power to his brush!
So when did this all come about, this general insistence on the trademark style? Picasso certainly did not have any truck with it. He experimented with most of the styles around (and maybe a few that were not) as the three accompanying images are intended to illustrate. And that was not just in his salad days, but right through his career. His various periods took in Naturalism, with his blue and rose periods,African Art, Primitivism, Cubism, collage works, Surrealism and various degrees of abstraction.
We get the same attitude in poetry. There are many good things to be found in his poetry, says a critic, but he is lacking his own voice. It is an ambiguous remark to the extent that it can sometimes be taken to mean that he is not saying anything original, at other times that though he has an original take on the world, he is not expressing it in an original way. In actual fact I am not sure about that as a possibility where poetry is concerned. There are two main positions, each defended by enthusiastic poetic combatants; there is the dualist view that style allows you to express very similar (though not identical) thoughts in different ways; and the monist standpoint that form and content are inseparable, that if you change the form you will inevitably change the meaning. Where poetry is concerned I am a monist. (And I think I am one where painting is concerned - though I might have to give that a bit more thought.)
For me, poetry must always involve an interplay between form, content and style. One poet piles on image after image, another pares them down, and just as for one painter meaning is inseparable from detail, whilst another gives us acres of one slightly scintillating colour, so does poetry have its counterparts to those.. Within each of the various genres (literature) and schools (painting) is a structure of accepted conventions which readers and viewers well understand. Style is (or was) one of those conventions. Once it meant that works of art coming from a certain place and time could be attributed to that place and time by means of their distinctive style. Today the situation is not that straight-forward, but even now, if you depart too far from the accepted conventions, you may not carry your target audience (to use the current jargon) with you.
Alternatively, depart far enough and your work may become a breath of fresh air blowing through a stifling atmosphere becoming ever more stale. T.S.Eliot's Wasteland had such an effect. Perhaps not immediately, so far as the majority were concerned, but late in the day it became a breath of fresh air for me. I recall when I was first exposed to it - though that was more than three decades after it was written. I still find it incredible to think that there was that time lag. What were our poetry teachers reading all those years? To me the breath of fresh air was almost scriptural.The wind bloweth where it listeth, you hear its sound, but no man knoweth whence it comes or where it goes. (John 3.8) I didn't understand where the ideas were coming from, not at first. Neither did I know where they were taking me. It has often been like that for me: understanding may not come at once, perhaps not for a long time, but it may perhaps be enough to stand in front of a painting and take it in. The eyes may have thoughts of their own of which the brain is unaware. The ears may react to an unfamiliar verse form long before the brain can catch up.
Sometimes something unconnected with the art form, say a technical advance or a social change, will bring about a new style. (Once it would have been something of that nature, for sure, but these days it could as easily be just someone striving to be different.) For the the Impressionists, for example, the catalyst had to do with the paints. For the first time in history it was no longer the case that the artist had to mix his own in the studio, but was able to buy them ready-mixed in tubes. Consequently, he was no longer confined to painting in the studio, but could take his easel, his canvas, his brushes, and his tubes of mixed paint out into the countryside and paint the scenes before his eyes. At the same time there were the twin influences of Japanese prints and of the photographers with their revolutionary cropping of the image, sometimes across a figure. All this, of course, led to changes that went far beyond what we would normally think of as style. Style, content and meaning (whatever that means!) become inextricably mixed. As they did, for example, when Picasso began to play (I chose the word instinctively, but allowed it only after careful thought) with images from African sculpture. Picasso was always playing around with images and techniques, but perhaps sometimes he played with more than he might have appreciated at the time. The simile that almost invariably comes to mind when I think of the artist playing, let's say absent mindedly, with the power that can reside in an image - which is a creative thing to do - is of Humboldt, the explorer, on the banks of the Orinoco River coming upon some native children playing with the dried seed pods of a sunflower-like plant. They were rubbing them vigorously and then holding them high in the air, at which point all manner of tiny creatures, small objects and debris blowing around in the air were drawn to them and stuck there. They do not know with what they play, said Humboldt, it being, of course, electricity. Picasso could not have seen in the African heads, masks and figures, what their makers had seen in them, but what he was playing with, as it turned out, was the power that drove him to his Demoiselles d'Avignon. There had been other influences, the painting had had a lengthy gestation period, but African Art was what lit the fuse and produced the blast that was to blow his artistic development completely off its old course and on to a new and previously unsuspected one. African art solved for Picasso the dilemma that was holding him back: how to come up with a radically new structure and form without losing the content and the allusions to real-life issues that were so important to him.
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