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Sunday 28 September 2008


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.


Art Durkee said...

Jose Arguelles makes a solid argument in his early book "The Transformative Vision" that photography was what lit the fuse under the Impressionists. It was a response to photography, in that the way we saw the world had been changed, and some artists ran with the new possibility. More than one Impressionist painter experimented with or collected photographs. Perhaps the distinction between them and other painters was that they had an open mind to new possibilities, whereas the Salon painters could not look outside the blinders of their traditions. Style can be a straightjacket, too, when it becomes ossified. Over in the US, Thomas Eakins went through some parallel evolutions regarding innovation in painting.

Good thoughts.

Andy Sewina said...

Now you've really got me thinking. 'The eyes may have thoughts of their own...' etc.

Dave King said...

Art Durkee

Thanks for the reference: I will look up Jose Arguelles. I do not doubt that is correct for most of the Impressionists, I know they took a great deal from photography, not just the cropping of the image (as with Degas, for example). Picasso was different. I think: for him the catalyst was African Art.

Dave King said...

Sweet Talking Guy

I think you can absorb an image, almost as a form of meditation, so that it works below the conscious level. Later the reason brings it more to the surface.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, very engaging post the latest one, I totally agree with you about The Breath Of Fresh Air and about the previous post I agree also on Carol Ann Duffy, she is my favourite poetess, I read four times her collection "Rapture".

Art Durkee said...

I think Picasso was The Great Sampler: he sampled form everything and everybody. He had a well-known rivalry with Matisse, in that they both pushed each other as artists to be better artists. They were friends and also rivals. Picasso got a lot of ideas from everything he encountered, and turned them into his own. That was a real gift. I definitely agree that his encounter with African art was a major influence for him, and led to a breakthrough; but it wasn't the only time it happened.

I'm also thinking of the influence of Japanese prints on van Gogh, which had a similar impact on his art, parallel to Picasso's discovery of African art.

The African art exhibitions in Europe at the time were also the source of inspiration for the Fauves, some of the Surrealists and Dada, and others. It was a big impact on European art, and led to an interest in "primitivism" that also cycled into an interest in art by children and people in insane asylums, as the CoBrA art movement became fascinated with. And then there's graffiti art, later on.

I think it's a constant cycle between the familiar and the unfamiliar, with the latter regularly re-infusing the established art world, which tends to go stale and conservative every couple of generations, with new life, new vigor, and new imagery with which to be inspired. I already mentioned the influence of Japanese art on van Gogh; but its also influenced Whistler, the Art Nouveau artists such as Mucha, and others.

Make sense?

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I ran across a debate about whether Frank O'Hara had actually written one of his more famous poems -- Was it truly characteristic of him? one skeptic asked.

No one else has taken credit for the poem, though suspicions pointed to Kenneth Koch who had possession of it after O'Hara's death. Was the poem characteristic of Koch?

In which case would it be a better poem?

Dave King said...

Thanks for the feedback. Have you read the book Duffy has edited, Answering Back responses by contemorary poets to older poems?

Dave King said...

Art Durkee

Yes, I would agree with all of that, particularly your constant cycle between the familiar and unfamiliar.The influence of Japanese art became very pervasive indeed.

Dave King said...

The age-old debate, of course. Does a painting attributed to, say, Gainsborough become less of a painting (as opposed to less valuable) when it is discovered to be by another hand? It doesn't so far as I am concerned.

Anonymous said...

Really excellent post and I have enjoyed. Very informative and useful. Danilo Kis said once that experimenting in art is limitless, but under the condition that there must be at least some "human tracks in the sand". So what it boils down to is said in Picasso's conclusion: there must be some real-life issues around.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that. Yes, I would agree , that is the main requirement - that there are some real-life issues around.

Jim Murdoch said...

I made this comment on some other blog recently and I'll probably include it in the review I'm working on just now but when did 'derivative' become such a bad word? Everything derives from something. There is simply not enough originality going around to let everyone have their own slice. I'm listening to a piano concerto right now by Ronald Stevenson and, if I didn't know who it was by already, I could see any number of composers in there pretty much from Beethoven on. It's a perfectly competent work so why should I try and put the guy down?

The problem I find with style and brands - now there is a word I hate - is that they can get old very quickly. I think about pop groups who churn out the same record over and over again and usually vanish within a year ot two. Why isn't Hurst sticking with pickling animals? Because he's milked it for all it's worth. Time to move on.

Dave King said...

I am now a worried man: I am currently working on a post about cliches, and in that I am dealing with the same issue (the rage for originality). We overlap like this often enough for me to wonder if it is a case of great minds...

Anonymous said...

Another damn fine read, Dave. With you pretty much all of the way so no counter-thesis here!

Marion McCready said...

I often think of Edwin Morgan as the Madonna of poetry - he constantly reinvents his style of writing, can turn his hand to any style it seems. This is a great bonus, a lot writing can end up as self-parody - if the poet sticks to the same old formula that worked for him once.

On the other hand one of the problems I had with O'Hara's The Drowned Book was the inconsistent tone in the poetry throughout, I found it rather off-putting.

Dave King said...

Thanks Dick, I can live with that!

Dave King said...

I rather like the idea of Edwin Morgan as the Madonna of poetry, and I take the point about the writing that ends up almost as self-parody.
I didn't myself have that problem with The Drowned Book, but I can quite see how someone might.

Anonymous said...

Very interested in what you have to say about poetry, Dave. I'm definitely of the view that form and content are inextricably linked. And on the subject of voice or style, should poet/artist been limited to one? Modernists like Eliot and Pound often used a persona; something a number of contemporary critics do not seem to understand. I did an OU course on Twentieth Century literature a couple of years ago and frequently found myself defending Eliot. I wrote a poem about it. It's not a particularly good poem but I think the sentiment is clear.
Thomas Stearns Eliot R.I.P

Thanks for visiting my blog. There's obviously plenty more here for me to read.

Dave King said...


Many thanks for that. I'm not sure where English (British) poetry would be now if Eliot had never come along.

I have read your poem. It is very impressive. I particularly liked the way that each verse is dedated to one image, one idea, It makes for a very lucid poem indeed.

You may have noticed that I have added your site to my list of blogs. Hope that is okay by you.

The final line brings it all together beautifully.

Ellumbra said...

Hi Dave - how about a new style for you (guaranteed to make you cringe)
A poem written in txt -

I wndrd lnly as a cld . . .

Please spare us all from that!!!