Art Style

Some thoughts on the uses of style in contemporary visual art

As a student of art in the ‘sixties I understood the artist’s task to be one of the gradual refinement of style. Modernist exemplars included Piet Mondrian, whose linear development from the early drawings of trees through to the minimal abstractions of his great middle period, was only upset by the stylistic aberration of the late ‘Broadway Boogie-Woogie’, in which something uncharacteristically personal was revealed; a love of jazz and dancing. It didn’t fit the reductionist script any more than Kasimir Malevich’s late reversion to figuration. Often glossed over by tutors and historians, these incongruities troubled me.

I hadn’t realised that I was myself considered stylistically promiscuous until another artist commented that each new series of my work looked different from the last. At the time I wasn’t sure whether this was intended as a criticism or compliment, but settled on the latter. I now have my doubts as both he and the majority of artists of my generation have stuck doggedly to a style formed sometime in the early years of their career.

There are undoubtedly commercial pressures on artists that re-enforce this tendency towards stylistic stasis. Financial journalist Felix Salmon suggests ‘Now that people are buying global brands, you need branded galleries selling branded artists. Every single contemporary artist… is instantly recognisable as being that artist first and foremost.’ As with all brands, it is through the repetition of visual style that the artist becomes ‘instantly recognised’. Once established, the temptation for an artist whose work is selling is to keep producing more of the same. It becomes like printing money.

There is a price to pay for adopting such financial priorities, however, and it is that of creative freedom. Trumpeter Don Cherry, who tirelessly experimented with different genres of so-called world-music, said that for him ‘Style is like a straitjacket…you end up imitating yourself.’ Pablo Picasso, along similar lines, stated that ‘Style is something that locks a painter into a vision, the same technique, the same formula. One recognises it immediately, but it is always the same suit, or the same cut of suit.’

Picasso’s analogy between tailoring and art style has interesting implications. To fix on a sartorial style and always dress in the same manner turns ones clothing into a uniform. The author Hermann Broch writes in The Sleepwalkers, that it is ‘the uniform’s true function to manifest and ordain order in the world, to arrest the confusion and flux of life…life itself, recedes to a distance’. To embrace the ‘confusion and flux of life’ is surely one of the artist’s tasks, but can this be achieved using one fixed language for all occasions and all subjects?

Picasso knew how to dress, delighting as he did in costumes and role-playing. Whether the matador, peasant, man-about-town, worker, dandy, or beach bum, it was all played as exuberant theatre. The same creative playfulness permeates his work across media, styles and periods of his long career. Confident in the stability and strength of his inner core, he felt able to express himself freely in whatever form his creative intuitions and interests led him.

We recognise a Picasso not through stylistic continuity, but by close attention to the developmental narrative of his life’s work. Following this takes sustained effort, concentration and intellectual investment on the part of the viewer, which is at odds with our current culture. Today’s art market values fashionable product, the one off idea, the headline grabber, over the notion of canonical works. Without the canon of illustrious artists, and the connoisseurship and critical culture needed to support it, all artists become of equal value, or no value. What distinguishes one from another is now visibility, however fleeting, which is manufactured by the market and media working in cahoots.

Independent critics John Berger, Peter Fuller, Andrew Brighton and Brandon Taylor were amongst my early influences. These were serious intellectuals, with whom one might on occasion disagree, but nevertheless always value and respect them for their rigorous and informed thinking. In their place a generation of lightweight media hacks has now emerged, who dance to the tune of powerful galleries and art institutions.

To return to my original question; can the ‘confusion and flux of life’ be depicted using one fixed language for all occasions and all subjects? The old modernist adage of ‘form follows function,’ is re-configured in my work as ‘style follows subject’. In other words, visual style is not predetermined, but grows out of the subject matter engaged with.

There are a number of limitations to this approach, including the artist’s abilities and imagination, and technical aspects of the chosen media. But its value is in decentring the artist and foregrounding the subject. It insists on recognition of the primary value of the world, and an apprehension of the actions and motives of our forbearers and contemporaries. It is an ethical understanding of the role of art.

As an artist forty-five years into his career, what continues to matter is paying heed to the world, and the renewal of my expressive language, thus avoiding the pathos of writer Roger Wade in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, who finds himself condemned to imitating his earlier successes, and ‘reading my old stuff for inspiration’.

John Goto
Oxford 2017

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