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Style Art History A843 Block 2 Ex. 1.3

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Style Art History A843 Block 2 Ex. 1.3

Jaṡ Elsner (2003) ‘Style’

Style art history, according to Elsner, begins by attaching a meaning to the term ‘style’ that allows it to signify something distinct about a person, an age, a cultural movement or a group, that is remains constant (whatever changes occur) while that person, age etc. persists and retains its character and life.

This is a complicated definition because it implies not only ontology but a dynamic story which explains and complicates that ontological entity. It does not exist outside a descriptive story or ekphrasis.

This is why we call it a ‘history’ but we need to emphasise in that term the constituent of ‘story’ or narrative. There are two types, with one type having two sub-types, of possible story that characterise the dynamics of style: Linear or metamorphic, although a mixed form is possible, and together all three may appear in a number of sequential combinations:

1.      Linear story

a.      Linear story of decline / self-betrayal

b.      Linear story of improvement / self-realisation

2.      Metamorphosis story

The style undergoes such significant changes within and without such that it changes its ontological nature – into another distinct style.

History can be seen as such a pattern – either simply as one of the above or a combination of any 2 or all 3. The choice of pattern(s) will depend on the phase indicated in the story as that which we see occur in its middle between a beginning & an end.

So Gibbon & Raphael tell a story of the decline of Roman art and culture. Vasari one of transformation – from Greek manner to rebirth and then one of improvement / self-realisation. Of course one sees cycles in Vasari’s story, since a decline may follow a ‘self-realisation’ in art such as Raphael. One can analyse the temporal bricolage of the Arch of Constantine in these terms: ‘spolia’ from artefacts of a more illustrious time mix with examples from a contemporary decay of style (or if you prefer a metamorphosis of style).

Is style still evident & relevant?

It is because it allows us a language to talk about elements of stasis or movement in time that can be plotted chronologically – even if with overlaps. It will be relevant as long as we need to explicate spatial-temporal phenomena, since ekphrasis offers a description that passes as an explanation – of an historical shift.

However, it also serves as a means of applying value judgements to history that are usually poorly substantiate – a decline moves from something good to something not so good, etc. However, a metamorphosis is more like a paradigm shift where we are not interested in values changing but merely comparison of difference.

It works by COMPARISON of artefacts where the story of the intervening spaces between the artefacts – of space & time – are seen as explanatory of that difference in some way. Asa long as we need such comparisons, we probably need this level of explanation. However, it should not be seen as enough of an explanation in itself. Why?

·        It only pretends to empiricism & ‘objectivity’

·        It relies on the authoritative experience of the interpretative comparison. It validates the role of the expert over other forms of knowing or uses of evidence.

·        It may use assumptions that are unquestioned – about value, or relationships between form and content.

·        It assumes constancies that may not explain multicultural contexts or contexts in which values in relation to artefacts are contested as part of their contemporaneity.

·        It may pass as ‘history’ in a way that is reductive or biased to one set of interests.

·        It supports overlarge generalisations of change: Onians’ ‘neuroarthistory’ for instance, based on Riegl’s notion of ‘necessary transition made by the human mind.’ What is this necessity? Does it remain vague and claim to be unspecifiable – which it is not in, say, Hegelian or Marxist dialectics.

All the best


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