OU blog

Personal Blogs

New photo

Thoughts on ‘Style in Schapiro (1953): A843 Ex. 4.2.7

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 20 Dec 2017, 19:12

Thoughts on ‘Style in Schapiro (1953): A843 Ex. 4.2.7

As part of an exercise in close reading, consider Meyer Schapiro, ‘Style’  (1994 [1953]), and answer the following questions.

What kinds of intellectual work does Schapiro see the concept of style facilitating?

Schapiro conceives of style, I think, as a means of generalising certain abstract ‘qualities’ relating to a group or an individual at a particular historical moment – which in some cases constitutes the whole of some individual’s lives. These ‘qualities may range from defining elements, ‘expression’ and form – but are sometimes (perhaps as a sufficient and necessary condition of ‘style’) reduced to ‘form’ alone. However ‘form’ itself is not uncontested as a term - Wolfflin, for instance, sees form across a range existing between bipolar contrary qualities or elements.

For the duration of a ‘period’ of time, style then denotes certain constancies in form (at least) for a person – think of Picasso’s periods (Blue, analytic cubist, etc.) – or a historically identified group. In both cases those constancies might be attached to certain values implied by qualities – that might be variously ethical, spiritual, social or aesthetic (or ALL or a few of these in combination). To have ‘style’ then, within any period of relatively constant aesthetic forms for a geographical-temporal group can also be a normative statement, implying ranges of that ‘quality – from being without ‘style’ to being ‘stylish. This is what the Duchess of Windsor hints at when she says, ‘As for living, our servants can do this for us.’

I find it interesting that Schapiro limits our perception of such constancies to that which can be helped by common-sense psychology and social theory (my emphasis). Is this limitation a deliberate attempt to exclude factors that are unconscious in the maintenance of constancy or, at the very least, non-intuitive (such as social factors like status or income).

However Schapiro, whilst calling art history’s ‘construction of temporal & spatial distribution of styles’ systematic, both acknowledges that this construction is (perhaps forever) ‘incomplete’ and insists that variability across and within groups in time AND space ‘resist a systematic classification’. We are therefore in a world of contradictions which style discourse tries to harmonise, at least to ‘common-sense’.

Although there are no empirically established rules for identifying style it is justified experientially – not as a result of investigation but as a by-product of engaging in investigation: having ‘arisen from (that) experience.’, It works like a ‘language’, ‘admitting a varied intensity or delicacy of statement.’ Note how it is judged by the social characteristics of an elite, which combines intensity of being with a certain delicate tact in relation to those not fortunate enough to be ‘in’ that elite.

At what ‘levels’ does Schapiro see ‘style’ operating?

Let’s call these ‘levels’ (from low to high):

·        Characteristics of a behaviour or personality trait (noble or weak)

·        Characteristics of a person’s presentation at one point with regard to some activity or product of creativity;

·        Characteristics of a person or their work over a period of time or work

·        Characteristics of the social qualities / mores / actions of a group at one time

·        The same as above over a temporal duration

·        The culture of a group.

I’m sure one could go on. This is always the case with experientially and non-validated and non-orthogonal concepts. They generate boundaries and crossings thereof as of right. This is probably, in fact, a necessity of artistic creation at any of these levels.



How does Schapiro substantively characterise the concept of ‘style’?

He specifies these on p. 3:

1.         Form elements or motifs;

2.         Form relationships; &

3.         Qualities (including ‘expression’ as an all-over quality).

One could be forgiven for seeing these levels as far from independent of each other and far from being other than ‘fuzzy concepts’. Indeed fuzziness is essential to them in the main, since they don’t have ‘distinct’ boundaries. Indeed their boundaries yield to ‘anticipation’, blending, & continuity’ (p.2). Can these then be levels? Or are they nothing more than what ‘rarelky corresponds to a clear and universally accepted characterization of a type.’ (p. 3).

Hence not a ‘type’ at all but an unclear & vague representation thereof.

Examples can, he says, be found anywhere – in children  & ‘psychotics’ (the labelling and grouping tells us a lot about the ‘style’ of art historical thought throughout its history in fact. Indeed in ‘primitives’ of other sorts (p.5) and this helps modernity to see transfers between styles as a wilful adoption and rejection in sequence of different forms of values that were once the expression of a group: Cubism, Abstraction, Expressionism, Surrealism.

As far as I can go.


Permalink Add your comment
Share post