Art, Style and Genre in

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Style and genre are two distinct but related ways in which artworks can be grouped together in the interests of understanding and appreciation. Neither mode of classification is easy to characterize, and much of the philosophical discussion of both genrepredominantly by literary theoristsand stylepredominantly by historians and philosophers of the visual artshas been clarificatory in aim. In the case of genre, there is a tension between structural (e.g., ode, epic, and collage) and functional (e.g., tragedy, romance, and altarpiece) ways of categorizing artworks. But many genres seem to have more to do with subject matter (e.g., bildungsroman and still life)at least in those art forms that are broadly representational. The diverse bases for generic classification of artworks are reflected in René Wellek and Austin Warren's proposed definition of a literary genre as "a grouping of literary works based, theoretically, upon both outer form (specific metre or structure) and also upon inner form (attitude, tone, purposemore crudely, subject and audience)" (1949, p. 231).

A much discussed theme in contemporary discussions of literary genre is whether the latter is merely a taxonomic convenience, reflecting the classificatory interests of literary critics and historians, or whether it reflects real differences between works. Certainly, the ascription of a work to a genre sometimes plays a part in explaining puzzling features of that work. For example, the art historian Michael Baxandall (1985) accounts for puzzling features of a Renaissance painting in terms of its belonging to the genre altarpiece. This seems to require an objective basis for genre classification. One can explain features of a work by appeal to genre only if one takes the genre to which the work is ascribed to be causally implicated in its generationpresumably in virtue of the artist's creative activity being guided by a conception of relevant generic constraints.

While genre is predominantly a critic's term for which art historians sometimes have a use, style is traditionally a historian's categorization whose critical and appreciative relevance has been increasingly remarked. Originating etymologically in the Latin term for a writing instrument (stilus ), and thus applying to styles of writing, the term came to prominence in the writings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German art historians such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Art historians seek to historically situate individual works in groupings that are open to analogous kinds of explanation and to explain how such works so grouped stand in historical relations to one another. Style serves the first purpose inasmuch as an artistic style is taken to be a manifest feature of works that provides evidence as to their provenance, and the second if one posits an internal or external dynamics to the development of style.

Perhaps the most enduring testament to this tradition in art history is Heinrich Wölfflin's (1950) account of how painting in the High Renaissance differs from Baroque art in its style of pictorial representation. He introduces certain binary distinctions that provide a framework within which one can define different ways in which one might articulate pictorial space. The most influential of these distinctions is between linear and painterly modes of representation and is defined in terms of a number of interrelated factors such as the way in which form is articulated (through outlines of masses or interplay between masses), the qualities of things through which they are represented (shape or texture), the manner in which relationships between objects are conveyed (atomistically or holistically), and the faculties through which pictorial articulation is primarily grasped (understanding and sensation).

Once one thinks of artworks as being groupable in terms of their styles, it is natural to ask why this is so and why such styles change over timewhy, for example, late Renaissance and Baroque paintings differ in the cited ways. Wölfflin (1950) himself posits an internal logic underlying the historical development of artistic styles. His distinctions are taken to capture the various representational possibilities permitted by the artistic medium, and communities of artists are seen as pursuing their artistic goals within this framework of possibilities, which has within it its own dynamic. Wölfflin's account is interestingly but controversially extended to nonrepresentational painting by Clement Greenberg (1962), who sees an oscillation between linearity and painterliness in the postimpressionist tradition. A related idea is found in Arthur Danto's (1964) conception of the "style matrix." Alois Riegl's notion of Kunstwollen also manifests a commitment to an internal dynamic in the development of artistic style. On the contrary, James S. Ackerman (1962), reacting against the whiff of stylistic determinism in such accounts, offers an individualistic model where artistic styles change as a result of the attempts of artists to overcome problems arising in the activity of painting. Ernst Gombrich (1968) offers a more materialistic but still broadly individualistic model in which stylistic change is fueled by technological innovation and guided by the social structure of the art world.

As in the case of genre, some question whether the stylistic classifications employed by art historians reflect independent realities of the sort that both call for and furnish explanations, or whether they are taxonomic devices that reflect the culturally inflected interests and purposes of historians. A related concern is that, to the extent that style categories are viewed taxonomically, they are of questionable relevance for one's critical and appreciative engagement with particular artworks. In an influential paper, Richard Wollheim (1979) argues that the concept of style plays two importantly different roles in discussion about visual art. Wollheim distinguishes between general and individual style. The former, which he subdivides into universal style, historical or period style, and school style, is indeed taxonomic in the manner just described. Individual style, however, is what is at issue when one talks of "the style of A" in reference to the work of a given painter A. Those painters whose works are objects of aesthetic interest have "a style of their own," which allows their works to be understood as expressive.

Furthermore, and crucially, individual style is to be understood in generative rather than taxonomical terms: a style description for a painter A picks out elements in A's work that depend on those "processes or operations characteristic of his acting as a painter" that Wollheim terms style processes (1979, p. 135). A style process is analyzable in terms of some subset of the pictorial resources available to a painter on which the painter is disposed to act in a rule-like manner. Individual style, so construed, has "psychological reality" in these dispositions of the artist and can be seen as causally operative in the production of the artist's works. Wollheim argues for this generative conception of individual style on the grounds that it is required to make sense of the role played by style descriptions in the explanation of the details of pictures and of the susceptibility of the works of a given artist to grouping in terms of a common style. While Wollheim explicitly restricts his account of individual style to painting, the notion has been extended to literary artworks and, by implication, to artworks in general in two articles by Jenefer Robinson (1984, 1985).

In extending Wollheim's analysis Robinson also insists, in line with an early paper by Kendall Walton (1979), that an artist's individual style is properly identified not with some set of manifest features of the products of the artist's "artistic acts" (Sircello 1975), but with features of those acts themselves, "[Pictorial] style ultimately cannot be defined as a list of pictorial elements but rather as a way of doing certain things, or manipulating pictorial elements" (Robinson 1981, p. 10). In the case of literary works, for example, the relevant artistic acts are "describing people, portraying landscape, characterising personal relationships, manipulating rhythms, organising patterns of imagery, and so forth" (Robinson 1984, p. 138). Furthermore, these ways of doing things, insofar as they constitute an artist's style, are taken to be characteristic expressions of the mind and personality that the artist appears to have. This agential conception of individual style accords with talk of style in nonartistic contexts and explains both the restriction of style predicates to human actions and their products and the explicitly expressive nature of many style predicates (e.g., a sentimental or witty style). As for those sets of elements proper to a given art form that are cited as constitutive of style by those who take the latter to reside in the products of artistic activity, Robinson maintains that they are grouped together as stylistic elements only in virtue of being the elements that the artist characteristically uses in performing the relevant artistic acts in a distinctive way.

Part of the significance of ascriptions of individual style for the critical appreciation of particular works of art is said to be their bearing on the expressive and other meaningful properties rightly ascribable to a work. Wollheim (1980), refining a suggestion by Gombrich (1960), argues that it is only through one's grasp of an artist's style that one can determine the precise expressive significance of a configuration of elements in the artist's work, and Robinson (1981) suggests that the same holds for at least some representational and formal properties. But both Walton (1979) and Robinson (1985) insist that what is expressed through the style of a work is not determined by facts about the actual artist, but by facts about the mind or personality of what Walton (1979) terms the apparent artist the mentality or personality the artist appears to have given the stylistic features of the work. However, as Walton recognizes, to ascribe such a role to the apparent artist rather than to the actual artist is far from unproblematic, since what one sees in a configuration of elements in an artistic manifold may reflect ulterior knowledge about the actual artist. One therefore stands in clear need of a principle to delimit when such knowledge is rightly brought to bear in determining the expressivity embodied in the stylistic properties of an artwork.

Even if one thinks of individual styles as ways of doing, it is still through manifest features of the products of those ways of doing that one is able to recognize artists' styles. One question to which one would therefore expect an answer from an adequate philosophical account of style is whether artistic styles admit a univocal characterization in terms of the kinds of manifest features or elements that enter into their expressions. Both Walton (1979) and Robinson (1981, 1984) insist that there can be no checklist of stylistically relevant elements for a given art, since what makes an element part of the expression of an individual style is that it has been used in a particular way in an artistic act that is characteristic of the artist. This allows for all manner of different elements to enter into the styles of different artists and explains why only some elements that figure in an artist's works are mentioned in a style description, why a given element may figure in the style description of one artist but not in that of another who works in the same medium, and why a given element may have different stylistic significance in the works of different artists (Robinson 1985).

Nelson Goodman (1978) also rejects any attempt to distinguish stylistic from nonstylistic elements in terms of such dichotomies as expressive versus nonexpressive, form versus content, intrinsic versus extrinsic, or "the 'how' versus the 'what' of what is said," and so on. A feature of style may be a feature of what a work says, what it expresses, or of its formal or configurational elements. But, according to Goodman, what makes any such feature stylistic is both its contribution to the symbolic functioning of the work and its linking works together in ways that serve to advance appreciation and understanding, "[T]he style consists of those features of the symbolic functioning of a work that are characteristic of author, period, place, or school" (p. 35).

This suggests a way of reconnecting the two conceptions of style distinguished by Wollheim (1979), since both general and individual style might be connected to symbolic functioning in this way. It also suggests how one might bring into dialogue the stylistic interests of the historian and the critic. Goodman (1978) argues that style, as he conceives it, is of interest not only to the historian, who seeks to correctly attribute a history of making to an artwork, but also to the critic, who can use the attributions of the historian to discover further and subtler shared elements of symbolic functioning in the resulting groupings of works. Walton (1979) and Robinson (1985), however, will insist that one's interest in the individual style of works necessarily refers one back to distinctive features of the artistic acts that seem to result in entities capable of so functioning and that the interest of critics, unlike the interest of historians, is in how things appear to have been made rather than in how they were made. The complex relationships between the stylistic concerns of the historian and of the critic have been commented on by Walton (1979) and discussed at some length by Robinson (1981).

See also Aesthetic Qualities; Art, Expression in; Art, Formalism in; Art, Interpretation of.


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Robinson, Jenefer. "Style and Significance in Art History and Art Criticism." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 40 (1) (1981): 514.

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Wollheim, Richard. "Pictorial Style: Two Views." In The Concept of Style, edited by Berel Lang, 129148. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.

Wollheim, Richard. "Style in Painting." In The Question of Style in Philosophy and the Arts, edited by Caroline van Eck, James McAllister, and Renée van de Vall. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

David Davies (2005)