On Style

By Susan Sontag




It would hard to find any reputable literary critic today who would care to be caught defending as an idea the old antithesis of style versus content. On this issue a pious consensus prevails. Everyone is quick to avow that style and content are indissoluble, that the strongly individual style of each important writer is an organic aspect of his work and never something merely “decorative.”

In the practice of criticism, though, the old antithesis lives on, virtually unassailed. Most of the same critics who disclaim, in passing, the notion that style is an accessory to content maintain the duality whenever they apply themselves to particular works of literature. It is not so easy, after all, to get unstuck from a distinction that practically holds together the fabric of critical discourse, and serves to perpetuate certain intellectual aims and vested interests which themselves remain unchallenged and would be difficult to surrender without a fully articulated working replacement at hand.

In fact, to talk about the style of a particular novel or poem at all as a “style,” without implying, whether one wishes to or not, that style is merely decorative, accessory, is extremely hard. Merely by employing the notion, one is almost bound to invoke, albeit implicitly, an antithesis between style and something else. Many critics appear not to realize this. They think themselves sufficiently protected by a theoretical disclaimer on the vulgar filtering-off of style from content, all the while their judgments continue to reinforce precisely what they are, in theory, eager to deny.

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One way in which the old duality lives on in the practice of criticism, in concrete judgments, is the frequency with which quite admirable works of art are defended as good although what is miscalled their style is acknowledged to be crude or careless. Another is the frequency with which a very complex style is regarded with a barely concealed ambivalence. Contemporary writers and other artists with a style that is intricate, hermetic, demanding-not to speak of “beautiful”—get their ration of unstinting praise. Still, it is clear that such a style is often felt to be a form of insincerity: evidence of the artist’s intrusion upon his materials, which should be allowed to deliver themselves in a pure state.

Whitman, in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, expresses the disavowal of “style” which is, in most arts since the last century, a standard ploy for ushering in a new stylistic vocabulary. “The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the free channel of himself,” that great and very mannered poet contends. “He says to his art, I will not be meddlesome I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the my, not the richest curtains. What I tell I tell for precisely what it is.”

Of course, as everyone knows or claims to know, there is no neutral, absolutely transparent style. Sartre has shown, in his excellent review of The Stranger, how the celebrated “white style” of Camus’ novel-impersonal, expository, lucid, flat—is itself the vehicle of Meursault’s image of the world (as made up of absurd, fortuitous moments) . What Roland Barthes calls “the zero degree of writing” is, precisely by being anti-metaphorical and dehumanized, as selective and artificial as any traditional style of writing.

Nevertheless, the notion of a style-less, transparent art is one of the most tenacious fantasies of modem culture. Artists and critics pretend to believe that it is no more possible to get the artifice out of art than it is for a person to lose his personality. Yet the aspiration lingers—a permanent dissent from modem art, with its dizzying velocity of style changes.

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To speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of a work of art. Like all discourse about totalities, talk of style must rely on metaphors. And metaphors mislead.

Take, for instance, Whitman’s very material metaphor. By likening style to a curtain, he has of course confused style with decoration and for this would be speedily faulted by most critics. To conceive of style as a decorative encumbrance on the matter of the work suggests that the curtain could be parted and the matter revealed; or, to vary the metaphor slightly, that the curtain could be rendered transparent. But this is not the only erroneous implication of the metaphor. What the metaphor also suggests is that style is a matter of more or less (quantity), thick or thin (density) . And, though less obviously so, this is just as wrong as the fancy that an artist possesses the genuine option to have or not to have a style. Style is not quantitative, any more than it is superadded. A more complex stylistic convention-say, one taking prose further away from the diction and cadences of ordinary speech—does not mean that the work has “more” style.

Indeed, practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the Inside. As Cocteau writes: “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body.” Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and one’s “true” being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face.

I should make clear, however, that what I have been saying about dangerous metaphors doesn’t rule out the use of limited and concrete metaphors to describe the impact of a particular style. It seems harmless to speak of a style, drawing from the crude terminology used to render physical sensations, as being “loud” or “heavy” or “full” or “tasteless” or, employing the image of an argument as “inconsistent.”

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The antipathy to “style” is always an antipathy to a given style. There are no style-less works of art, only works of art belonging to different, more or less complex stylistic traditions and conventions.

This means that the notion of style, generically considered, has a specific, historical meaning. It is not only that styles belong to a time and a place; and that our perception of the style of a given work of art is always charged with an awareness of the work’s historicity, its place in a chronology. Further: the visibility of styles is itself a product of historical consciousness. Were it not for departures from, or experimentation with, previous artistic norms which are known to us, we could never recognize the profile of a new style. Still further: the very notion of “style” needs to be approached historically. Awareness of style as a problematic and isolable element in a work of art has emerged in the audience for art only at certain historical moments—as a front behind which other issues, ultimately ethical and political, are being debated. The notion of “having a style” is one of the solutions that has arisen, intermittently since the Renaissance, to the crises that have threatened old ideas of truth, of moral rectitude, and also of naturalness.

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But suppose all this is admitted. That all representation is incarnated in a given style (easy to say) . That there is, therefore, strictly speaking, no such thing as realism, except as, itself, a special stylistic convention (a little harder) . Still, there are styles and styles.

Everyone is acquainted with movements in art-two examples: Mannerist painting of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Art Nouveau in painting, architecture, furniture, and domestic objects—which do more than simply have “a style.” Artists such as Parmigianino, Pontormo, Rosso, Bronzino, such as Gaugi, Guimard, Beardsley, and Tiffany, in some obvious way cultivate style. They seem to be preoccupied with stylistic questions and indeed to place the accent less on what they are saying than on the manner of saying it.

To deal with art of this type, which seems to demand the distinction I have been urging be abandoned, a term such as “stylization” or its equivalent is needed. “Stylization” is what is present in a work of art precisely when an artist does make the by no means inevitable distinction between matter and manner, theme and form. When that happens, when style and subject are so distinguished, that is, played off against each other, one can legitimately speak of subjects being treated (or mistreated) in a certain style. Creative mistreatment is more the rule. For when the material of art is conceived of as “subject-matter,” it is also experienced as capable of being exhausted. And as subjects are understood to be fairly far along In this process of exhaustion, they become available to further and further stylization.

Compare, for example, certain silent movies of Sternberg (Salvation Hunters, Underworld, The Docks of New York) with the six American movies he made in the 1930s with Marlene Dietrich. The best of the early Sternberg films have pronounced stylistic features, a very sophisticated aesthetic surface But we do not fed about the narrative of the sailor and the prostitute in The Docks of New York as we do about the adventures of the Dietrich character in Blonde Venus or The Scarlet Empress, that it is an exercise in style. What informs these later films of Sternberg’s is an ironic attitude toward the subject-matter (romantic love, the femme fatale), a judgment on the subject-matter as interesting only so far as it is transformed by exaggeration, in a word, stylized…Cubist painting, or the sculpture of Giacometti would not be an example of “stylization” “style” in art; however extensive the distortions of the human face and figure, these are not present to make the face and figure interesting. But the paintings of Crivelli and Georges de La Tour are examples of what I mean.

“Stylization” in a work of art, as distinct from style, reflects an ambivalence (affection contradicted by contempt, obsession contradicted by irony) toward the subject-matter. This ambivalence is handled by maintaining, through the rhetorical overlay that is stylization, a special distance from the subject. But the common result is that either the work of art is excessively narrow and repetitive, or else the different parts seem unhinged, dissociated. (A good example of the latter is the relation between the visually brilliant denouement of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai and the rest of the film.) No doubt, in a culture pledged to the utility (particularly the moral utility) of art, burdened with a useless need to fence off solemn art from arts which provide amusement, the eccentricities of stylized art supply a valid and valuable satisfaction. I have described these satisfactions in another essay, under the name of “camp” taste. Yet, it is evident that stylized art. palpably an art-of excess lacking harmoniousness, can never be of the very greatest kind.

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What haunts all contemporary use of the notion of style is the putative opposition between form and content. How is one to exorcise the feeling that “style,” which functions like the notion of form, subverts content? One thing seems certain. No affirmation of the organic relation between style and content will really carry conviction—or guide critics who make this affirmation to the recasting of their specific discourse—until the notion of content is put in its place.

Most critics would agree that a work of art does not “contain” a certain amount of content (or function—as in the case of architecture) embellished by “style.” But few address themselves to the positive consequences of what they seem to have agreed to. What is “content”? Or, more precisely, what is left of the notion of content when we have transcended the antithesis of style (or form) and content? Part of the answer lies in the fact that for a work of art to have “content” is, in itself, a rather special stylistic convention. The great task which remains to critical theory is to examine in detail the formal function of subject-matter.

Until this function is acknowledged and properly explored, it is inevitable that critics will go on treating works of art as “statements.” (Less so, of course, in those arts which are abstract or have largely gone abstract, like music and painting and the dance. In these arts, the critics have not solved the problem; it has been taken from them.) Of course, a work of art can be considered as a statement, that is, as the answer to a question. On the most elementary level, Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington may be examined as the answer to the question: what did Wellington look like? Anna Karenina may be treated as an investigation of the problems of love, marriage, and adultery. Though the issue of the adequacy of artistic representation to life has pretty much been abandoned in, for example, painting, such adequacy continues to constitute a powerful standard of judgment in most appraisals of serious novels, plays, and films. In critical theory, the notion is quite old. At least since Diderot , the main tradition of criticism in all the arts, appealing to such apparently dissimilar criteria as verisimilitude and moral correctness, in effect treats the work of art as a statement being made in the form of a work of art.

To treat works of art in this fashion is not wholly irrelevant. But it is, obviously, putting art to use—for such purposes as inquiring into the history of ideas, diagnosing contemporary culture, or creating social solidarity. Such a treatment has little to do with what actually happens when a person possessing some training and aesthetic sensibility looks at a work of art appropriately. A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.

I am not saying that a work of art creates a world which is entirely self-referring. Of course, works of art (with the important exception of music) refer to the real world—to our knowledge, to our experience, to our values. They present information and evaluations. But their distinctive feature is that they give rise not to conceptual knowledge (which is the distinctive feature of discursive or scientific knowledge—e.g., philosophy, sociology, psychology, history) but to something like an excitation, a phenomenon of commitment, judgment in a state of thralldom or captivation. Which is to say that the knowledge we gain through art is an experience of the form or style of knowing something, rather than a knowledge of something (like a fact or a moral judgment) in itself.

This explains the preeminence of the value of expressiveness in works of art; and how the value of expressiveness-that is, of style—rightly takes precedence over content (when content is, falsely, isolated from style). The satisfactions of Paradise Lost for us do not he In its views on God and man, but in the superior kinds of energy, vitality, expressiveness which are incarnated in the poem.

Hence, too, the peculiar dependence of a work of art, however expressive, upon the cooperation of the person having the experience, for one may see what is “said” but remain unmoved, either through dullness or distraction. Art is seduction, not rape. A work of art proposes a type of experience designed to manifest the quality of imperiousness. But art cannot seduce without the complicity of the experiencing subject.

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Inevitably, critics who regard works of art as statements will be wary of “style,” even as they pay lip service to “imagination.” All that imagination really means for them, anyway, is the supersensitive rendering of “reality.” It is this “reality” snared by the work of art that they continue to focus on, rather than on the extent to which a work of art engages the mind in certain transformations.

But when the metaphor of the work of art as a statement loses its authority, the ambivalence toward “style” should dissolve; for this ambivalence mirrors the presumed tension between the statement and the manner in which it is stated.

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In the end, however, attitudes toward style cannot be reformed merely by appealing to the “appropriate” (as opposed to utilitarian) way of looking at works of art The ambivalence toward style is not rooted in simple error—it would then be quite easy to uproot-but in a passion, the passion of an entire culture. This passion is to protect and defend values traditionally conceived of as lying “outside” art, namely truth and morality, but which remain in perpetual danger of being compromised by art. Behind the ambivalence toward style is, ultimately, the historic Western confusion about the relation between art and morality, the aesthetic and the ethical.

For the problem of art versus morality is a pseudo-problem. The distinction itself is a trap; its continued plausibility rests on not putting the ethical into question, but only the aesthetic. To argue on these grounds at all, seeking to defend the autonomy of the aesthetic (and I have, rather uneasily, done so myself) , is already to grant something that should not be granted—namely, that there exist two independent sorts of response, the aesthetic and the ethical, which vie for our loyalty when we experience a work of art. As if during the experience one really had to choose between responsible and humane conduct, on the one hand, and the pleasurable stimulation of consciousness, on the other!

Of course, we never have a purely aesthetic response to works of art-neither to a play or a novel, with its depicting of human beings choosing and acting, nor, though it is less obvious, to a painting by Jackson Pollock or a Greek vase. (Ruskin has written acutely about the moral aspects of the formal properties of painting.) But neither would it be appropriate for us to make a moral response to something in a work of art In the same sense that we do to an act in real life. I would undoubtedly be indignant if someone I knew murdered his wife and got away with it (psychologically, legally), but I can hardly become indignant, as many critics seem to be, when the hero of Norman Mailer’s An American Dream murders his wife and goes unpunished. Diving, Darling, and the others in Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers are not real people whom we are being asked to decide whether to invite into our living rooms; they are figures in an imaginary landscape. The point may seem obvious, but the prevalence of genteel-moralistic judgments in contemporary literary (and film) criticism makes it worth repeating a number of times.

For most people, as Ortega y Gasset has pointed out in The Deimmunization of Art, aesthetic pleasure is a state of mind essentially indistinguishable from their ordinary responses. By art, they understand a means through which they are brought in contact with interesting human affairs. When they grieve and rejoice at human destinies in a play or film or novel, it is not really different from grieving and rejoicing over such events in real life-except that the experience of human destinies in art contains less ambivalence, it is relatively disinterested, and It is free from painful consequences.

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The experience is also, in a certain measure, more Intense; for when suffering and pleasure are experienced vicariously, people can afford to be avid. But, as Ortega argues, “a preoccupation with the human content of the work [of art] is in principle incompatible with aesthetic judgment.”[1]

Ortega is entirely correct, in my opinion. But I would not care to leave the matter where he does, which tacitly isolates aesthetic from moral response. Art is connected with morality, I should argue. One way that it is so connected is that art may yield moral pleasure; but the moral pleasure peculiar to art is not the pleasure of approving of ants or disapproving of them. The moral pleasure in art, as well as the moral service that art performs, consists in the intelligent gratification of consciousness.

What “morality” means is a habitual or chronic type of behavior (including feelings and ants). Morality is a code of arts, and of judgments and sentiments by which we reinforce our habits of acting in a certain way, which prescribe a standard for behaving or trying to behave toward other human beings generally (that is, to all who are acknowledged to be human) as if we were inspired by love.

Needless to say, love is something we feel in truth for just a few individual human beings, among those who are known to us in reality and in our imagination. . . . Morality is a form of acting and not a particular repertoire of choices. If morality is so understood—as one of the achievement of human will, dictating to itself a mode of acting and being in the world—it becomes clear that no generic antagonism exists between the form of consciousness, aimed at action, which is morality, and the nourishment of consciousness, which is aesthetic experience. Only when works of art are reduced to statements which propose a specific content, and when morality is identified with a particular morality (and any particular morality has its dross, those elements which are no more than a defense of limited social interests and class values)—only then can a work of art be thought to undermine morality. Indeed, only then can the full distinction between the aesthetic and the ethical be made.

But if we understand morality in the singular, as a generic decision on the part of consciousness, then it appears that our response to art is “moral” insofar as it is, precisely, the enlivening of our sensibility and consciousness. For it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice, and prompts our readiness to act, assuming that we do choose, which is a prerequisite for calling an act moral, and are not just blandly and unreflectively obeying. Art performs this “moral” task because the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinterestedness, contemplativeness, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) and to the aesthetic object (grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, sensuousness) are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life.

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In art, “content” is, as it were, the pretext, the goal, the lure which engages consciousness in essentially formal processes of transformation.

This is how we can, in good conscience cherish works of art which, considered in terms of “content,” are morally objectionable to us. (The difficulty is of the same order as that involved in appreciating works of art, such as The Divine Comedy, whose premises are intellectually alien.) To call Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will and The Olympiad masterpieces is not to gloss over Nazi propaganda with aesthetic lenience. The Nazi propaganda is there. But something else is there, too, which we reject at our loss. Because they project the complex movements of intelligence and grace and sensuousness, these two films of Riefenstahl (unique among works of Nazi artists) transcend the categories of propaganda or even reportage. And we find ourselves—to be sure, rather uncomfortably—seeing “Hitler” and not Hitler, the “1936 Olympics” and not the 1936 Olympics. Through Riefenstahl’s genius as a film-maker, the “content” has—let us even assume, against her intentions-come to play a purely formal role.

A work of art, so far as it is a work of art, cannot-whatever the artist’s personal intentions-advocate anything at all. The greatest artists attain a sublime neutrality. Think of Homer and Shakespeare, from whom generations of scholars and critics have vainly labored to extract particular “views” about human nature, morality, and society.

Again, take the case of Genet—though here, there is additional evidence for the point I am trying to make, because the artist’s intentions are known. Genet, in his writings, may seem to be asking us to approve of cruelty, treacherousness, licentiousness, and murder. But so far as he is making a work of art, Genet is not advocating any- thing at all. He is recording, devouring, transfiguring his experience. In Genet’s books, as it happens, this very process itself is his explicit subject; his books are not only works of art but works about art. However, even when (as is usually the case) this process is not in the foreground of the artist’s demonstration, it is stall thus, the processing of experience, to which we owe our attention. It is immaterial that Genet’s characters might repel us in real life. So would most of the characters in King Lear. The interest of Genet lies in the manner whereby his “subject” is annihilated by the serenity and intelligence of his imagination.

Approving or disapproving morally of what a work of art “says” is just as extraneous as becoming sexually excited by a work of art.

(Both are, of course, very common.) And the reasons urged against the propriety and relevance of one apply as well to the other. Indeed, in this notion of the annihilation of the subject we have perhaps the only serious criterion for distinguishing between erotic literature or films or paintings which are art and those which (for want of a better word) one has to call pornography. Pornography has a “content” and is designed to make us connect (with disgust, desire) with content. It is a substitute for life. But art does not excite; or, if it does, the excitation is appeased, within the terms of the aesthetic experience. All great art induces contemplation, a dynamic contemplation. However much the reader or listener or operator is aroused by a provisional identification of what is in the work of art with real life, his ultimate reaction-so far as he is reacting to the work as a work of art--must be detached, restful, contemplative, emotionally free, beyond indignation and approval. It is interesting that Genet has recently said that he now thinks that if his books arouse readers sexually, “they’re badly written, because the poetic emotion should be so strong that no reader is moved sexually. Insofar as my books are pornographic, I don’t reject them. I simply say that I lacked grace.”

A work of art may contain all sorts of information and offer instruction in new (and sometimes commendable) attitudes. We may learn about medieval theology and Florentine history from Dante; we may have our first experience of passionate melancholy from Chopin; we may become convinced of the barbarity of war by Goya and of the inhumanity of capital punishment by An American Tragedy. But so far as we deal with these works as works of art, the gratification they impart is of another order. It is an experience of the qualities or forms of human consciousness.

The objection that this approach reduces art to mere “formalism” must not be allowed to stand. (That word should be reserved for those works of art which mechanically perpetuate outmoded or depleted aesthetic formulas.) An approach which considers works of art as living, autonomous models of consciousness will seem objectionable only so long as we refuse to surrender the shallow distinction of form and content. For the sense in no content is no different from the sense which a work of art has in which the world has no content. Both are. Both need no justification; nor could they possibly have any.

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The hyperdevelopment of style in, for example, Mannerist painting and Art Nouveau, is an emphatic form of experiencing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. But only a particularly emphatic form, which arises in reaction to an oppressively dogmatic style of realism. All style—that is, all art-proclaims this. And the world is, ultimately, an aesthetic phenomenon.

That is to say, the world (all there is) cannot, ultimately, be justified. Justification is an operation of the mind which can be performed only when we consider one part of the world in relation to another—not when we consider all there is.

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The work of art, so far as we give ourselves to it, exercises a total or absolute claim on us. The purpose of art is not as an auxiliary to truth, either particular and historical or eternal. “If art is anything,” as Robbe-Grillet has written, “it is everything; in which case it must be self-sufficient, and there can be nothing beyond it.”

But this position is easily caricatured, for we live in the world, and it is in the world that objects of art are made and enjoyed. The claim that I have been making for the autonomy of the work of art—its freedom to “mean” nothing—does not rule out consideration of the effect or impact or function of art, once it be granted that in this functioning of the art object as art object the divorce between the aesthetic and the ethical is meaningless.

I have several times applied to the work of art the metaphor of a mode of nourishment. To become involved with a work of art entails, to be sure, the experience of detaching oneself from the world. But the work of art itself is also a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world in some way more open and enriched.

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Raymond Bayer has written: “What each and every aesthetic object imposes upon us, in appropriate rhythms, is a unique and singular formula for the flow of our energy. . . . Every work of art embodies a principle of proceeding, of stopping, of scanning; an image of energy or relaxation, the imprint of a caressing or destroying hand which is [the artist’s] alone.” We can call this the physiognomy of the work, or its rhythm, or, as I would rather do, its style.

Of course, when we employ the notion of style historically, to group works of art into schools and periods, we tend to efface the individuality of styles. But this is not our experience when we encounter a work of art from an aesthetic (as opposed to a conceptual) point of view. Then, so far as the work is successful and still has the power to communicate with us, we experience only the individuality and contingency of the style.

It is the same with our own lives. lf we see them from the outside, as the influence and popular dissemination of the social sciences and psychiatry has persuaded more and more people to do, we view ourselves as instances of generalities, and in so doing become profoundly and painfully alienated from our own experience and our humanity.

As William Earle has recently noted, if Hamlet is “about” anything, it is about Hamlet, his particular situation, not about the human condition. A work of art is a kind of showing or recording or witnessing which gives palpable form to consciousness; its object is to make something singular explicit. So far as it is true that we cannot judge (morally, conceptually) unless we generalize, then it is also true that the experience of works of art, and what is represented in works of art, transcends judgment-though the work itself may be judged as art. Isn’t this just what we recognize as a feature of the greatest art, like the Iliad and the novels of Tolstoy and the plays of Shakespeare? That such art overrides our petty judgments, our facile labeling of persons and arts as good or bad? And that this can happen is all to the good. (There is even a gain for the cause of morality in it.)

For morality, unlike art, is ultimately justified by its utility: that it makes, or Is supposed to make, life more humane and livable for us all. But consciousness-what used to be called, rather tendentiously, the faculty of contemplation-can be, and is, wider and more various than action. It has its nourishment, art and speculative thought, activities which can be described either as self-justifying or in no need of justification. What a work of art does is to make us see or comprehend something singular, not judge or generalize. This act of comprehension accompanied by voluptuousness is the only valid end, and sole sufficient justification, of a work of art.

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Perhaps the best way of clarifying the nature of our experience of works of art, and the relation between art and the rest of human feeling and doing, is to invoke the notion of will. It is a useful notion because will is not just a particular posture of consciousness, energized consciousness. It is also an attitude toward the world, of a subject toward the world.

The complex kind of willing that is embodied, and communicated, in a work of art both abolishes the world and encounters it in an extraordinary intense and specialized way This double aspect of the will in art is succinctly expressed by Bayer when he says: “Each work of art gives us the stigmatized and disengaged memory of a volition.” Insofar as it is schematized, disengaged, a memory, the willing involved In art sets itself at a distance from the world.

All of which harkens back to Nietzsche’s famous statement in The Birth of Tragedy; “Art is not an imitation of nature but its metaphysical supplement, raised up beside it in order to overcome it.”

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All works of art are founded on a certain distance from the lived reality which is represented. This “distance” is, by definition, in- human or impersonal to a certain degree; for in order to appear to us as art, the work must restrict sentimental intervention and emotional participation, which are functions of “closeness.” It is the degree and manipulating of this distance, the conventions of distance, which constitute the style of the work. In the final analysis, “style” is art. And art is nothing more or less than various modes of stylized, dehumanized representation. But this view—expounded by Ortega y Gasset, among others—can easily be misinterpreted, since It seems to suggest that art, so far as it approaches its own norm, is a kind of irrelevant, impotent toy.

Ortega himself greatly contributes to such a misinterpretation by omitting the various dialectics between self and world involved in the experiencing of works of art. Ortega focuses too exclusively on the notion of the work of art as a certain kind of object, with its own, spiritually aristocratic, standards for being savored. A work of art is first of all an object, not an imitation; and it is true that all great art is founded on distance, on artificiality, on style, on what Ortega calls dehumanization. But the notion of distance (and of dehumanization, as well) is misleading, unless one adds that the movement is not Just away from but toward the world. The overcoming or transcending of the world in art is also a my of encountering the world, and of training or educating the will to be in the world. It would seem that Ortega and even Robbe-Grillet, a more recent exponent of the same position, are still not wholly free of the spell of the notion of “content.” For, in order to limit the human content of art, and to fend off tired Ideologies like humanism or socialist realism which would put art In the service of some moral or social idea, they feel required to ignore or scant the function of art. But art does not become function-less when it is seen to be, in the last analysis, content-less. For all the persuasiveness of Ortega’s and Robbe-Grillet’s defense of the formal nature of art, the specter of banished “content” continues to lurk around the edges of their argument, giving to “form” a defiantly anemic, salutarily eviscerated look.

The argument will never be complete until “form” or “style” can be thought of without that banished specter, without a feeling of loss. Valéry’s daring inversion—”Literature. What is ‘form’ for anyone else is ‘content’ for me”—scarcely does the trick. It is hard to think oneself out of a distinction so habitual and apparently self-evident. One can do so only by adopting a different, more organic theoretical vantage point-such as the notion of will. What is wanted of such a vantage point is that it do justice to the twin aspects of art. as object and as function, as artifice and as living form of consciousness, as the overcoming or supplementing of reality and as the making explicit of forms of encountering reality, as autonomous individual creation and as dependent historical phenomenon.

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Art is the objectifying of the will in a thing or performance, and the provoking or arousing of the will. From the point of view of the artist, it is the objectifying of a volition; from the point of view of the spectator, it is the creation of an imaginary décor for the will.

Indeed, the entire history of the various arts could be rewritten as the history of different attitudes toward the will. Nietzsche and Spengler wrote pioneer studies on this theme. A valuable recent attempt is to be found in a book by Jean Starobinski, The invention of Liberty, mainly devoted to 18th century painting and architecture. Starobinski examines the art of this period in terms of the new ideas of self-mastery and of mastery of the world, as embodying new relations between the self and the world. Art is seen as the naming of emotions. Emotions, longings, aspirations, by thus being named, are virtually invented and certainly promulgated by art: for example, the “sentimental solitude” provoked by the gardens that were laid out in the 18th century and by much-admired ruins.

Thus, it should be clear that the account of the autonomy of art I have been outlining, in which I have characterized art as an imaginary landscape or decor of the wall, not only does not preclude but rather invites the examination of works of art as historically specificable phenomena.

The intricate stylistic convolutions of modem art, for example, are clearly a function of the unprecedented technical extension of the human will by technology, and the devastating commitment of human will to a novel form of social and psychological order, one based on incessant change. But it also remains to be said that the very possibility of the explosion of technology, of the contemporary disruptions of self and society, depends on the attitudes toward the will which are partly invented and disseminated by works of art at a certain historical moment, and then come to appear as a “realistic” reading of a perennial human nature.

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Style is the principle of decision in a work of art, the signature of the artist’s will. And as the human will is capable of an indefinite, number of stances, there are an indefinite number of possible styles for works of art.

Seen from the outside, always be correlated with mention of writing or of lion of musical that is, historically, stylistic decisions can some historical development—like the invention of writing or of movable type, the invention or transformation of musical instruments, the availability of new materials to the sculptor or architect. But this approach, however sound and valuable, of necessity sees matters grossly; it treats of “periods” and “traditions” and “schools.”

Seen from the inside, that is, when one examines an individual work of art and tries to account for its value and effect, every stylistic decision contains an element of arbitrariness, however much it may seem justifiable propter hoc. If art is the supreme game which the will plays with itself, “style” consists of the set of rules by which this game is played. And the rule.: are always, finally, an artificial and arbitrary limit, whether they are rules of form (like terza rima or the twelve-tone row or frontality) or the presence of a certain “content.” The role of the arbitrary and unjustifiable in art has never been sufficiently acknowledged. Ever since the enterprise of criticism began with Aristotle’s Poetics, critics have been beguiled into emphasizing the necessary in art. (When Aristotle said that poetry was more philosophical than history, he was justified insofar as he wanted to rescue poetry, that is, the arts, from being conceived as a type of factual, particular, descriptive statement. But what he said was misleading insofar as it suggests that art supplies something like what philosophy gives us: an argument. The metaphor of the work of art as an “argument,” with premises and entailments, has informed most criticism since.) Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise. The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.

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In other words, what is inevitable in a work of art is the style. To the extent that a work seems right, just, unimaginable otherwise (without loss or damage) , what we are responding to is a quality of its style. The most attractive works of art are those which give us the illusion that the artist had no alternatives, so wholly centered is he in his style. Compare that which is forced, labored, synthetic in the construction of Madame Bovary and of Ulysses with the ease and harmony of such equally ambitious works as Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The first two books I have mentioned are great indeed. But the greatest art seems secreted, not constructed.

For an artist’s style to have this quality of authority, assurance, seamlessness, inevitability does not, of course, alone put his work at the very highest level of achievement. Radiguet’s two novels have it as well as Bach.

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The difference that I have drawn between “style” and “stylization” might be analogous to the difference between will and willfulness.

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An artist’s style is, from a technical point of view, nothing other than the particular idiom in which he deploys the forms of his art. It is for this reason that the problems raised by the concept of “style” overlap with those raised by the concept of “form,” and their solutions will have much in common.

For instance, one function of style is identical with, because it is simply a more individual specification of, that important function of form pointed out by Coleridge and Valéry: to preserve the works of the mind against oblivion. This function is easily demonstrated in the rhythmical, sometimes rhyming, character of all primitive, oral literatures. Rhythm and rhyme, and the more complex formal resources of poetry such as meter, symmetry of figures, antitheses, are the means that words afford for creating a memory of themselves before material signs (writing) are invented; hence everything that an archaic culture wishes to commit to memory is put in poetic form. “The form of a work,” as Valéry’s puts it, “is the sum of its perceptible characteristics, whose physical action compels recognition and tends to resist all those varying causes of dissolution which threaten the expressions of thought, whether it be inattention, forgetfulness, or even the objections that may arise against it in the mind.”

Thus, form—in its specific idiom, style—is a plan of sensory imprinting, the vehicle for the transaction between Immediate sensuous impression and memory (be it Individual or cultural). This mnemonic function explains why every style depends on, and can be analyzed in terms of, some principle of repetition or redundancy.

It also explains the difficulties of the contemporary period of the arts. Today styles do not develop slowly and succeed each other gradually, over long periods of time which allow the audience for art to assimilate fully the principles of repetition on which the work of art is built; but instead succeed one another so rapidly as to seem to give their audiences no breathing space to prepare. For, if one does not perceive how a work repeats itself, the work is, almost literally, not perceptible and therefore, at the same time, not intelligible. It is the perception of repetitions that makes a work of art intelligible. Until one has grasped, not the “content,” but the principles of (and balance between) variety and redundancy in Merce Cunningham’s “Winterbranch” or a chamber concerto by Charles Wuoronin or Burrough’s Naked Lunch or the “black” paintings of Ad Reinhardt, these works are bound to appear boring or ugly or confusing, or all three.

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Style has other functions besides that of being, in the extended sense that I have just indicated, a mnemonic device.

For instance, every style embodies an epistemological decision, an interpretation of how and what we perceive. This is easiest to see in the contemporary, self-conscious period of the arts, though it is no less true of all art. Thus, the style of Robbe-Grillet’s novels ex- presses a perfectly valid, if narrow, insight into relationships between persons and things: namely, that persons are also things and that things are not persons. Robbe-Grillet’s behavioristic treatment of persons and refusal to “anthropomorphize” things amount to a stylistic decision-to give an exact account of the visual and topographic properties of things; to exclude, virtually, sense modalities other than sight, perhaps because the language that exists to describe them is less exact and less neutral. The circular repetitive style of Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha expresses her interest In the dilution of immediate awareness by memos and anticipation, what she calls “association,” which is obscured in language by the system of the tenses. Stein’s insistence on the presentness of experience is identical with her decision to keep to the present tense, to choose commonplace short words and repeat groups of them incessantly, to use an extremely loose syntax and abjure most punctuation. Every style is a means of insisting on something.

It will be seen that stylistic decisions, by focusing our attention on some things, are also a narrowing of our attention, a refusal to allow us to see others. But the greater interestingness of one work of art over another does not rest on the greater number of things the stylistic decisions in that work allow us to attend to, but rather on the intensity and authority and wisdom of that attention, however narrow its focus.

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In the strictest sense, all the contents of consciousness are ineffable. Even the simplest sensation is, in it.: totality, indescribable. Every work of art, therefore, needs to be understood not only as something rendered, but also as a certain handling of the ineffable in the greatest art, one is always aware of things that cannot be said (rules of “decorum”), of the contradiction between expression and the presence of the inexpressible. Stylistic devices are also techniques of avoidance. The most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silence.

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What I have said about style has been directed mainly to clearing up certain misconceptions about works of art and how to talk about them. But it remains to be said that style is a notion that applies to any experience (whenever we talk about its form or qualities). And just as many works of art which have a potent claim on our interest are impure or mixed with respect to the standard I have been proposing, so many items in our experience which could not be classed as works of art possess some of the qualities of art objects. Whenever speech or movement or behavior or objects exhibit a certain deviation from the most direct, useful, insensible mode of expression or being in the world, we may look at them as having a “style,” and being both autonomous and exemplary.


. . . Works of this kind [both Romanticism and Naturalism] are only partially works of art, or artistic objects . . . No wonder that 19th century art has been so popular . . . it is not art but an extract from life.”



[1] Ortega continues: I’m work of art vanishes from sight for a beholder who seeks in it nothing but the moving fate of John and Mary or Tristan and Isolde and adjusts his vision to this. Tristan’s sorrows are sorrows and can evoke compassion only insofar as they are taken as real But an object of art is artistic only Insofar as it is not real . . . But not many people are capable of adjusting their perceptive apparatus to the pane and the transparency that is the work of art Instead, they look right through It and revel in the human reality with which the work deals. . . During the 19th century artists proceeded in all too Impure a fashion. They reduced the strictly aesthetic elements to a minimum and let the work consist almost entirely in a fiction of human realities.