May 27, 2009

Critical Fragments: Style

“In every work of art, style is a promise. In being absorbed through style into the dominant form of universality, into the current musical, pictorial, or verbal idiom, what is expressed seeks to be reconciled with the idea of the true universal. This promise of the work of art to create truth by impressing its unique contours on the socially transmitted forms is as necessary as it is hypocritical. By claiming to anticipate fulfillment through their aesthetic derivatives, it posits the real forms of the existing order as absolute. To this extent the claims of art are always also ideology. Yet it is only in its struggle with tradition, a struggle precipitated in style, that art can find expression for suffering. The moment in the work of art by which it transcends reality cannot, indeed, be severed from style; that moment, however, does not consist in achieved harmony, in the questionable unity of form and content, inner and outer, individual and society, but in those traits in which the discrepancy emerges, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity. Instead of exposing itself to this failure, in which the style of the great work of art has always negated itself, the inferior work has relied on its similarity to others, the surrogate of identity. The culture industry has finally posited this imitation as absolute. Being nothing other than style, it divulges style’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy.”(1)

Whether this is “social hierarchy” or critical hierarchy remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the casting of style as the great secret of visuality is seductive. The absorption of art by the dominant discourse (the mainstream) is what Adorno and Horkheimer speak of as a “promise,” a teasing dream of capitalist fulfillment, supported through the culture industry’s use of the ideology of style.

The existent order (the art world) retains its power through a calculated dispensation of success (financial, critical, historical) that is further bolstered by the misapprehension within the ranks of the culture producers (visual artists) that art is measured by “harmony” or “unity of form and content.” It is these kinds of aesthetic quests that will result in inferior art that desires only a “similarity to others.”

To negate these traditional conceptions is to deny the damages that are inherent in the search for a “style.” To reject style altogether is to embrace failure on many levels; chiefly those attributed to financial success but certainly encompassing the nature of creation itself with the ever present possibility that risks taken become failures realized.

The necessity of re-positioning art practice as capable of revealing these kinds of “truths” remains the single most worthy endeavor of the producer of culture. Absolute allegiance to imitative style, however sanctioned as a certainty for financial success within our embattled art market, risks much more than a simple loss measured in capital.


1. Adorno, Theodor / Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, (Translator: E. Jephcott), Stanford, 2002, 103-104.

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