| © copyright 2003-2008 Wayne Roberts. All rights reserved.
Beyond style: towards higher-dimensional unity in art
What appears on this web page is a brief essay that is also published on the author's web site featuring a retrospective of his art and related topics.
Style (as a concept) in art can be seen as an example of what may be called, unifying principles.
simultaneous parallels and contrasts...
The attempt to find connections between and among apparently diverse elements is pivotal to the whole process of learning and discovery. But the process of organising things into 'groups' (with their attendant word-labels e.g. 'minimalist', 'expressionist', etc), also tends to divide various groups from one another. In other words, if we are looking at a large set of diverse elements (say art by various artists over significant time scales) we might begin to 'catalog' or group these according to perceived similarities. But this organising principle which is occurring in the mind, is simultaneously drawing not only parallels, but distinctions. In effect, any assertions of similarity in the ordering of members within a heterogeneous set tacitly assumes the complementary viewpoint, namely, that 'this group stands in contradistinction to that group'.
liquid meanings become fixed
Unfortunately, these perceived differences often tend to become fixed in that the words themselves, invented initially as symbols that stand for some perceived entity or constancy within a rather dynamic and fluid Universe, begin to assume the garb of an actual physical reality in the mind, and lead to a rather concrete commodification of ideas and attitudes. The arts were not immune from these effects even though they generally espoused freedom of expression.
One of the first levels at which twentieth century audiences began to recognise 'connections' and 'resonances among works' within the arts was not unexpectedly at the level of surface. Colours in and of themselves, lines, shapes, and spaces, were in that century celebrated for their own intrinsic worth, detached from objectivity and narrative meaning. This was exciting for many reasons not least because it began to explore the possible 'linguistic' or expressive potential of line, colour, form etc, in a musical sense. (Kandinsky's books, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Point and Line to Plane were two such treatises which addressed these concerns.)
But the celebration of paint in and of itself, and of the elements of painting, led to an eventual reflex (perhaps subconscious) searching of surface for the insignia of 'style', and at the same time, lulled the popular consciousness into a kind of trance, forgetful of other possible unifying principles that might operate on other levels or in higher dimensions. The 'scrutiny of surface' was fruitful to the extent that many artists' works could be organised or catalogued by such means, for the very reason that they were the willing proselytes of theories and methodologies which, by and large, wore their colours on their sleeves. This tended to allow audiences relatively easy identification of the author upon sometimes no more than scant appraisal of surface forms, colours, paint handling and the like.
1) Taxonomy: naming, classifying, dividing
2) Ecology: science of connection and relation
A taxonomic phase emerged in the arts which saw an artist's personal identity begin to be linked to a stylistic or ideological position (either consciously or subconsciously), and this resulted in a subversion of that individual's creative freedom, since many (including arts observers and critics) felt that an artist's expression should be seen to be consistent with a kind of adopted (external) 'ego', in the form of a definable style. The emerging 'taxonomy of styles and ideologies' (see marginal note) and the swelling numbers of artists who were proselytes of them resulted in a large body of work in which the style became synonymous with the artist's signature, and there was a positive feedback effect from audiences who, once rewarded by being able to correctly predict the artist and approximate date or period of a given piece they hadn't seen before, came to expect this 'recognition factor' as integral to the experience of art. The result of all this was that a growing force of inertia (stasis) was experienced by artists who had staked their reputation and even their personal identity on a relatively narrow methodology or ideology, and which weighed down that individual in such a way that movement and direction-change were greatly restricted if recognition and acclaim were not to be jeopardised. This locking-in process was eventually accepted as natural, and was rationalised as 'finding yourself'.
The incumbency upon an artist to find himself or herself legitimised and supported the difference among individuals, whilst denying the shared qualities of personhood common to everyone. Moreover it surreptitiously denied the dynamic aspect of living. Change occurs on every scale: we choose to play a certain music-CD from our collection one day, and something quite different the next day, or even the next hour. This is so natural it hardly bears mentioning. The free association of ideas, the freedom to move and flow from something to something else, from somewhere to somewhere else, to revisit the old, to explore the new and to investigate what is currently impossible (or deemed to be so) ... all these are of fundamental importance to any creative act. An artist's thinking must be as unencumbered as possible.
focus v wide-angle
The 'focus principle' (of which the adoption of a particular style, methodology or approach is but one example) is a necessary part of creative thinking, but, as an isolated untempered force, it tends to blinker the mind's eye so that thought and effort is applied in one direction to the virtual exclusion of other directions. This means that although meaningful connections are likely to be discovered, they will only be amongst parts that are already closely related. The discovery of (less-obvious) higher-dimensional connection requires a considerably broader view, and a willingness to look at ways which at first might seem quite unrelated. This is a riskier approach but the rewards in terms of the potential for discovery, are greater. If Fleming had excluded even a cursory consideration of moulds as foreign and not relevant to his research into bacterial diseases, we would not have had penicillin to fight bacterial disease.
There are many reasons why an artist might want to create artworks aside from a desire to create something new. And yet a fascination for the new (and a simultaneous dissatisfaction with 'the old'), have marked the modern history of art. If a new idea is to be meaningful it must be an idea which is connected. Meaningful new ideas in a sense are multi-valent — they interface with otherness. If a new part or element is discovered, then its meaning is literally dependent on its relation to other parts and elements, in short, to paths which connect it to other known parts, to form logical wholes. Meaningful new discoveries, connect/contrast/relate one idea, place, entity, with another, in a logical, repeatable, 'musical' way. This kind of new-ness has a significance which goes beyond itself. We might say that meaning has very much to do with connectedness. More particularly, such connections are patterned in some way, are 'musical' or grammatical, ...able to be compressed, or expressed mathematically or geometrically or logically. Meaning has to do with connection, in which parts fit together to form logical wholes. If this more-connected newness is the kind desired, then the focused view on its own is suboptimal.
opposites are complementary
If the potential for discovery is important, then the focused view must be combined with the broad view as somehow interwoven, forming part of a tapestry of a higher connecting principle. Breathing-in is useless unless offset by alternate breathing-out: the cyclical expansion and contraction of the lungs. This is very much like the succession of 'focused view' (contraction) and 'broad view' (expansion) which breathes life into thinking and imagining. One yields to the other in equal temperament. Everything is in flux. Opposites become regarded as complements; not mutually exclusive but mutually inclusive. Human beings are not like the mindless machines of the industrial age: designed to mass-produce countless self-similar products. On the contrary, human beings are in a sense fractal metaphors of 'bigger selves' such as planet Earth, and even of the Universe itself: there is enormous scope for diversity within unity, and this latter unity is generally of a more subtle kind and one which can be understood in more abstract covert ways such as in mathematical, ecological, or syntactical terms.
towards a new visual language
It is becoming clearer as to why 'stylism' (the adoption of mono-styles) has persisted for so long. What is also becoming clear is that the reasons are no longer entirely reasonable especially if art and language are to graduate to higher-dimensional levels. Languages today, tend to break up the continuum and richness of experience into discrete bits of information. The power of this is evident to all students of history and language, but its weakness is perhaps less obvious. The black-or-white, on-or-off, antonymic aspect of languages in general (related to a need for a clear-cut discreteness and refinement of meaning in words), has probably, at the grass-roots level of cultural discourse, supported the separatist tendencies within culture considerably more than might at first be imagined. We make sense of the world by naming and cataloging, comparing and contrasting one thing with another, grouping like-things together, etc. Language's naming of objects and phenomena is not merely passive in human affairs but can serve as a dismissive weapon . Words may be invented or meanings ascribed to them in order that ideologies, character traits and the like, may be belittled by shrinking their scope to the meaning-domain of a mere word ('he or she is of that school' = 'dismissed from further consideration'). Let us state this quite directly: language involves judgment, judgment in every sense of the word. The sword of language has won humanity much including a powerful means of thinking and expression, but at a cost, not least of which is that it has often made rigid and inflexible that which was once flowing and free. It has assisted the proliferation of a conglomeracy of autonomous parts or factions within culture, whose sometimes isolationist agendas preclude or inhibit the possible emergence of synergy, of higher-dimensional unity, and the more powerful liquid-language(s) that such unity might bring.