Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

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38 Art History and Class Struggle

Nicos Hadjinicolaou


Style

[...] The first definition of style predominates among those who conceive art history as the history of form or of works of art, and sometimes even among those who take a psychological approach to art.

This is the most widespread definition of style, and encompasses innumerable variants.

The characteristics of a style do not in fact consist of a repertory of ornamental components which in any case cannot be confined to any one period of art: many of them appear over and over again down the ages. Rather is a style characterised by the manner in which form is interpreted and by the flavour of the interpretation. 1

This type of definition of style is not only very common but also the most impoverishing since it strips all historical significance from an artistic work. For this reason, the pejorative use of the label 'formalist' for a scholar like Wölfflin is in this case largely justified. In vain one insists on the class character of this conception of style, which repudiates all research into the raison d'être of styles and their relationship to social groups.

A second definition takes Riegl's idea of the 'artistic will' and expands it to consider style not just as form but as something deeper which cannot be comprehended simply by studying form: 'What force transforms form? What is it that changes fundamentally when style changes on the surface?' An alteration of the 'artistic will', that is to say in style, corresponds to a transformation of the 'ideals' of the social group which sustains that particular style. A completely different solution is given by the Russian emigré Wladimir Weidlé when he writes:

Style is not a general notion which arises from classification according to formal features, but is the name given to a true spiritual force which is at work in history.... And where does this force come from? It can only come from one source, and that is religion.... Styles are the pictorial languages of whole religions or of religious variants of the same religion.

Here, under cover of an attempt to deepen the notion of 'art history as the history of styles' which goes much further than Wölfflin's formalism, we arrive at the point of seeing art history as a branch of theology! It is no accident that Weidlé condemns any attempt 'to interpret style as the expression of the spirit of an age, of a feeling or a vision of the world'. This school of thought goes further than formalism, but only in order to replace formalism with a teleological argument. Their use of the notion of style is ambiguous because its religious basis is often concealed beneath harsh criticism of formalism, which could be deceptive as to its real intentions.

____________________
Source: Nicos Hadjinicolaou, Art History and Class Struggle, translated by L. Asmal (Pluto Press, 1978), pp. 89-148. First published as Histoire de l'art et lutte des classes, Librairie Française Maspero, 1973. Footnotes have been omitted. Copyright © Pluto Press 1973, 1978, and reproduced with permission.

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