Questions of Style

By Blom, Ina | Artforum International, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Questions of Style


Blom, Ina, Artforum International


STYLE IS THE MAN HIMSELF. Today, the Comte de Buffon's ambiguous maxim is more resonant than ever: We live in a world in which nearly every thing and experience is stylized, designed, tailored, customized. And the notion of style, whether "period style" or received "look," has of course loomed large in the artistic strategies of the twentieth century, from early collage to post-pastiche. But never has it seemed so potent, so pervasive, or so charged as it does now.

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Although style reigned in art histories as disparate as Vasari's and Riegl's, it was jettisoned in the 1970s and '80s as a retrograde and ahistorical paradigm. "Style" was tied to the myth of individual genius, to the mark of the connoisseur; it was identified with the supplementary and the merely decorative. But now those ancillary characteristics are taking center stage. Ironically, the rejection of style by various modernist avant-gardes merely embedded it all the more deeply in the art object--making it not the thing's surface but its very quiddity.

The accessories of style--including the supposedly superficial and contingent accoutrements of lifestyle, sartorial style, and anti-style--may be as operative and meaningful as the objects from which they have traditionally been purged. Aiming to take a fresh look at this connection between surface and substance, Artforum invited sixteen contributors--whose expertise spans the fields of art, art history, fashion, and design--to think through the matter of style, now.

INA BLOM

A FEW WEEKS AGO, a major toothbrush manufacturer offered to send me, for critical review, a set of seventeen toothbrushes specially designed by artists. My first thought was: How--in a world in which an overwhelming emphasis on design and style may prompt you to channel anything from surfing vacations to armadillos every time you pick up your toothbrush--could a basic product like this possibly need more creative input? Had the economy, despite the crisis, hypostatized to a point where art's promissory assertion of incalculable surplus value seemed a more reliable source of profit than the universal need for dental hygiene? Had the dental professions collectively decided to cash in on Marcel Duchamp's 1919 check to his dentist Daniel Tzanck, issued by the fictional Teeth's Loan and Trust Company?

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Jokes aside, there was of course nothing surprising about this offer. All through the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries, marketing strategists have latched on to artistic forms of validation whenever possible, and particularly in all matters related to the design, look, and style of products. Meanwhile, artistic preoccupation with design and style issues seems to have increased exponentially with the growth of the fashion, media, and information industries. This has led to the influential hypothesis that the boundaries between art and design are becoming blurred, maybe even erased--a proposition used both to denounce art's complicity with recent forms of capital and power and to celebrate new forms of user interactivity and participation in art.

While the broader socioeconomic theories underpinning this hypothesis may be sound enough, the very notion of "blurred boundaries" has several unfortunate consequences for an art-critical engagement with the contemporary relationship between art and design. One is the perpetuation of a legalistic form of discourse preoccupied with the identity of art as an institution or practice--the limits and boundaries of art--to the exclusion of other critical perspectives. Another is the widespread tendency to transpose the macro analysis to the micro level, meaning that any emphatic focus on design or lifestyle in a given artwork is quickly written off as a sign of simple complicity. The result is that it is difficult for art writers and historians to deal critically with the ramifications of a contemporary lifestyle economy except through a negation or omission of the concept of style itself. …

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