Preface to the Anti-Stylism Manifesto
STYLE – The combination of distinctive features of literary or artistic expression, execution, or performance characterizing a particular person, group, school, or era. (According to dictionary.com)
Some examples of visual art historical stylisms:
Any cultural-specific style like Prehistoric, Egyptian, Chinese, Oceanic, Maori, etc., Classicism, Romanticism, Renaissance, Mannerism, Post-Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Realism, Neo-Classicism, Pre-Raphaelism, Orientalism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Naturalism, Fauvism, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Dadaism, Futurism, Cubism, Vortism, Constructivism, De-Constructivism, Orphism, Surrealism, Social Realism, Modernism, Post-Modernism, various forms of Abstraction, Formalism, Abstract-Expressionism, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Photo-Realism, Conceptualism, Pop, Agit-Pop, Post-Pop, Outsider, Bad Art, Low-Brow, etc…. (This is by no means a conclusive list.)
Any artist whose body of work falls into one (insert-style-here)ism is considered to be a stylist.
A Brief Timeline of Style:
1. The birth of humanity with our need to make art.
2. The development of culture and the need for social acceptance.
3. The imitation of the socially accepted.
4. The fragmentation of values creating pluralism.
5. Intellectual and monetary competition increases among various schools of style as commerce begins to rule societies.
6. Rebellions against established styles spawn more “valuable” styles.
7. Uniqueness of style, supported by critical interpretation, surpasses content and aesthetic value.
8. The artist’s life reduced to the production of “designer label” objects.
The Manifesto of Anti-Stylism
as presented through an imaginary interview with James W Johnson as never published in Art sNews Magazine:
Art sNews -Do artists want to have a style?
JWJ > Of course they do. It makes it easier when asked, “So what kind of art do you do?”
But seriously, the importance of style is one of the first things they teach you in art school, blatantly or subliminally. You are expected to develop your own style. You’re expected to produce a sheet of 20 slides of pieces that resemble each other. So after trying a few things, you settle on something you like then get stuck for years trying to make it logically evolve into something better. Unless of course, you get so bored that you just quit making art. If you’re lucky, every year or so you’ll get some life-altering experience to use as an excuse to make a “radical” change, then develop that for a few more years. For a long time I thought, “I have my own style.” I knew what I liked. But how often did I really challenge that idea?
Art sNews -Have you always been an Anti-Stylist?
JWJ> At heart, yes. In reality, no. But I’ve always believed that an artist is free to pursue what they want. I remember realizing after getting away from the influence of school, so long ago, that no one really cared about what I did as an artist. It became a matter of survival to maintain my own interest in art. Over the years, I experimented with different ideas and media. I tried to refine my techniques as an artist so that my “style” wouldn’t be based on my shortcomings. Yet I often ended up working in a series because I thought that was necessary to validate whatever change I was pursuing. Sometimes the continuity produced better pieces and many times the idea of a group of similar pieces was more important than the individual. But looking back, I find a greater meaning in the variety of series than in any particular one. Now I find myself wondering, “How much time was wasted trying to validate one idea in the name of “my style?”
Art sNews -Now you are an Anti-Stylist?
JWJ> Yes. At this point in time, I am working on the non-series series, the birth of Anti-Style. A group of works where the pieces don’t resemble each other stylistically. I suppose I could even go back and disassemble my old series art and reorder them into Anti-Stylistic groupings.
Art sNews -Don’t all “good” artists have a singular style?
JWJ > Every critically acceptable and commercially successful artist has his or her own style. But you have to question complexity of what that artist is offering. Is it something more than the visual? Is it more than one idea, remade over and over? And conversely, having a style doesn’t necessarily make an artist “good”. Perhaps your style only makes you predictable. Ideas precedent ideas. No one really invents anything out of the blue. Therefore an artist’s style is merely a personal adaptation of some previous “ism” or combination of “isms.” The personal adaptation is what I believe artists should concentrate on and what better way to do that than to make “isms” irrelevant. In my opinion, a “good” artist is one who produces a lifelong body of work that truly explores the varied experience of life and the possibilities of art.
Art sNews -How much should an artist worry about having or not having their own style?
JWJ > If you consider yourself a student of art, then don’t worry about it. And I don’t just mean art students. Students of art should be trying anything and everything. All students of art should be Anti-Stylists. Artists can continue to be students of art if they are searching for and try to express a greater, more complex truth. If you’re an artist whose singularity of vision is unchanging and you’re doing something that you love, then you’ve probably settled into a comfortable style and don’t care to question it. But as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Not to say that happy artists should kill themselves. Especially if you are someone like Willem DeKooning, who sold variations of the same painting for decades for big bucks, you might as well enjoy it. But if you have been cranking out art for years and still trying to find your “style” then you’re probably looking in the wrong place. Examine the meat, not the dish. Perhaps you’re an Anti-Stylist and don’t know it.
Art sNews -How often should the Anti-Stylist’s art change and to what degree?
JWJ > Let boredom be your barometer. But try this for excitement: “How different can I make this piece from the last one and still find myself in there.” You might be surprised at how complex and irrepressible the self really is. Not to say an artist should reject a fresh idea based on one piece. Maybe it’ll take doing a few to get something you like. But never crank them out just for the illusion of validation through repetition. And never worry that it won’t be a part of you. That is inevitable (unless, of course, it’s forgery that you’re after.)
Art sNews -Is style a perceivable constant within the context of an artist’s work?
JWJ > Yes. But my point is that the constant doesn’t have to be visual. Art is a physical manifestation of the artist. The form that manifestation takes is based on your personal choices. Since there are no laws or absolute truths of art, why does an artist limit his or her choices? Is it honestly based on something you feel a personal connection to? Or is it to fit within an internally or externally imposed category? It feels good to identifiable? Fear of failure? It’s more comfortable when you know what you’re doing? Afraid of revealing a more true or complex self? These are questions that any self-respecting artist must address. And as the artist Jim Roche was once rumored to have said “If you hold back, you stay back.”
Art sNews -Are you saying that an artist’s style might be the by-product of unchallenged processes and techniques?
JWJ > This is what I’ve always believed to be true of most artists. The artist who should be a student of art has a style that is determined by what he or she can’t do. For example, if I paint like Edvard Munch because I never took the time to learn how to paint like Bougereau then my limitations may be dictating my style. On the other hand, Picasso would be considered a fine Anti-Stylist if you ignore the thousands of Cubist pieces that were his hottest sellers. He could make art in a wide variety media and styles but the marketing of Picasso labeled him a Cubist. Pressured him into a convenient box that was appropriate for the century of mass production and designer labels products. And I’m also sure there are many Anti-Stylist artists out there now, doing great work but they don’t get any visibility because of the outdated values of the mainstream art world.
Art sNews -So if style is what makes an artist critically acceptable and commercially successful, will the Anti-Stylist get ignored?
JWJ > Probably yes. At least until we change people’s attitude on how they look at art.
Art sNews -What hope is there for the Anti-Stylist?
JWJ (standing on what appears to be a soapbox)> Plenty. Which brings us to THE ANTI-STYLISTS MANIFESTO. The world loves change. Some important strides were made in 20th century art, most importantly the removal of all rules on what art is and the inclusion of non-western and non-academically trained artists into the respected art world. But rules for the singular artist have remained. Now it’s time for artists to remove those velvet chains from their imaginations. To consider all the options without fear of degradation. To make pieces that don’t have to resemble each other. Quality will always remain debatable but it’s time for critics to look for a deeper meaning that goes beyond style. To judge each piece on it’s own merits and to discuss the qualities of that singular artist that run as a common thread through a disparate body of work. They should explore what the artist does reveal while not resorting to a style. It’s time for galleries to sell the artist, not the style. After all, the art viewing public is ready. We’re tired of “seen one, seen ’em all” solo shows. We’re tired of knowing what we’re going to see before we even get there. It’s time for artists to challenge the viewer’s sensibilities, make them dig a little deeper and enjoy a varied experience. Sure they’ll relate to some more than others, but doesn’t that happen with a mono-style show? But as an Anti-Stylist, don’t worry about it. Set your imagination free. Let each idea take its most appropriate form. Explore different techniques or media. Try living without knowing what your next piece will be. Enjoy the complexity of your self and your personal esthetic. Be forewarned that Anti-Stylism is not for the weak-hearted. As Nietzsche pointed out, most people can’t handle total freedom. And centuries of cultural brainwashing are a tough thing to shake. But if you are one of many artists out there who were rushed into a style, why not try Anti-Style? If you’re an artist who has stopped surprising yourself, maybe you need a change. If you’re not making a fortune doing the same old thing, what do you have to lose? No one really cares about your consistency anyway. Why not try adding a little mystery to your life and your art. And when someone asks, “What kind of art do you do?” don’t flounder around, looking for some combination of neo-post-isms, just say, “I’m an Anti-Stylist.”
Art sNews -But aren’t you worried about becoming just another “ism”?
JWJ (getting off the soapbox)> Nah.
A couple of footnotes by the interviewee:
_Anti-Stylism is not anti-art as the Dadaists claimed to be.
_Anti-Stylism, so far, has not been found in a single piece.
_These statements on Anti-Stylism apply mainly to my views on the visual arts but I encourage artists in other fields to adapt these concepts to their own purposes.