By Marjorie Munsterberg

Writing About Art

Stylistic Analysis

The term "style" refers to the resemblance works of art have to one another. Enough visual elements must be shared by enough works to make their combination distinctive and recognizable to a number of people. A single cathedral cannot define the Gothic style any more than a single sculpture can define the style of its artist. Furthermore, the idea must convey meaning to enough people to become widely used.  Art history is filled with stylistic definitions that were proposed but never adopted, or did not survive for long.  This is not surprising.  Ideas and tastes change, different things seem important at different times, and there always are major works that do not fit into a particular definition of a style. These exceptions offer constant challenge to any accepted order.

Many people have tried to define the idea of style in theoretical terms, hoping to make its use in art history more consistent. One of the most interesting attempts is by the philosopher Berel Lang.  At the end of an essay about style, he wrote that “not only [is style] not a science but [it is] a version of fiction – a narrative form – tied to the literary trope of synecdoche in which one feature is an ingredient in all the others.”35 The last part of the sentence restates what everyone agrees is fundamental to the definition of any style, that some quality must be shared by every member of the group. The beginning of the sentence, that style is not a science, not something that can be measured and duplicated in experiments, is also assumed by most people.

It is the middle of Lang’s sentence, the description of style as a kind of fiction, even a form of narrative or story-telling, that suggests something new.  First, it emphasizes the degree to which style is an idea that has been created by someone rather than a quality that belongs to the objects.  Like a work of fiction, it is an imaginative, interpretative accounting. Second, if it is a kind of story, it must come with a storyline.  In other words, inherent in the idea of a particular style is some kind of meaning or significance.  Decisions about what to look for, and what to include or exclude, have been made with a goal in mind.  Even if that goal is not formed consciously, it is expressed through choices.  Lang’s concept is a useful reminder of how any particular definition of a style represents only one possibility among a nearly infinite number of alternatives.