Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 6, 2001
Jonathan Gilmore The Life of a Style: Beginnings and Endings in the Narrative History of Art Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. 157 pp.; 31 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (0801436958)

Jonathan Gilmore’s The Life of Style: Beginnings and Endings in the Narrative History of Art resuscitates an internalist history of artistic style, an earlier notion of style that endeavored to explain perceptible shifts in artistic production. This notion, however, has long since fallen out of favor. Following Pliny, Vasari, Winckelmann, Wölfflin, Riegl, and Focillon, Gilmore understands “internal” to be the organic development of style: it begins (is born), develops (blooms), and ends (fades). This is “the life of a style.” According to Gilmore, an account of this life, or, better yet, a historical representation of style, is narrative in its form. A style’s intrinsic dynamism, he maintains—its working itself out from the inside—structures the “narrative history of art” to the extent that a narrative, by its nature, has a beginning, middle, and end.

A strict internal history of style—an account of its beginnings and endings whereby what develops in the middle explains the beginning and the ending—should, for all intents and purposes, bracket out external circumstances. Thus an internalist history of style should do away with all external forces, such as the political, social, and sexual factors available to contextualist histories of style. Generally speaking, the internalist and externalist histories of style (where the political, social, and sexual construct an artwork’s style) are thought to be deeply divided methodologically. The dispute centers on where to concentrate analysis. The externalist argues that, regardless of an artwork’s material properties, an analysis of style cannot be severed from the overriding context from which the artwork was conceived. In contrast, the internalist argues that, regardless of external forces, an analysis of style must focus on its “intrinsic nature” as it is visually manifested by individual artists and groups of artists.

The two histories, however, need not be mutually exclusive; the internalist can accommodate the externalist and vice versa. Gilmore’s book does just that. It reconciles two opposing methods of historical analysis. While internalist in its intentions, The Life of a Style permits something of the externalist’s proposal to pass into its theoretical framework. In spite of the fact that such an inclusion seems to be a contradiction in argumentation and analysis—that is, from the internalist position of maintaining a strict divide between internal and external forces—it is precisely this contradiction (or, perhaps, permutation) that is Gilmore’s greatest asset. This depends on whether or not we take him to understand the “internal” motivations of style to be embodied by the artwork or embedded in its history. According to Gilmore’s analysis, the distinction is crucial; for, it is only in the latter case that a full description of style is possible. He must therefore accommodate some external factors that aid him in the construction of style and its study. If this is the case, then, such an accommodation undermines any claim to a strictly organic development of style, that is, if we take Gilmore to mean by organic that the nature of style is to develop internally.

The contradiction I point out is apparent when Gilmore’s book is outlined as follows. First, predetermined limits delineate style. These limits are set by what Michael Baxandall refers to as the artistic “brief”: a style develops internally when the limits already established by a brief foretell a goal—in general, a solution to a problem. Second, Gilmore claims that a historical account of artistic style must abide by “truth” constraints established by the objective features of the style’s trajectory from beginning to end, from the problem stated by the brief on to its ostensible solution. And third, he follows with the assertion that endings reveal the coordinates necessary to establish a style designation, such as “Cubism.” The coordinates are already in place at the beginning, but they have not yet surfaced materially. Admittedly, this is a highly reduced account of Gilmore’s book; it in no way reflects the analytic nuances of his deft argumentation, nor does it give credit to the economy and the elegance of his delivery. Nevertheless, boiled down as it is here, I take Gilmore to mean that, in the case of the first point, the ending of an artistic style is preprogrammed at its beginning. With the brief being the germ of a style, the ending is construed (and constrained) naturally by those limits set at its beginning; in the case of the second point, such limits, or “truth” constraints, must be materially verifiable; and, in the case of the third point, what can be said of a style cannot be said apart from the manufactured object.

Gilmore’s theory of style would be internalist to its core, if it were not for his inclusion of Baxandall’s brief as an “explanatory model.” Bearing the traces of the artist’s, or group of artists’, struggle—or pattern of intention, as Baxandall proposed—with the limitations set by the brief, the art object possessing style is linked indexically to the social, historical, cultural, and psychical circumstances that construct the contours of the brief. Without doubt, these traces are always material in the visual arts, and are hence internal, even when they are simultaneously allegorical or symbolic, as in Gilmore’s discussion of the development of perspective. But style considered as an index of the brief undeniably acknowledges external forces. (Such is the general thrust of Baxandall’s premise.) Under this analysis, the artwork is chained, as it were, to the artist, to the school, to the studio, or to the workshop; each possesses a signature event—a formation of a brief—that is transmitted to the artwork. Can the brief function as background for correct style determination? In this case, as I understand the implication of Gilmore’s use of the brief, the observable characteristics of style must register with the unobservable qualities of the brief that are external to the artwork, such as a wide variety of ever-present institutional pressures. How the internal motivations of style development and the external forces that constitute the brief connect up, however, is left unclear.

What is left unsaid—really, a slight fissure in argumentation—intimates that Gilmore’s style analysis seems to make style an index of the brief. I might add to this the vagaries of indexical models of analysis, which can be so weak that they inevitably avail nothing about artworks or artists other than the notion that artists happen to make artworks with style. This is fine as far as it goes. But taken at face value, the indexical nature of style indicates that artworks mediate between the artist and the brief, rendering style merely the trace of this mediation. This, in turn, begs a question regarding Gilmore’s use of narrative as a means to elucidate the nature of style: does the beginning of a style causally enter into an immediate relation with its ending, as Gilmore indicates, or does a beginning and an ending relate only by the intermediary of the brief that both just happen to picture? Gilmore’s deployment of narrative yields to a historically dominant tendency to naturalize style—to search for rules that structure style, whether or not those rules abide by the narrative form. The indexical status of the artwork is a consequence of this method.

To his credit, Gilmore provides the reader with a compelling interrogation of the rules that govern the material actualization of style. This is a formidable task, and Gilmore’s approach is rigorous and refreshingly concise. The most invigorating aspect of The Life of a Style is the manner in which discordance and resolution breathe new life into some well-worn and strikingly persistent ideas about the evolution of style in the visual arts. Nevertheless, if we are to agree that the beginnings and endings of style are the dynamo that drives art history, and if The Life of Style is to convey effectively the vitality of this internal force, the challenge for Gilmore is then to render the discrete features of style formation less remote and more in line with a mundane condition of art history and its archaeological requirements. Perhaps this is all that style can achieve—a circumspect material catalogue of personal expressions and group dispositions.

Michael Golec
Northwestern University