“Style is the answer to everything... To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it “
“Style is violent, and I am not violent”
With Gerhard Richter’s retrospective currently meandering across Europe, I’m reminded of the above quote, one of his more quotable quotes. When repeated at me, it’s done so in response to some aesthetic gesture on my part, the quoter delicately embellishing it with a tone of reproach, like a slap on the wrist with baby’s breath. Richter’s quote bewilders me with its neat balance, its rhetorical flair, both giving it such cool efficiency as a tool of condescension. I greatly admire Richter’s work. I exalt the entire catalogue. Yet I’m so injured by this statement’s pat cleverness, the sound-byte-ness of it when employed as critique against the loudness of my outfit. It’s made me angry at least once, boiling up a desire to retaliate with the full force of my bad taste. I brushed it off as a vapid, meaningless thing to say. That’s how powerful style can be.
It’s a very stylish little quote.
Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild, 2005, 30 cm x 44 cm, Oil on canvas; Courtesy of the artist
I don’t presume to offer any strict definition of style here, especially not to unnecessarily cross disparate acts like creating a painting or getting dressed or directing a movie, but something about Richter’s association of style with violence becomes more apparent when considered across the wider range of aesthetics, even though Richter himself was merely talking about the impetus behind his own. We’ll have to settle for defining style in the same fuddy-duddy way that many define irony and pornography: well, I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. I’ll tentatively add the notion that style is about making strong choices. It’s purposeful. I resist the reduction of style to unconscious habits. It indicates an unsettling lack of agency. Is my personal mode of dress defined more by an active preference for printed skirts, or a pathological inability to get a collar to lie straight? The former is more in line with the implications of Richter’s idea. The stronger the choice, the stronger the potential reaction of those who apprehend it.
I didn’t make the connection until I considered it in light of personal taste. Suddenly it all made sense. Whether through enforcing or challenging or accelerating a cultural norm, strong aesthetic choices are a form of aggression that can engender aggressive responses.
People hate style.
This is immediately apparent to anyone who has heard the words “How dare she!” masquerading as fashion commentary, or witnessed the gleeful ire with which a former disciple of Wes Anderson breaks down everything that is “wrong” with his latest film. Strong style is seductive, and the violence with which we initially adore it can easily turn into embarrassment and then hostility (personally, I’m a Wes Anderson apologist, though I do consider his foray into animation the apogee of an abject cuteness in which human physiognomy itself was considered insufficiently precious, I digress). Choices of taste and aesthetic are so deeply rooted in ideas of self-esteem and class consciousness, concepts which are volatile enough without being freighted by a uniquely contemporary tendency to perceive these concepts as quantifiable, i.e., my personal brand has earned me more Twitter followers than you.
This is all very funny.
Ryan Trecartin, A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004, 42 min, color, sound; Courtesy of the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix
Bukowski’s quote is another sound-byte I encounter fairly often, but it is used mainly as an excuse for poorly executed ideas, rather than a comment on overly-wrought ones. It’s the opposite of everything Richter’s quote implies about good taste and restraint, and is equally imitation in all its stylish dullness. I’m no champion of exhausting one's threshold for aesthetic experience. I’m in awe of Richter’s success in achieving something akin to non-style. It’s what makes his paintings inescapably beautiful and universally appealing without catering to a lowest common denominator. On the other end of the spectrum, I find the video works of Ryan Trecartin pretty unbearable. I can appreciate them as distillations of pure style at the expense of content, perhaps even perceive this distillation itself as the content, and a commentary on the immediacy of style as purveyor of empty experience. But I can ponder this commentary without risking a visually-induced fit of apoplexy.
Style can be a very dangerous thing.
(Image at top: Gerhard Richter, Version I, 48.5 x 48.5 cm; Courtesy of the artist)