A Matter of Style

6 03 2012

Most artists seek financial reward and critical recognition for their work, and this is reasonable and understandable. However, success comes at a cost. The “successful,” artist quickly finds him or herself pushed into the “style” trap.

The typical gallery owner, patron, collector, critic or curator has too much invested in their favored artists and doesn’t want them to change their styles, at least not radically. Just imagine if Jasper Johns suddenly began to paint like Thomas Kinkade? What if Jeff Koons decided to devote himself to needlepoint? Or what if Sean Scully began to paint circles instead of color slabs? Breaking away from a signature style is always a risk for the artist and those who benefit from his or her work.

Of course an artist need not be a superstar to fall into the style trap. It can happen to any artist at any level and it is often self-imposed.

Style is the achilles heel of the artist and art-making just as it is the unavoidable emergent personal signature of the the artist—the sum of his or her preferences of palette, technique, material, tools, method, and purpose.

But if style is unavoidable it is also true that there are two kinds of style. The first is that which naturally arises from the work—from the authentic expression of the artist. The second form is an imposed style. This is the calculated application of technique and embellishment that is principally intended to enhance sales and build brand identity. It is this imposed style that threatens true creativity, growth and artistic integrity. Likewise, it easily becomes a crutch—a formula.

Almost always it is a mistake for the artist to try and develop a style, appropriate one or substitute technique in place of an authentic style. The thinking and genuine artist knows that style will take care of itself if only he or she does their work with passion and integrity.

Rembrandt knew how to paint light masterfully but he did not seek to turn this skill into an imposed style and marketing gimmick. Instead he used his tremendous ability to make pictures that today rank among the greatest paintings ever made. Thomas Kinkade, on-the-other-hand has promoted a facile technique into a style and brand—the painter of light—and thereby gained great financial success as a marketer. However, his reputation as a painter is nowhere near that of Rembrandt.

© 2012 Michael Maurer Smith

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