Sunday, October 29, 2006

On Style (self-reflection, self-awareness)

As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year. —Vita Sackville-West, in a letter to Virginia Woolf

To cultivate one's thought - to learn to shape and handle it - is to cultivate one's style. Looked at from any other point of view, style merely makes for obscurity and acts as a drag. —Jean Cocteau, Professional Secrets

His poetry went on living, changing, developing unabatedly for sixty years or more; and being always a part of himself, growing as he grew, it remained 'original' even when it was most imitative. Originality is after all not absence of models, but what one can make of one's models; it is the recognition of kinship and the capacity to transform; above all it is the refusal to imitate oneself. Goethe wrote in the style of (and here everything is mentioned from north-European folksongs, to Italian verse-forms, to the Homeric hexameters, to classic lyric Persian forms, to ancient Chinese poetic forms); and when he had done what it was his to do with these idioms, he would drop them and turn to something else.... He worked his models first into his system, then out of it. He was resiliant, able to forget, willing to leave things behind, deep enough to be inconsistent, big enough to be both personal and universal, alive enough for his life to be art and for his art to be life. —editor David Luke on Goethe

This quote about Goethe very nicely sums up how I feel about it.

I look in the artistic mirror as an artist, writer, musician, etc., and I see myself. I'm not comparing myself to Goethe in some arrogant way, but I do strongly identify with Luke's comments about Goethe, as they might possibly also apply to other artists, myself included, and those artists who I feel have been mentors to me, over the years, whether or not I ever knew them in person. Mentorship is essential for finding oneself: mentors provide a mirror in which one can see oneself, and provide examples to point, if you wish to explain yourself to others.

I seek to develop my personal style. But I don't want to be a stylist. I write in a lot of different styles, poetry, prose, prose-poem, haibun, my own new forms, etc., and I can see a thread that runs through all of them, unifying them as mine—but I wonder if anyone else can? Do others look at my various bodies of work and see only diversity? Is a personal style only a matter of personal interests?

All my life, since I was a small boy, people have been telling me to settle down and just devote myself to one art, to become expert at one medium, to just do one thing well. I've never understood that. I've always been capable of doing better-than-average at more than one medium; my creative repertoire crosses genres and media, and I've never felt that was a problem. My artistic mentors, since I was that small boy, have all been polymaths along the lines of Goethe, and have all done good work in more than one artistic (and/or scientific) medium: John Cage, Ben Franklin, Gordon Parks, Leonardo da Vinci. Add Goethe to the list.

What does this say about style? Can one work in multiple arts and still have a recognizable style? (Yes.) Does personal style have to be eternally consistent? (Hell no!) Can one say that the artist's work in one medium has more of a coherent style than the same artist's work in other media? (Perhaps so. I think sometimes my visual artwork has the most coherent sense of style, but even there, there are two artistic poles to the style: stark wabi-sabi simplicity, and cluttered fractal chaos.) My work has always contained a diversity of styles and tones.

I strongly question the insistence on consistency, unification, unitary style, etc., within any artist's body of work. I think that Goethe's inconsistency and constant growth and change is precisely the mark of a living, working, gorwing artist. I can't honestly imagine an artist being any other way—perhaps because I'm that way myself, and thus find it no easier to wrap my own head around unitary consistency, than it is for one of my critics to wrap their own heads around my inconsistent diversity of styles and media.

I identify with Goethe's refusal to imitate himself, or repeat himself: repeating myself is the most boring thing I can imagine doing, artistically. The next project is always the most interesting project. An artist who only repeats earlier work is creatively stuck, or creatively dead. (Or, perhaps, attempting to capitalize on previous work to have a stable income.) So, I've ended up as an artist with several internally-consistent yet externally-diverse bodies of work.

Certainly consistency makes it easier to categorize (and market) an artist's style. Art galleries expect you to present yourself to them, when you present a portfolio for review, in exactly this way: as having an enduring, unified style to your work. This usually means leaving out some of your best work, because it's off in another style-zone. But galleries are there to sell art, not to appreciate it: they are profit-making businesses. Many good artists go overlooked by the gallery scene simply because their work is less marketable. Consequently, I usually can only market one body of work at a time; which of course means having lots of eggs in the air all at once, which I admit can be a struggle to balance. Sometimes I just want to crawl in a hole, and give it all up, be a monk, ignore the world.

But the final word on consistency lies perhaps with Emerson, a quote I carried around with me all through music school and after: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

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