Style & Its Requisites
An essay on style and what is necessary to achieve it.
¶ The most exquisite things in nature and in art are those which possess an indefinable quality called style. The piece of literature, the architectural work, the beautiful woman, the flower wanting in this last nameless grace are alike unfortunate. For in order to gain recognition and appreciation in a highly civilized age, distinction, that is to say: separation from one's kind is necessary. But this distinction must be natural inherent: never sought after, assumed, or forced. In the case of objects created by the artist, style must be a part of the very conception; and not something consciously added in the mechanical execution.
¶ The masters of style, the chiefs of the great schools wrought in obedience to impulse, because they were forced from within; because the thing seen in their mental vision cried out to be born, to become materialized. The lintel, the column, the arch were not incorporated into the building art by deliberate selection, by critics and learned experimentalists. The structural element was seized by the master and fell into place beneath his powerful grasp: the result representing what we recognize now as Greek, or Roman, or mediaeval. Nor did the two great Italians, Raphael and Michelangelo, strike after their distinguishing traits. The harmonic composition of the one, the infinite linear variety of the other were spontaneous, constant forces which needed to be fed or fostered by their possessors, of which they were a vital part; living with them, and passing away at the death of the masters, never again to be repeated.
¶ Style is therefore the quality and rightful possession of one individual, or class of individuals. Outside of these limits, it is a false and unjustifiable assumption. We feel this statement to be true when we pause to analyse the impressions that often fall like discords upon our senses, as we go upon our ways of work or pleasure. For example, the sixteenth century French castle architecture is "sui generis". It is incomparable in its way. It lends itself to the nature in the midst of which it was created; rising from the landscape of the river Loire as a sympathetic response to the appeal of the sky, the water, the hills and the forests. Farther than this, it represents the time of its birth. Its splendor of material, its brilliancy of execution, its imaginative, luxuriant, graceful ornament call the artistic, pleasure-loving Francis First who passed with his court from chateau to chateau; avoiding his burgher-capital, Paris, lest his waste of wealth should incite the honest artisans and shopkeepers to discontent and insurrection.
¶ Now, let a reproduction of this style be attempted in the heart of our American metropolis, as has been done in several notable instances. The result is no longer either pleasing to the student and connoisseur, or satisfying to the masses. The feudal architecture is by centuries out of place in a modern city, presumably the home of civic law and order. The broad avenues, teeming with the life, movement and inventions of a scientific age, form an incongruous setting for these old-time jewels of art. The fantastic ornament, the gargoyles and griffons which over-run the whole and cut the sky-line in a hundred curious ways have no longer a reason for existence. They have lost the sense of mystery with which they were once invested. Their meaning has passed from the vital state into the domain of historical interest. In the evolution of art, their place has long been supplanted.
¶ We can thus go on selecting examples at will, and sure always of arriving at the same conclusion. As we pass through the Place Vendome, Paris, we are at once impressed by the formal, stately grandeur of the surrounding architecture. The eager shopper with his eyes still dazzled by the glittering frivolities of the rue de la Pais is unconsciously sobered by confronting the grave buildings of the historic square; while the student delights to imagine the space as it must have appeared under Louis le Grand: animated by lumbering coaches and gilded sedan-chairs, with their freight of pompous gentlemen in flowing wigs, and of ladies in heavy velvet and brocade gowns.
¶ Again, as in the first case cited, let the externals of this style be copied in America. The result will be a spiritless, literal translation, wanting the life and soul of the original. A sense of unfitness and unreality will forever pervade and haunt the imitation which, through the lack of spontaneity, has no justification for being; which has no basis of artistic truth, and which represents no dominant thought of the period.
¶ So, advancing from instance to instance, we reach the conclusion that any art worthy of the name must strike its roots deep into the life of the people, and must produce as freely and naturally as does the plant in summer.
¶ We have thus far drawn our examples from architecture, but as the smaller is contained in the greater, so are the lesser arts related to that of the builder. Sculpture and painting are its handmaids, and household decoration its adjunct and ally.
¶ The objects which form our material environment exert upon us an influence that is not to be withstood. If we, our children, and our successors are to be true citizens and integral parts of the Commonwealth, we must choose carefully the objects by which we surround ourselves; bringing our judgment to bear upon them as fully as we do upon our books, our studies and our companions. We must support an art created by the people for the people: simple, sincere and structural; an wherein the designer and the craftsman shall be one and the same individual: creating for his own pleasure and unassailed by commercialism.
¶ It is in this spirit that the Master and Associates of the United Crafts produce their work and await results.
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