A VARIATION ON STYLE



It is conventional to call ‘monster’ any blending of dissonant elements... I call ‘monster’ every original, inexhaustible beauty.
—Alfred Jarry


In the ’60s, Syd Mead’s sense of design became one of the industry standards that largely defined what the future was supposed to look like. In hindsight, things didn’t quite turn out as perfectly as Mead originally imagined. Somewhere between the industrialist, dream-inspired Ford Pavilion of the ’64 World’s Fair and his work on Blade Runner (1982), the silent whir of a trouble-free future started to ping and sputter like an old rusty car. The bright, shiny newness of Mead’s early utopian style became retro, recast as a relic of the fashion and power of the mid 20th-century. In short, Mead’s atomic age fantasy was made thoroughly historical. It came to embody a nostalgia for a style’s promise of a better world that saw a resurgent second life in recent back-to-the-future corporate product design. Quickly ascribing his work political significance, however, does not adequately explain why ideologies that are assumed to radically oppose each other so often enjoy a similar sense of style.


The problem with labeling Mead’s early utopian style with anything approaching a specific political connotation (besides the fact that his more recent work in movies like Aliens (1986), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), and Strange Days (1995) is jarringly dystopic) goes back to Heinrich Wölfflin’s reliance on a linear historical model. Originally published in 1915, Wölfflin’s assessment of style was in part a reaction to the reemergence of classicism in European nationalist sentiment. The distinctions Wölfflin made between “linear” and “painterly”, “closed” and “open” forms, “multiplicity” and “unity”, etc., were between historically polemical positions. Classicism was associated with a nationalist politics of brutality and xenophobia. The idea that reactionary attitudes were predictable in fascism’s preference for “linearity” and “closed” forms of classical wholeness (clearly at play in Mead’s industrial futurism) is understandably a stretch for an American generation where, among other examples of code switching, a television show like Hogans Heroes informs their concept of Nazis as bumblers and mass bunglers. Even so, Wölfflin’s sweeping judgments favoring a baroque sensibility over the linear draftsmanship of classicism have long since come under fire for their blatant historicism and have faded from popular memory (except apparently on the pages of fashion magazines where terms like “classical” and “modern” still thrive).


Since it is next to impossible to argue that terms like “linear” and “painterly” are inherently political, it becomes very difficult to inscribe an indelible ideology to Mead’s style. True, the world within a world of the highly reflective surfaces prevalent in many of his illustrations adds a lot of complexity to what is otherwise a fairly classical view of symbolic form, but how does one go about affixing conventional politics to something so ephemeral as appearance? Claims that there is something somehow liberating about the current resurgence of industrial design are expected from marketers like Nike or Apple which hawk their products in the name of postmodernity. Even if I choose to forget that modern design only gained its political momentum as an opposition to an entrenched status quo of Victorian kitsch and the conservatism of the French Academy, I am faced with a dilemma: is something like the expressionist style of Paul Klee’s 1910 High-Road to Schwabingen — a drawing that not only looks nothing like Mead’s, but is, contrary to future nostalgia, associated with a folk sensibility — more or less liberating? Wasn’t Klee actually at the Bauhaus, anyway (the bastion of clean, futuristic design inspired early on by craft art)? To ignore that Klee’s ideas pre-figure what has resulted in a classic sense of modern style is disingenuous. It is far too convenient to disregard one of the original engineers of modernity simply because there is a marked absence of stylistic consistency in his work. Initially, the difference in Klee’s and Mead’s styles might make it appear that they represent polar opposites, but style, examined closely, is remarkably void of critical connotation. In terms of style alone it isn’t necessarily clear how a definitive politics, never mind a politics that would place Mead or Klee at odds with each other, is ascribable to either artist.


Take, for example, a commissioned drawing of Mead’s in the 1963 U.S. Steel catalogue. Much confusion surrounding the politics of modern style has to do with the fact that it’s introduced in America primarily by way of large-scale corporate design. Ideas about open forms and externalized interiority, originally intended to manifest an egalitarian sense of social openness, were co-opted for private consumption. Mead began his career primarily as a stylist for high-powered industrial companies like Ford and Philips. His technique is cool and analytic. The highly rendered illustration for U.S. Steel depicts a signature sleekly streamlined car parked in the middle of a cobble-stone square. In the middle of the picture a tall finlike sculpture with teardrop cutouts, seen behind the car, is reflected in the car’s dramatically cropped hood. At the foot of the back wall, behind the futuristic modernist totem, at the base of the wall, there is a wedge shaped object that is either another aerodynamic sculpture or a space-age vehicle. Wölfflin’s categories, foremost among them “linear” vs. “painterly”, come to mind. In Mead’s style here, best described as designer impressionism, form is not generally represented as black-inked outline and is often comprised of floating, gaseous, and hence volumetric shapes. His is a fantastical world, perfectly smooth and reflective. Light gleams and flashes, dancing off the seamless surface of the car, and dazzling the eye. Wölfflin would no doubt have found traces of his atmospheric or “painterly” style in the illustration, and yet Mead’s picture still retains a high degree of definition. Although his style is not necessarily linear, Mead maintains a classical emphasis on the clarity and wholeness of form.


By comparison, Klee’s iconography is equally modern. If anything, his style is no style at all. High-Road looks like a childish scribble. And, it’s safe to say the picture could easily have been drawn in a couple of seconds. What constitutes its style is clearly its excited linearity. How form in Klee’s picture makes itself visible, however, is what separates it most from a picture like Mead’s. It is almost as if Klee was not interested in the smooth encapsulations of transcendental form on which Mead capitalizes, but in the slipperiness and quickness inspired by those lines. Nowhere in High-Road does anything resembling a recognizable form emerge, nor is there a definable object. Nevertheless, trees, sky and shadows are dramatically evoked throughout the drawing and the stylized lines propose an extremely dynamic space by some other means entirely. Considering how prolific Klee was, it is noteworthy that he constantly reinvented his style of drawing with almost every new picture. Far from a mannerist quotation of an already existing aesthetic, Klee’s use of drawing convention is generally an attempt at evoking some desired visceral phenomena, and, as such, proposes itself as the conveyor of a pointed effect. As Wölfflin would have it, the scrawl-like style of High-Road transmits a certain bewilderment and unruliness of imagery and thus stands as a capable vehicle for expressing the anarchy of nature’s sensual affect. It is, in the haptic sense, a strong feeling conveyed visually: in this case, of the great subtlety of atmospheric experience on a country road. Even as the lines of trees and leaves move wildly and violently, the lighter touch and tighter marks that run from the feet of those tree trunks render their shadows eerily placid.


To argue that an expression born from convention (e.g., the bucolic and unpopulated landscape that emerges after the French Revolution) is bankrupt because it is so heavily prefigured historically is to limit a discussion of representation. It is true that High-Road is emblematic of a particular period in art-making that, in retrospect, lacks the excessive degree of historical self-consciousness which has become the norm in artistic practice where everything is conceived of primarily as an art-making strategy (placing the emphasis on artistic presence/absence as stylistic identification). But why would anyone want to limit style’s possibilities to a historical mode of address that is barely capable of mustering anything but sly quotation? To argue that styles are historically fixed, disallowing their potential for inventiveness, as has been the case in appropriationist practice in art for some time now, is comparable to mounting a critique of culture/art that blames the invention of musical scoring and notation for a flat song, or the age old alphabet and strict grammarian for the stagnancy of literary genre. Conventions are by definition culturally motivated and ideologically inscribed, as Wölfflin took great care to illustrate. It is no coincidence that discussions of art tend to rely on phenomenological distinctions between modes of expression precisely in order to recognize the resident effects of, among other things, style. To recognize what something (in this case, a scribble) has come to represent is not necessarily the same thing as understanding the feeling that it evokes (i.e., the uncertainty of dynamic form vs. the certainty of static form). Representation is often so mesmerized by the revolving doors of history’s fashions (the urgency of style giving way to immanent contrivance, the loss of freshness, what was once current turned quaint) that the complexities of style’s lingering visceral effects and, by extension, their radical connotations and possibilities are overlooked.


Returning to Klee’s mark making in High-Road, the critical emphasis on representation and the idea that the wild scribble is nothing more than a mannered surrealism make it hard to grasp Klee’s hyper-linearity as a way of getting an effect, and not the effect itself. What is compelling about High-Road, in other words, is not simply that it is a period piece. Rather, the broader issues concerns how those scribbles evoke a particularly expansive sense of volume. That the marks making up the picture fit neatly into a category of reception, immediately recognizable as expressionistic and surreal (modern), is a product of the process of stylistic reception, but certainly not style’s only point. One could even say High-Road is psychedelic because it is an oceanic drawing, enveloping rather than graphic. Klee’s instantly scrawled country road is abstractly able to represent a sense of foreboding and anxiety poetically associated with a bewildering, nebulous universe, wherein representation and effect are uneasily suspended and each is equally tentative.


To consider style as solely historical or as static representation ignores the fact that, like beauty, it is based in appearance which is hard, if not impossible, to delineate and control. The downside of considering style purely as iconography becomes clearer when historical tendencies are further understood as uniquely hyper-reflexive repetitions of motif. Mead would no doubt praise classical architecture for its poetics of symmetry and balance and its basic, clean forms, and his drawing is clearly indebted to its legacy. If modernity explains history as a living (hence, dynamic) form, historicism is conversely concerned with tradition and lineage and is faithful foremost to the refinement and linear progression of conventional categories, i.e., iconography. The historicist tends to universalize definitions of beauty, specifically where the coolly sentimental terms of familiarity and recognizability abound. Mead’s flashy drawing of the transcendental landscape of industrial design is a good example of the recurrent historical phenomenon by which any style reduced to formula, no matter how searching that formula is, becomes redefined by its constant recirculation, elevated beyond mortal (hence, sensual) reproach, and all that can change historically are the materials and the technology of its reproduction. It is this penchant for new technologies (disguised as modernism) that makes absolute forms from hidden essences. Take, for example, how the mass mining of granite in the early 18th-century and the subsequent proliferation of concrete afterwards does not simply rely on but, in fact, entrenches the legacy of the grid from Greek architecture.


Mead’s drawing of a streamlined city (like those of early American Science Fiction cover illustrations from the ’30s and ’40s) may share affinities with the polished surrealism of Tanguy, Arp, Calder, or Miró, but unlike them it drapes its architecture over a gridded net of recognizable forms, particularly the ideal geometry of the curve and sphere that announces the architecture of classical style: consider Boullée’s never realized monumental dome to Newton where the sphere acts as the primary symbol of social and technological optimism, the prevalence of the circle and orb in Art Deco, the fragmented, highly facetted, discontinuous roundness of the Death Star... Not surprisingly, confusion frequently arises between lingering modern and classical attitudes in the proposed effects of style. Each concept of style shares a predilection for a calculated chaos: classicism favoring the idea of “order out of noise”, and modernity the “self-organizing system”. A self-conscious emphasis on appearances remains acute in both and both are equally credited for a sense of refinement and newness, although again for different reasons. With classicism newness is a self-conscious recomposition of past styles and strategies, emphasizing the lasting continuity of historical form. On the other hand, modernity’s idea of newness is to attempt to totally purge itself of historical demons (the impossibility of which acts as its generative internal contradiction). Modernity’s attempt to escape the terms that define history is, however, often misinterpreted as a cycle of repetitive and hopeless powerlessness when style, already ideologically elusive, is only meant to evoke the iconic quick read where things fall nicely (if not miraculously) into place.  


In this sense, Mead’s drawing does not only propose a psychological relationship — style as a given (as opposed to a sought after) personification — but favors one in which the perceptual vagaries and excitations of appearance are overstepped in favor of the familiarity of the silhouette. Adam Gopnik proposes the “odalisque” as a metaphor for style, taking the whole notion of a secure or “slick” manner to a more speculative level of consideration. Moreover, the odalisque strikes an increasingly visceral tone and, in so doing, invites a discussion of sensuality rooted in a decreasingly philosophical (dialectic) language. Gopnik contrasts the directness of the odalisque (a favorite subject of artists from Ingres to Matisse) to the casual messiness of an “unmade bed” in order to emphasize a historicist proclivity for defining beauty and pleasure over the sensual associations of a rumbled mass of warm sheets and pillows. Recognizing only the historically predetermined definitions of classic beauty in style arguably robs the odalisque of anything beyond a robotic identity as a seducer. This is a perfect example of the subject made generically pleasing and desirable. Romanticizing the countenance (looking at it affectionately), as Mead does, is not the only conceivable attitude toward effects; any number of approaches are possible. The idea is to stress an uneasy contingency in the relationship between (re)presentational strategies and their phenomenal results. What is troubling about Mead’s drawing is its reliance on a classically predetermined sense of beauty, hence politics, which it seems to take for granted. Modernity is not immune to historical ideals. Its troubled obsession with style is riddled with such classicist tendencies (rarely mistaken for a lack of stylishness) that often backfire, tending to cancel out the more unexpected and perverse features of convention. The tendency in Mead’s drawing to corral what is inherently uncertain about the future by framing objects in the most familiar terms of Sci-Fi design is just that: an application of representation which contents itself with instant recognition. In short, an implicitly imperial uniformity seems to lie dormant in the heart of style. There is an all-around failure of the imagination to free its expressive (emotive) power from the perceived conceptual indelibility of a mimetic (emphatic) prejudice for fetishizing what is most familiar about cultural quotation. This strikes me as a reactive drive that narrows down the incidental and unpredictable possibilities of representational address and expression, repressing extraneous information to the point of proposing an iconic and universal subject, a complete and perfect form in which all cultural production has been relativized and, hence, robbed of its idiosyncrasy.


Yet, critics of historicism often fall prey to the stilted logic they seek to remedy. Albert Camus provides the perfect example. “It is merely a question of a reasonable intelligence,” he writes, “that has returned to concrete things and has a concern for honesty. It is a new classicism...” Camus’ assessment of the problem of historicism overlooks the problem of the reactive position. In opposition to “concreteness” or “honesty”, he seems to advocate lightness and opacity as virtues critically above reproach. But politcal conventions (like left and right, good and bad, etc.) are paradoxical, always extremely familiar and yet as artificial as terms like culture and history. The importance of separately examining the contradictions of style (a la Wölfflin) for hidden ideological leanings and agenda has faded. That the signature mark-making in a drawing by Mead or Klee (Mead’s utopian beauty with its classicist desire for wholeness, or Klee’s Romantically fragmented sensorium) propose distinct historical leanings is definite. What is less certain are the grounds on which those assumptions are made. Pleasure and beauty resonate in Mead’s drawing; they summon the second nature of classical form to eradicate all traces of uncertainty and confusion from an otherwise tumultuous landscape. Mead gives assurances that the more form is sentimentalized, the more the future that it proposes is recognizable, familiar and safe. But aestheticizing political messages has as long a history as advertising has been in the business of going to the well of tried and true visual come-ons in order to catch the eye for the sake of making a sale. In contrast, Klee politicizes aesthetics. His drawing suggest that in order for a style to become politically effective, it is worth considering how it produces visceral effects as well as how it signifies representationally. At the very least, there are two ways of thinking about style. In one version, it denies origins and historical alignment; in the other, style is more nostalgic, delimiting its potential effects by placing all the emphasis on nomenclature. Wölfflin would no doubt have found a quasi fascism lurking in Mead’s technique, while he probably would have celebrated Klee’s resistance to iconography as visionary. But the politics of style depends entirely on its era. It does not give any definitive meaning to historical models. On the contrary, to the degree that a particular style is labeled with political significance, then it is entirely determined by whichever mix of historical trends that are most favored and prevalent at the time.



Albert Camus, “On A Philosophy of Expression by Brice Parain, Lyrical and Critical Essays, ed. Philip Thody, and trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, New York: Vintage, 1968
Adam Gopnik, “What Comes Naturally,” The New Yorker, July 20, 1992
Heinrich Wölfflin, Principals of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Styles in Later Art, trans. M.D. Hottinger, New York: Dover Publications, 1950




© Daniel Mendel-Black, originally published in Spring Journal #2, 2000