Esthetics — the study of art — is a subdivision of epistemology, which is the science of knowledge.
All artworks consist fundamentally of two components, and those two components are subject-matter and style.
(“There is no work of art without a subject,” said Ortega.)
Subject-matter is what you present.
Style is how.
Style is the way in which the artist presents her subject.
It has been said that a true artist doesn’t ever lose sight of reality: rather, she intensifies it.
This is the reason art will often seem more real than reality itself.
The process of artistic creation and communication with the viewer or reader or listener goes something like this:
The artist gets hold of an idea in her mind, which she decides to make real. She finds an abstraction, in other words, that she seeks to turn into concrete form.
When she is successful in her creation, the viewer, in viewing it, works essentially backwards:
He sees or reads or hears the particulars she’s selected and that she’s pulled together into an integrated whole, and then he incorporates those particulars into his existing body of knowledge. He thereby comes to understand the abstractions the artist has sought to convey.
The act of artistic creation is in this sense deductive — moving from ideas to reality — whereas the act of artistic viewing is inductive, moving from specific concretes to ideas (i.e. abstractions).
The artist begins by selecting, from an almost endless number of options, a relatively small number of particulars. She’s choosing from the totality of reality — “selecting from the rough material of existence,” as Oscar Wilde put it — isolating, emphasizing, and dramatizing those things, breathing life into them, as it were, through her chosen medium, while simultaneously omitting those things she regards as inconsequential to the project.
In this way, she objectifies reality: she presents in concrete form what she considers important.
Michelangelo, for example, was aware that humans can become mangled or maimed, but he regarded these conditions as the exception, and therefore, in his art, through the process of selectivity, he omitted them and instead presented healthy, strong, remarkable-looking figures.
This, whether you agree with his esthetic, tells you instantly and infallibly what Michelangelo regarded as existentially (i.e. metaphysically) important.
“As art springs from personality, so it is only to personality that it can be revealed,” said Oscar Wilde.
Personality is the basis of art.
Personality is personal style.
It is the sum total of one’s many individual characteristics as they come together and create the person presented to the world.
Just as a thing is defined by its identity, so humans are defined by their acts, which are in turn defined by their thoughts.
Since we’re each the shapers of our own thoughts — and only our own thoughts — we each have the power to mold our own personality.
That personality begins — and ends — in the brain.
True personality can successfully be kept hidden or private without too much effort — unless, that is, you’re an artist.
In which case your true personality will be revealed in both the subject-matter you choose and, even more, in the style with which you present it.
The following is Matthew James Taylor’s depiction of the human foot:
And here is another sketch of a human foot but by a different artist:
Both drawings are done in charcoal, and in both drawings the subject-matter is the same: a human foot. Both sketches are instantly recognizable as a human foot, but notice that these two drawings are nevertheless distinctly different. What accounts for such a difference?
Answer: the artist’s style.
How the artist depicts his or her subject-matter makes for the most profound differences in the artwork.
It’s been said that what an artist chooses to present indicates that artist’s view of the universe. And how the artist presents it indicates that artist’s method of thinking.
Subject-matter = existence.
Style = consciousness.
To put the point in slightly more philosophical terms:
Choice of subject reveals the artist’s metaphysics. Style reveals the artist’s epistemology.
Style is the most complicated component of art, in part because there is so much room for variation. It’s also the most psychologically revealing.
In literature, a style can be prolix and confusing — e.g.:
I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with all due respect. But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk.
– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Or limpid and precise:
I recall one particular sunset. It lent an ember to my bicycle bell. Overhead, above the black music of telegraph wires, a number of long, dark-violet clouds lined with flamingo pink hung motionless in a fan-shaped arrangement. It was dying, however, and everything else was darkening too; but just above the horizon, in a lucid, turquoise space, beneath a black stratus, the eye found a vista that only a fool could mistake for the spare parts of this or any other sunset.
– Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
I hate that dreadful hollow behind the little wood.
– Lord Alfred Tennyson, Maud
Or sophisticated and strange, as Walter Pater’s unforgettable description of the Mona Lisa:
She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.
Or many, many other things as well, including many, many combinations of those things.
The basic fact of style is this:
Style is how the subject is presented. Like plot — and, for that matter, like thought — style is developed through practice and through imitation.
The clearer your thinking, the clearer your style.
I close with two very beautiful literary depictions of autumn whose theme is the same: life and death:
Down at the stonework base, among the stump-
Fungus and feather moss,
Dead leaves are sunken in a shallow sump
Of energy and loss,
Enriched now with the colors of old coins
And brilliance of wet leather.
An earthen tea distills at the roots-groin
Into the smoky weather
A deep familiar essence of the year:
A sweet fetor, a ghost
Of foison, gently welcoming us near
To humus, mulch, compost.
The last mosquitoes lazily hum and play
Above the yeasting earth
A feeble Gloria to this cool decay
Or casual dirge of birth.
(An Autumnal, by Anthony Hecht)
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too —
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
(To Autumn, by John Keats)
Stylization is in some sense the artist’s evaluation of those facets of reality that he or she chooses to present. It is the artist saying to us: Yes, I regard this as important enough to make into a work of art which I’ve crafted by means of my own unique method of thinking and doing.
In this way, the artist’s method of execution — i.e. style — as well as the artist’s choice of subject-matter, gives a profound glimpse into the artist’s soul.
We, in turn, disclose our soul in responding — or not — to a given work of art.
And this is the way in which art is a branch of philosophy.