“There is no work of art without a subject,” said Ortega — and with him here I do not demur.
Subject-matter isn’t the only component of art — nor is it the most complicated — but it is the most fundamental.
It is the component toward which all others are geared.
Subject is what the artist presents; it is the ends. All other attributes are the means.
In the following sketch, for example, the subject-matter is the human eye:
The paper, the medium, the artist’s style, and so on — these are the means by which the artist has presented her subject.
Because art is selective and because the artist is the selector, an artist’s choice of subject-matter discloses precisely what that artist regards as relevant in human life.
The same is of course true of writers and the art of writing.
What does a writer write about?
That is the most fundamental question a reader can ask — and answering it will tell you exactly what any given writer regards as existentially important.
Or a writer might choose horror.
Or any one of a number of other things.
The point isn’t in the specific. The point is that it’s the subject in collaboration with the theme that projects what the artist believes the human place in the universe to be.
And the drive to present this is, I say, the driving force behind all art.
Style, upon the other hand, is The How.
Style is the way in which an artist presents her or his subject.
For example, 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?
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 preferred mode of thinking.
Subject-matter = existence.
Style = consciousness.
Or to put the point in a slightly more philosophical style:
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
I hate that dreadful hollow behind the little wood.
– Lord Alfred Tennyson
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.