These blogs augment my class lectures and assigned readings.
Style is how something is done.
Style is about formal qualities, variations in how something is depicted, for example, or in how something is made. While we sometimes see certain iconography (subject matter; what is being depicted) closely associated with a certain style, style itself is about variations of form not variations of subject matter.
In the visual arts, form includes the elements of art and principles of design. These are the objective qualities of a work. The use of elements like line, color, and texture, or the use of design principles like repetition, scale, proportion, and so forth, are formal qualities and what define a style.
Sometimes we characterize form as naturalistic, stylized, realistic, abstracted, or idealized, based on how the form reflects the subject matter. When there is no subject matter apart from form (like purely geometric patterns, or simple fields of color) it is nonrepresentational, nonobjective, or nonfigurative (not abstract).
Abstraction refers to works where the formal qualities have been altered and the result is a stylized, geometricized, or simplified image that is no longer naturalistic (close to nature) or realistic (what it really looks like, scars and all, like Roman verism). Sometimes works are so extremely abstracted or stylized that the subject matter is difficult or impossible to discern. Theo van Doesburg’s cow studies are a classic example of this continuum of abstraction. Vassili Kandinsky famously said “that objectiveness, the depiction of objects, needed no place in my paintings,” as he began to embrace nonrepresentational works (still typically called abstract by the general public), like his Black Lines from 1913.
Styles can be indicators of specific moments in time, but a style does not equal a period — even though the idea of a cultural style (a style that identifies a culture) or a “period style” (a style that defines a period of time) have become handy tools to teach the history of Western art. We can also discern personal styles, with one style per artist (like individual handwriting styles).
A style is not a static thing, it is always changing, even if over the lifetime of a single maker, as with Picasso’s periods. Perhaps this is why George Kubler wrote that “style is more synchronic than diachronic” (Kubler 1987: 167). Style can help to determine the date of a work, but the date of a work does nothing to determine its style. Age is circumstantial to style, even though we can use style to propose age.
I suggest Terence Grieder’s brief definition of style, as
an emphasis on particular elements of art and principles of design for the sake of expression.” It is “the personal expression of the individual, and the sum, or perhaps we should say the mean, of all that those personal expressions share during a period of time, which makes up the style of a period (Grieder 1996: 140)
We can’t assume that things done at the same time will be done the same way, but we can argue that things can be done so similarly as to indicate or reasonably suggest contemporaneity or the work of a single hand.
Style is easy. It’s how we use it that can be problematic.
Grieder, Terence. 1996 Artist and Audience. 2nd edition. Brown and Benchmark, Madison Wisconsin.
Kubler, George. 1987 “Toward a Reductive Theory of Visual Style.” In The Concept of Style, edited by Berel Labg, pp. 163–173. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
More on style:
Irene Winter on Style:
Irene Winter, “The Affective Properties of Styles: An Inquiry into Analytical Process and the Inscription of Meaning in Art History,” in Picturing Science Producing Art, ed. Caroline A. Jones and Peter Galison (New York: Routledge, 1998), 55-73. [brief excerpt]
Terence Grieder on Style:
Terence Grieder, Artist and Audience, 2nd ed. (Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark, 1996), 140. [brief excerpt]
Greg Urban on Style:
“Style means a form of language use characterizable independently of the content or semantic meaning that is communicated, which constitutes a sign vehicle that contrasts with others in a culture” (Greg Urban, A Discourse Centered Approach to Culture: Native South American Myths and Rituals [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991], 106).
Other Readings on Style:
Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art, trans. Marie Donald Mackie Hottinger (1932; New York: Dover, 1950).
Meyer Shapiro, “Style,” in Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory, ed. A. L. Kroeber (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953).
Berel Lang, ed., The Concept of Style, revised and expanded (1979; Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987).
Polly Schaafsma, “Form, Content and Function: Theory and Method in North American Rock Art Studies,” in Advances of Archaeological Method and Theory, ed. by M. Schiffer, vol. 8, pp. 237-277 (New York: Academic Press, 1985).
Margaret W. Conkey and Christine Hastorf, eds. The Uses of Style in Archaeology. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Bahn, Paul. 1998 The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Breuil, Abbé Henri. 1952 Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art. Centre D’etudes et De Documentation Prehistoriques, Montignac, France.
Leroi-Gourhan, André. 1965 Préhistoire de l’art occidental. Éditions d’Art L. Mazenod, Paris.
Whitley, David. 2005 Introduction to Rock Art Research. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.
Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. 2005  Essay on the Philosophy and History of Art. Continuum, London.