What could Jean Baudrillard possibly have had in mind when he casually quipped that, “art is no longer anything more than a kind of meta-language for banality”? Besides the fact that the idea of a meta-language is somewhat a pretentious notion, was art ever something more than an attempt to express the language of language? Is such a configuration of art something to be feared by the culture that produces the art? I am not convinced that the means by which art is read—or, its style—could ever, no matter its spectacularity, have the ability to be or do anything besides attempt to translate the inconsistencies of daily life. The ‘mundane’ is the most dynamic social force at work in within a community. The tension that art resolves concerning the banality of life, results in the production of further ambiguities for how to thenceforth proceed into a set of new unfamiliar tensions.
Style imbues a situation, object, or circumstance with a culturally relevant sense of purpose—be it for protest, blending in, or simply providing a sense of common space. Circularly, the sense of purpose is the pretext for the conviction espoused by the style (ex: an Eames chair). By acting in accordance with the message that it attempts to convey, a style pretends towards something not necessarily recognized by the object from whence it is embodied—this is why an Eames chair retains ‘chair-ness’ without exceeding the concept of ‘chair’. In a way, style functions somewhat like a religious faith. Having faith describes a way of life that is lived ‘as if…’ a reality is true; believing something means ordering the economy of one’s existence around it.
Style exemplifies the ‘as if…’ quality of life and expresses faith in the method of communication that is being employed and what in what it represents. When a style is detached from any linguistic or formal conviction—thereby, exposing itself—alternative options are made manifest as suggestions representing new and possible futures for situations, cultures, peoples, or ideologies: the limits of definition are challenged and, subsequently, they expand. The pieces of social systems construct culture in the fact that they function. Thus, style is emerging and contingent: society has no ‘essence’ or ‘nature’, only a history.
Thus, style itself becomes language and carries content from one element of a tradition’s history to the next. Because style is communication, ‘individuality’ sits in constant anxiety between the individual and the community. Secondary modifications— or, personalization—to style are dialectical mechanisms that buffer competing forces; personalization provides the community and the individual with space to maintain composure. Ironically, in trying to differentiate oneself, the individual is automatically unfolded from within communal experience: style is the imagined barrier between the individual and the whole, but is what binds them inseparable. For example, punk music was less of a disavowal of culture than it was a attempt to be included into the expression of community and culture. Style charges that, “this too is a part of whatever it means to be [X]”. Style is mandated as Law and it is recognized as the qualifier that regulates the values, discerned and given, based on distinctions of taste rather being utilized as a means of fuller communicative reasonability.
There are two important inversely related elements to keep in mind when viewing a piece of contemporary art: the first being that materials are a mode of transmitting information rather than just being the medium in which we live; and oppositely, language—which cannot exclude style, gesture, materials, etc.—is not just a mode of communicating ways of understanding, but also the medium in which we live. It is as the famous philosopher once said: “The limit of my language is the limit of my world.” It is at this point that style, language, conviction, and intent converge. Although the particular characteristics of forms and functions are what segregate materials from language, gestures from objects, and signs from that which is being signified, their borders are not to be exclusively translated as narrowing strictures; particularities also act as descriptive aids that inform a status quo of the presence of ‘difference’— this is merely a testament to liberty beyond them. For instance, Paul Cowan’s Sign Paintings animate how language can simultaneously retard theoretical understanding while also leaping towards communication through production, through the changing of hands, and through the use of (and subsequent creation of) cultural referents. The results are naked and unembarrassed; they behave as one who has been stripped, but in being stripped has lost unnecessary ‘necessities’ and attained a purer message. Understanding an artworks use of style is largely what it means to understand its meaning and, therefore, its limits.
In recognizing the conceptual boundaries of gesture and materiality as complex and intertwining, the contemporary art Viewer works dynamically to oscillate between being a witness to freedom from the segregation and politics of language, and being the agent that holds others accountable to such linguistic laws (i.e. form, purpose, structure, etc.). A culture’s art-makers offers themselves to be read legibly as either free or confined; yet, neither reading is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’—both informs the other. Everything internal to art is contingent upon external factors. With art, form confuses the function and the function destabilizes the purpose. Fortunately, any indefiniteness being posed in contemporary art has the ability to be trumped by the work’s ability, through its use of style, to stubbornly claim that complete relativity actually turns out to be self-contradictory. Once a language is understood, one’s naiveté cannot be regained except, of course, one progresses further into it.
A style is properly functional when it is both essential and accidental to the work. The accidental elements of style are only revealed apart from larger elements that, though essential, find themselves ‘hidden in plain sight’. The accidentals are the functionality of a piece of art. Therefore, the accidentals and the essentials are not concretely separable: they act as a feedback loop where concealment is the foundation for revelation—not erasure. For that reason, style should not be read as the content generating element but rather as a means of cultural reflection; as a ‘safe-zone’ for content to manifest physical representation and to direct how the conversation is initially regarded. Paradoxically then, style is not only the language, it is also one’s unique approach towards language.
Style plays the part of an ambivalent bystander to the materials which surround it. It is subservient, but not any more than it dominates; it instructs, but not beyond the extent that it can be informed; it is egalitarian, but always in regards to its despotic character. The ethics of style should be determined by style’s involvement in the process of information exchange, and not vice-versa. A situation, subject, or object can never effectively be stylized according to a desired endgame scenario in mind; the build up of incidents provides the basic ground from which a style will arise: style is propped up to the primary position in order to actively participate as the secondary yet directive element. Here, style is honesty because it breaks free from limits that are given: style is the limits.
It is for this reason that I can only agree with J. Baudrillard’s idea that, “art is no longer anything more than a kind of meta-language for banality,” to the extent that it only ever had that role. My conclusion is that because of style, a community without art could never exist. Not because art is vital to life, or that it is a means by which subversion or liberation takes place—no, it is much deeper than that: art is merely one piece of the complex system that makes up the whole.