What Does Style Do? Neoclassicism and the Performativity of Style
Everything humans do or make has style. By style we mean the visual and formal characteristics of an action or an artefact. The style of an action or artefact is the most direct, visible and basic tool that we use to stage and adorn ourselves and our environment. It appears on the surface of actions and artefacts, but is far from superficial. Style facilitates social relationships, while it is also an instrument to visualize, to enforce, and even to create ideologies. Style often functions as a gateway to the past: formal and visual characteristics of artefacts of previous societies are appreciated and appropriated or, conversely, rejected to express contemporary artistic, moral, religious, and political values and is constitutive for the invention of tradition and the construction of history. Stylistic appropriation and hybridity are also conspicuous signs of and motors in intercultural exchange. On a more personal level, style can touch people, can elicit feelings such as awe or repulsion and can even be experienced as threatening. The arabesques on Rococo wallpaper can evoke melancholic reveries for a past bygone, an Expo 58 side table with hooked feet can make one long for the U+2018innocentU+2019 years of the U+201850U+2019s, furniture in Second Empire-style gives some a headache, while the rigorous Classicism of Albertt Speer comes across as threatening to many. In short, style does something, but the question is what and how. In recent research in archaeology, anthropology, and sociology style has returned on the agenda as a phenomenon that is essential to understand culture at large. Surprisingly, art history does not follow this renewed interest. Although style is one of the founding concepts of the discipline, art history tends to dismiss style as a mere system for classification that does not explain artU+2019s working, meaning and mechanisms. This research program puts style back on the art historical agenda by looking at how style exerts agency. The art period we now call Neoclassicism (1750-1820) is crucial to understand the complexities of style. Style in the visual and applied arts, architecture, and the performing arts of this period was more than just a question of appropriation, imitation and transformation of stylistic models from Antiquity. The Neoclassical style U+2018stagedU+2019 Antiquity in a most ambiguous attempt to revive, feel and experience it. To understand how style works, this program focuses on how artistic and learned circles in Rome, Paris, London, and Berlin dealt with the complexities of style.