Two distinct, but interrelated, elements of a work of art are the crucial means of projecting its sense of life: the subject and the style — what an artist chooses to present and how he presents it.
The subject of an art work expresses a view of man’s existence, while the style expresses a view of man’s consciousness. The subject reveals an artist’s metaphysics, the style reveals his psycho-epistemology . . . .
The theme of an art work is the link uniting its subject and its style. “Style” is a particular, distinctive or characteristic mode of execution. An artist’s style is the product of his own psycho-epistemology — and, by implication, a projection of his view of man’s consciousness, of its efficacy or impotence, of its proper method and level of functioning.
Predominantly (though not exclusively), a man whose normal mental state is a state of full focus, will create and respond to a style of radiant clarity and ruthless precision — a style that projects sharp outlines, cleanliness, purpose, an intransigent commitment to full awareness and clear-cut identity — a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A is A, where everything is open to man’s consciousness and demands its constant functioning.
A man who is moved by the fog of his feelings and spends most of his time out of focus will create and respond to a style of blurred, “mysterious” murk, where outlines dissolve and entities flow into one another, where words connote anything and denote nothing, where colors float without objects, and objects float without weight — a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A can be any non-A one chooses, where nothing can be known with certainty and nothing much is demanded of one’s consciousness.
Style is the most complex element of art, the most revealing and, often, the most baffling psychologically. The terrible inner conflicts from which artists suffer as much as (or, perhaps, more than) other men are magnified in their work. As an example: Salvador Dali, whose style projects the luminous clarity of a rational psycho-epistemology, while most (though not all) of his subjects project an irrational and revoltingly evil metaphysics. A similar, but less offensive, conflict may be seen in the paintings of Vermeer, who combines a brilliant clarity of style with the bleak metaphysics of Naturalism. At the other extreme of the stylistic continuum, observe the deliberate blurring and visual distortions of the so-called “painterly” school, from Rembrandt on down — down to the rebellion against consciousness, expressed by a phenomenon such as Cubism which seeks specifically to disintegrate man’s consciousness by painting objects as man does not perceive them (from several perspectives at once).
A writer’s style may project a blend of reason and passionate emotion (Victor Hugo) — or a chaos of floating abstractions, of emotions cut off from reality (Thomas Wolfe) — or the dry, bare, concrete-bound, humor-tinged raucousness of an intelligent reporter (Sinclair Lewis) — or the disciplined, perceptive, lucid, yet muted understatement of a represser (John O’Hara) — or the carefully superficial, over-detailed precision of an amoralist (Flaubert) — or the mannered artificiality of a second-hander (several moderns not worthy of mention).
Style conveys what may be called a “psycho-epistemological sense of life,” i.e., an expression of that level of mental functioning on which the artist feels most at home. This is the reason why style is crucially important in art — both to the artist and to the reader or viewer — and why its importance is experienced as a profoundly personal matter. To the artist, it is an expression, to the reader or viewer a confirmation, of his own consciousness — which means: of his efficacy — which means: of his self-esteem (or pseudo-self-esteem).
Style is not an end in itself, it is only a means to an end — the means of telling a story. The writer who develops a beautiful style, but has nothing to say, represents a kind of arrested esthetic development; he is like a pianist who acquires a brilliant technique by playing finger-exercises, but never gives a concert.
The typical literary product of such writers — and of their imitators, who possess no style — are so-called “mood-studies,” popular among today’s literati, which are little pieces conveying nothing but a certain mood. Such pieces are not an art-form, they are merely finger-exercises that never develop into art.