a new self-consciousness in art

Traditionally, artists work within a style, but they don’t think of themselves that way. They either equate their style with art itself (believing that they depict nature as it always has been depicted), or else they offer abstract and universal reasons for their stylistic choices. For example, classical styles were often defended on the ground that the ancient Greeks had discovered universal principles of beauty and representation.

Then, at a certain point, it became obvious that all art depicts the world through a style, that styles differ from time to time and place to place, and there is no independent aesthetic standard that makes one better than all the others.

Since then, to make a picture has been an entirely different matter. You must start by picking a style. The most obvious move is to use someone else’s style, which is why revivalism became the major mode in the early nineteenth century, the age of Gothic revival and the troubadour style; of Greek revival; and of orientalism. There have been various efforts to avoid style altogether–abstraction, minimalism, surrealism–but they have all quickly become styles of their own.

I have been convinced of this Hegelian story for more than twenty years, and I have seen a lot of images in that time. I’m always looking for the moment when full stylistic self-consciousness begins. As of our last trip to Paris, I’m pushing the onset back a few decades. The Musée Jacquemart-André owns a fresco that Tiepolo painted in the mid-1750s to depict the arrival of King Henri III (of France) at the Villa Contarini, near Venice, in 1574. (Click for a large image). Tiepolo chose to paint this image in the style of Veronese. He didn’t copy an actual Veronese–something that might have been done centuries before. Instead, he painted the scene as Veronese would have seen and shown it. I don’t think that choice would have occurred to any artist before 1750, and once it happened, art was on its way to modernism.