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Artistic Style


I’ve been thinking a lot about artistic style lately.  From painters, to musicians, to writers, to directors, style seems to be the measure by which we gauge genius.

The ‘sloppy’ Dr. Seuss
I think this may have all started with Dr. Seuss.  I saw paintings by Dr. Seuss in a museum.  As a child I had always thought of Dr. Seuss’ art as sloppy and didn’t give him much thought once I out-grew his books.  But finding his work in a museum, I was forced to reconsider.
Having watched enough commentary tracks on animated DVDs, I knew just how important consistent style is to animators. In the museum, looking at Dr. Seuss’ take on fine art, which was subtly different from the simple illustrations of his books, I realized that the strict adherence to consistency was true with Seuss as well.  What outwardly appears ‘sloppy’ is actually governed by a very specific set of rules; this became even more evident when I watched the 3D adaptation of Horton Hears a Who. 

Horton Hears a Who
Seeing the style of Dr. Seuss adapted to a completely new format was eye-opening.  Immediately, I was identifying where decisions had been made –where the artists on the movie had taken great pains to interpret the style of Seuss from 2D to 3D.  Seeing a new dimension of a familiar style, I was able to cross-reference the two in my head and identify the rules behind the style.  There were so many places the animators could have gone wrong –so many places they could have broken the implicit rules of Seuss’ style.  They couldn't possibly get everything perfect; there were places they were forced into making judgment calls, places where the precedent was unclear, and these are the places that will stand out to some viewers and cause them to think; that’s not true to the books.

This implicitness of style –understood by everyone, but yet nearly impossible to put into words- is exactly what makes Dr. Seuss so classic, so immediately familiar.  Stepping back from Seuss, the same phenomenon is evident in other books, from Where the Wild Things Are to Goodnight Moon.

But children’s illustrations are only the beginning.  With a jump from Seuss to Dali to Picasso, the entire art world seemed to suddenly make sense.  Art is a struggle to create style; the more specific and unique the style, the more compelling it is.  This is why it was so important for artists to escape classicalism, this is why a serious artist must create works in series, why Van Gough experimented with Japanese poster art, and Picasso is such a giant. 

Dickens and Harry Potter
Musicians follow in line with artists, but with writers, style is more difficult to define, yet still just as important.  Dickens had a style, but so does Harry Potter.  Style in writing can encompass the very language, as with Dickens, but just as effectively, it can cover the literary creations, as with Rowlings.  The world of Harry Potter is unique and self-reinforcing; just like further iterations in a painter’s series, each installment reiterates the rules set by the style and strengthens the viewer’s understanding.

I recognize now that in every artistic pursuit, style is paramount.  It is the reinforcement of implicit rules that the mind identifies as genius.