There exists a divide in discourse and perceptions of art, culture and architecture criticism. Traditionally, individuals and colleagues in their fields have been concerned with substance and plot, a clear progression of time, space and event. Recently, others have offered the idea that existence is brought forward by being in the moment; style relates emotion and understanding that redistribute concepts of physical and mental awareness.
Of course, many highly regarded cultural works tend to both muses, but for the most part there is a division between what the work is being and what it’s about, between style and substance. As artists have become less concerned with telling stories and more concerned with creating emotional connections and mimicking experiences, the historical has given way to the temporal and art has shifted from being concerned with creating beauty to coming to terms with the nature of truth.
Victor Hugo, Ville avec le pont de Tumbledown (1847)
Visual art has historically been constructed around narratives. As styles changed from friezes to stained-glass, from the Renaissance to the Romantics, one of the main foci of art was it’s ability to inform. The glory of a Roman emperor, the after-life journey of the Egyptians, the lives of the saints, or the simple life of a Dutch peasant. In a time when not everyone was literate, visual art told histories, impugned morality, and provided social commentary. Style was used mostly to reinforce the emotion of the characters.
In the later half of the 19th century, artists became less concern with beatifying mythology and more concerned with the world around them. Impressionism used a fast-fleeting style of painting that aimed to capture the feeling of a particular moment in manner similar to photography. Rough textures and globs of paint called “impasto” characterized a group of artists that was less concerned with telling a tale than relating an experience.
Monet’s Rue Montorgueil captures the flurried movement of a parade, the animation of the crowd and the wavering of the French flags. Renoir’s The Swing examines the qualities of dappled sunlight through the forest leaves, rendering it in increasing opacities of pale color. Viewing these works up close, seeing the way light moves off of the paint and brush strokes, the manner in which the colors shift in and about each other, one gains a sense of experience, of living the moment the artist chose to capture.
Monet’s Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of June 30, 1878
Impressionism was just one of several movements that opened the door for more stylistic variations of so-called high art. In the 20th century, art became more about how it was viewed than what was being viewed. Much contemporary art looks to stylistically reexamine how the spectator perceives the object. Cubism, the Dada, surrealism and pop art divined to reexamine context and change our experience of viewing objects in the real world.
DuChamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, examines the mechanistic movement of the figure, capturing not just a moment, but abstracting fragments of motion. Pollock’s drip painting technique reportedly allowed him to get into the painting, recording the event of painting on canvas. Critic Paul Greenberg viewed Pollock’s work as the culmination of art’s movement from classical narratives to absolute formalism. It was not about the subject, where it had been, or what it had done, but about the effects that viewing has on an audience.
Film is perhaps the art that has the greatest audience and is most capable of transforming experience, constructing a careful balancing act between the real and reel. Historically, cinema has been a passive viewing experience, focusing on a narrative or documenting events, telling a story that serves to entertain or enlighten. Formulas have developed in script writing, shot construction and editing that tell a story in a particular way. Like the master artists of old, Ford, Hitchcock, Spielberg and Scorsese are masters of film language and storytelling. Plot and character are the foremost points; stylistic choices exist not for themselves, but rather in service of the story.
Film and video are capable of realizing experience, invoking feelings. Like traditional fine art, film developed its own exploratory and existential musings. Some films may still have plots, but style has increasingly taken over. Godard was concerned with both exposing and embracing the nature of traditional cinematic spectacle, ultimately forcing the viewer to think and invest in what was happening on screen.
Stan Brakhage explored form through the intricacies that developed over focus, aperture, framerate, and in-camera editing—how the technical apparatus affected the viewing experience. Even mainstream directors such as Paul Greengrass, Michael Bay and Zack Snyder are more concerned with creating a particular confusion or adrenaline-rush that relates a character’s mental experience rather than what they are physically doing.
Beyond film, most experiential, the most physical of all art forms is architecture. It is constructed for living, for existence, for event. However, over time the purpose of architecture (outside of fulfilling basic shelter requirements) has changed.
For millennia, architecture was composed by narrative. Like painting, it told a story. The shapes, structure, orientation and construction of buildings had a sense of purpose and typology. Ornamentation related tales of Greek victories or the life of Christ. Form focused on religion, reaching to the sky in the manner of Gothic cathedrals and Mayan temples, or to the depths of the underworld like the tombs of the Egyptians and catacombs of medieval Venice. The Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders of classical columns established templates for the design and proportions of construction, as well as expectations of purpose to its audience. The imperial marble and triumphal arches of Roman palaces and forums related the glory of the empire, its army, its Caesars and its citizens. The stained glass of cathedrals allowed God’s light to shine in, the lightness of the arches and columns detailing an imagery connecting man to nature. The earliest manner of functionalism, the architectural form was based on the purpose of the building in addition to the needs of its inhabitants.
Like visual art, architecture began to lose its narrative purpose in the 19th century. In Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo declared that the printing press, by making the words available to the masses in the vernacular tongue, had killed architecture as method of narrative; it would have to find a new purpose, one that was no longer focused on history and communication.
Coupled with the possibilities of steel and concrete construction, Modernism developed in part to establish a new form, free from history, free from the typological and narrative structures that had been associated with architecture. Blank facades and glass walls became the new stylistic form, allowing the individual to impart his or her personality with objects and occupation. A building could be a church, office, house oe hospital. The narrative now lay within movement, the navigation of the building by foot and the city by car. The new style changed cityscapes; they became streamlined then faceless. In this case, one might say style destroyed substance.
The natural reaction against the glass-and-steel, the bare concrete facade, was to dress it up. Or at least according to Post-Modernism and its use of ornament. Unfortunately, as Modernism—and earlier, the printing press—had stripped the need for purpose in architectural design, these narrative decorations had become obsolete, function-less, their musing ironies simply style for style’s sake. The sign, letters and words, became the new signifier of purpose on the decorated shed.
The lasting impression of Modern architecture has been the focus on movement and event, the concept of now. The focus is on what it feels like to be in the building, in the moment. Bernard Tschumi’s Zenith de Rouen France creates a concert venue out of the form of movement; the aesthetics and circulation reflect the sensation speeding cars on an adjacent motorway. Jakob + MacFarlane’s Docks de Paris finds basis for its complex form in the interstitial spaces of human kinesthetics.
Texture is also used as a method of affect, seeking to connect the inhabitant to a specific place, such as in Herzong and de Meruon’s De Young Museum and FOA’s John Lewis Department Store. The work of Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman uses the decontextualized urban fabric leftover by Modernist sprawl and Post-Modernist revivals to create a sense of context, of inhabiting a constantly changing and shifting world. It is significant that the narrative substance of these dwellings comes not from a sense of history or a testimony to the future, but from the amalgamative, possibly chaotic, and undeniably fashionistic nature of the temporal present.
Jakob + MacFarlane’s Docks de Paris. Image courtesy DesignBoom.com.