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The Study of art in Rome by Anton Goubau.
Katie Kresser, Ph.D.August 30, 20236 min read

Philosophy and Culture: Always in Style

What does it mean for something to be “in style”?  

Are there really some things that never go out of style?  

Is “good art” always “in style?”   

Or. . . is beauty truly just “in the eye of the beholder?”   

In his 1998 anthology The Art of Art History, the Oxford art historian Donald Preziosi offered two different approaches to these questions. Unable to settle on a single definition of “style,” his anthology printed two conflicting entries from philosophically opposed authors of equal esteem. These authors, Meyer Schapiro and Ernst Gombrich, were art historians and critics of the highest caliber, with numerous, widely respected publications and coveted posts at top universities. This made their disagreement especially consequential.  

In Philosophy and Culture, Does Style Capture Essence?

The first of these authors, Meyer Schapiro, wrote about “style” as the outward expression of a person’s (or culture’s) “essence.” In Schapiro’s view, no style was better than any other, just as a zebra cannot rationally be called “better” than a butterfly. For Schapiro, “styles” are different in the same way organisms are different—each occupying its own niche.  

Schapiro’s view of style was vaguely spiritual, though Schapiro himself was not a religious person. Why spiritual? Because Schapiro’s view seemed to presuppose a realm of spiritual essences (dare we say “souls?”) that make things distinctively as they are: the essence of a person, the essence of a culture, or the essence, say, of a movement or “school.” (Some might call these “Platonic ideals.”) 

Plato from Raphael's "School of Athens."Plato from Raphael's The School of Athens / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Accordingly, Schapiro held that a “style” could be more or less complete, depending on how well it manifested the “essence” of its origin. This meant that some products of a culture might be wholly accurate to that culture’s “essence,” while others may be less so. The questions then became: Which styles are most “true” to their cultural roots? Which styles are “authentic,” and which are not? In fact, what even defines a “culture?” How do you draw a line around it to distinguish it from others? And once you’ve drawn that line, is it important to keep a culture “pure?” These remain heated questions among historians, anthropologists, and cultural critics today.  

Schapiro’s view of style, based on the philosophy of German idealist philosophers like GFW Hegel, has been very influential. With its emphasis on personal “essence,” it has catered to the expressive individualism of wealthy, modern consumer culture. (“That dress is just your style!” Or “I love her sense of style.”) And with its positing of cultural “essences,” it has been connected to various political movements. For example, it appeals to both nationalist movements intent on cultural purity and multicultural movements hoping to celebrate the “separate-but-equal” distinctiveness of different cultural groups.  

Style as a Kaleidoscope

The other view of style in the Oxford Anthology, however, was very different. This view, articulated by the art historian Ernst Gombrich, saw “style” as what I think of as a “kaleidoscopic convergence.” In a kaleidoscope, colorful jewels or beads combine in a million different ways as the focus knob turns. Accordingly, while the “ingredients” in the kaleidoscope’s “eye” never change, their overall appearance changes constantly and dramatically.  

Style, for Gombrich, was something like a kaleidoscope: a combination of basic human ingredients constantly being churned by the vicissitudes of time and history. It had little or nothing to do with “inner essence,” though it could reveal a lot about basic conditions like wealth, status, environment, and level of education. 

A digital depiction of a 7 Kaleidoscope.

7 Kaleidoscope digital art by Mariagat Włodek Głażewski / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

How, Gombrich argued, can a “personal style” project an “inner essence” when the wearer has very little choice in what they put on—as has been true for most people in history? Or what about when “personal style” is dictated by political considerations that signal party allegiance in a time of conflict? Can such choices really be said to “project an essence,” or are they survival tactics? Meanwhile, in areas with limited resources, do styles really project an “essence,” or do they simply showcase the materials and tools immediately at hand?  

The idea of “projected essences” sounded nice, but for Gombrich, it didn’t stand up to common-sense scrutiny. In a kaleidoscope, what appears to be artful imagery is actually the accidental combination of perennial but ever-shifting “sands.” The seemingly cohesive styles of people and cultures emerge in just the same way. Natural resources, available technologies, trade relationships, community wealth, and formal education systems combine and recombine, with greater and lesser force, to make a seeming infinity of “stylistic” combinations. Yet, all are governed by the same basic laws.  

The Human Is Central in Philosophy and Culture

Gombrich’s view of style was more difficult to grasp than Schapiro’s—and less flattering to the ego. It shifted attention away from an easy-to-understand, superficially registered “essence” to a complex substructure (the world itself!) inflected by myriad moral, social, and physical forces. When you look in the mirror and admire your personal “style,” are you admiring a projected “essence” or a temporary conglomeration of cues deriving from nature, nurture, peer pressure, social class, and commercial availability? One interpretation, needless to say, feels a lot more gratifying than the other! But “gratifying” and “true” are not the same.  

The idea of perennially great art, I think, depends on Gombrich’s view of human culture. For Gombrich, all human beings are basically the same, and all human beings work with basically the same types of “ingredients” when developing cultures. As a result, all human cultures can (with effort) be intelligible to, and appreciated by, everyone! But this “appreciation” is not, in the end, a vague feeling based on the liking of an “essence.” (Similar to liking an ice cream flavor.) Instead, it is a recognition of the fruits of things like resourcefulness, perceptiveness, innovation, and integrity that have been exercised by different culture makers, under better or worse conditions, at different points in time.  

Gombrich’s views on style and culture are also intensely humanistic in their placement of human creativity at the center of cultural development. For Gombrich, cultures as a whole couldn’t have “essences”—if they did, this would seem to undermine the freedom of human creators, painstakingly forging history with the tools available to them. The idea of cultural “essences” was too deterministic, reductive, and even totalitarian for Gombrich; he believed in the freedom and intelligence of individual souls.  

What Is Style According to Philosophy and Culture?

Are cultural “styles” projections of separate-but-equal “essences,” each endowed with their own unique “flavor?” Or are they merely surface-level “snapshots” of mind-bogglingly complex networks of choices, challenges, and heuristics? One approach is certainly more consumer-friendly, peddling fantasies you can “buy” from food courts, fashion websites, Epcot Center, and the Las Vegas strip. But the other yields greater human understanding.  


Las Vegas Strip at night / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, the debate between Schapiro and Gombrich echoes other debates in our postmodern world. Are human belief systems like zebras and butterflies: different-but-equal and impossible to compare? Or are they similar approaches to the same universal spiritual needs, whose strengths can be weighed against each other? What about systems of government, approaches to the family, or methods of seeking truth?  

These are the questions of our time, and there are no easy answers. In my next few blog posts, I will continue to unpack these issues: How do you define value when it comes to the thing we call “culture?” Can culture ever project an “essence?” And what can art teach us about “identity” in a fluctuating world?  


Katie Kresser, Ph.D.

Katie is a Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington. Originally from Indiana, Katie earned her undergraduate degree from Indiana University, and her graduate degrees from Harvard University. She is the author of two books and several scholarly essays and has curated numerous exhibitions. She lives in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard with her husband and two kids, where she enjoys walking, beachcombing and making music. She is continually fascinated by the human creative process and its capacity to open windows onto the spiritual.