Taste are style are not synonymous, though they sometimes appear to be. We seem to believe that a sophisticated style is a great unifier; the truth is, style segregates. Like it or not, Nazi uniforms had style, but it definitely set them apart. Priests, postal workers, Quakers, and stone-cold gangstas all have a styles that segregate them, some deliberately, some unknowingly.
Critic John Fiske wrote, “The difference between style and taste is never easy to define, but style tends to be centered on the social, and taste upon the individual. Style then works along axes of similarity to identify group membership, to relate to the social order; taste works within style to differentiate and construct the individual. Style speaks about social factors such as class, age, and other more flexible, less definable social formations; taste talks of the individual inflection of the social.”
Style is why a Wayne Newton fan may never adequately appreciate Radiohead, although I’m sure there’s a few twisted souls out there who can hike the musical terrain between the two. A Radiohead fan, in order to “hear” Wayne Newton at all, would probably have to address him through a filter of irony. You can argue a content issue, but then we’re getting awfully close to matters of taste, which is much harder to pin down.
Style feels like it draws us together. After all, don’t people of similar style tend to dress alike, wear their hair alike? But it is the transcendence of styles, or finding an unexpected point of connection between two styles—Johnny Cash interpreting a Nine Inch Nails song for instance—that achieves interesting, fresh directions. It is the transgression of style, the overstepping of limits, that often produces the most startling effects. Critic Robert Hughes‘ called it the “shock of the new,” which is seldom really new but merely the unlikely blending—or the head-on collision—of previous influences.
One of the mysteries of style is that it can simultaneously appear both individual and universal. A Generation Y “millennial” believes that his or her personal style is unique, even if parents can’t tell them apart from every other kid watching Tosh.0. Take the last sentence, replace “Gen Y millennial” with “businessperson,” “parents” with “stockholders,” “kid” with “fatcat” and “Tosh.0” with “Wall Street Week” and you’ll get the idea.
Meyer Schapiro, in his Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society, wrote, “Style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible …communicating and fixing certain values of religious, social, and moral life through the emotional suggestiveness of forms. It is, besides, a common ground against which innovations and individuality of particular works may be measured.”
Style is aesthetic translation. Style can take a timeless message and, without changing the content, make the presentation relevant to the viewer. But wait—perhaps that is changing the content, or at least the way we ingest the content. Marshall McLuhan would have thought so.
Roger McGuinn of The Byrds was once asked how they created their new “country rock” sound in the Sixties. He said they weren’t really conscious of a new direction. “We were just trying to play some Beatles songs, and this is how it came out.” The style was a natural outpouring of who they were, not a sale item at Abercrombie & Fitch.
The more the style departs from an established aesthetic comfort zone, the most dissonance it causes in society. Does that make one style “evil,” another “good?” Theologian-philosopher Francis Schaeffer believed there is no such thing as a “godly” or “ungodly” style. Schaeffer also wore knickers and a goatee.