In writing on the historically gendered and class-ridden hierarchies of art production, the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock states: ‘women were encouraged to ornament every conceivable surface because decoration in itself suggested a refined, tasteful life-style.’ Ornament, surface, decoration, lifestyle. When you line these terms up, what you reach is an infinitely serene and plastic flatness; the kind of flatness that speaks directly to the planar, the canvas, the living room and the wall. What is it about this plastic flatness that so neatly neutralises and cordons off the practice of women artists at work in the history of art, leaving them speaking to the wall? The clue is in the last designation – lifestyle – which, while conceptually consolidating it’s formalising antecedents into a pocketable nosegay that may be seen, felt and admired when tea is served (but never thought on), also serves to draw the line between Style and stylisation.
The first word, Style (an absolutism that includes everything from schools, periodisations, collective facilities, uses and abuses, appropriation, pastiche, theft, reclamation and progress) must speak to Art’s true life-force: which is (nominally) 1) the foregrounding of a play of contradictions 2) the contestation of surface value. In its forward-rolling repetition of the same in different guises, Style squanders and hijacks and breaks the limits of form (even before it has properly surfaced); and all in its macho race to represent an Idea (any idea). It might be unfair and wrong to say that Style is the domain of male artists, but this is exactly the point and the problem Pollock draws (of course the Modernist avant-gardes sabotaged and opened up the rights to Style, even while masculinities were impressed more forcibly than ever).
Now to the second word: stylisation. If Style regards the object only fleetingly on its master-quest of critical invention, the protocols of stylisation quite literally force the practitioner to the ground’s surface (‘Style’ from stilus [Latin] DEF: a stake; a pointed instrument, used by the Romans, for writing upon wax tablets’). Embroidery epitomises stylisation to the extent that it is ornate; concentrated; Manneristic. When holding a pillow up to the afternoon light, you cannot survey: you must scrutinise microscopically. Here, vision itself figures the hand-weary entrapment and social paralysis encoded within embroidery as cultural practice. Thus Style unthinkingly carves up and allocates space for the curtailment of women’s invention, to the self-pinning labour of stylised ‘living’.
If Griselda Pollock sought to difference the canon by stratifying male and female roles against the backdrop of Style and stylisation – as I claim she does – then it is not only the emancipatory politics of the public sphere that may be seen to have (incrementally) redressed the rights of women, but the Modernist avant-gardes (Bauhaus; the Arts & Crafts Movement; De Stijl). It was their reclamation and valorisation of handiwork-as-lifestyle, as the most effective way of putting aesthetic practices and ‘useless’ productions across to social use; that retrospectively (and maybe without even intending it so), opened up a lit-space for the critical inclusion and assessment of women artists. Considered in these terms, the micro-laced patches of embroidery that adorned and domesticated the ‘progress’ Style blindly engendered, might be read as the site of a feminist revolution.*
*It is exactly this designation of a ‘women’s art history’, of a curtailed site of resistance, that Griselda Pollock fights against. I am here merely interested in describing the slippages that take place between Style and stylisation; to see how they can be put to work.