Romanticism, neoliberalism, and the distributed nature of style



When I try to remember the first moment I formulated the idea of becoming an illustrator it seems impossible to separate it from the realization that I would need a “style” first. Almost as if understanding what style is was a pre-requisite to understanding what illustration is. But today I have to confess, even though I think I know what illustration is, I’m not sure I understand style very well, what it is made of, what it allows and what it forbids and why, even at the beginning, did it feel like an intrinsic aspect of the job. Yet, my first question about style was not “what is style?”, but “How do I find my style?”. So it seems appropriate to start here.

This question is very contemporary, after all, for most of art history, style was a retrospective category applied to a body of work after it was created, and most often by someone other than the artist. For illustrators, the issue of style, in part because of the commercial nature of our work, appears before the first pencil stroke and is crucial until the end, whenever that may be.

In the question “How do I find my style ?”, I see a shift from style as a category applied by the spectator of a body of artworks to a situation where it is up to the artist to come up with a style, define it, refine it, stick to it, sell it, and so on.
But what if style is more complex ? what if my style was not up to me after all, or at least not only ? But instead, a complex social construction involving a multitude of actors across a long chain of events ? Bear with me and let me start at the beginning.

The (not so) romantic birth of style

I am no historian, but I’ve had a couple of art history classes at university and the notion of style strongly reminds me of the romantic idea of the genius ; the idea that certain persons are gifted with some sort of exceptional singularity. As the anthropologist Eitan Wilf wrote, these “[romantic] ideologies conceptualize creativity as the solitary, ex-nihilo creation of products of self-evident and universal value — most emblematically in the field of art — by highly exceptional and gifted individuals.”(Wilf, 2014).
Later, attempts to conceptualize style and creativity did expand this self-centred idea to a certain extent. Ernst Gombrich talks about how style, while being produced by personal choice, is limited by cultural constraints. The philosopher Richard Shusterman developed the idea of a «self stylization», seeing it as a process of negotiation between the self and socio-cultural resources.
Yet, these definitions are still very much individual-centred, leaving all the work (even is subconscious) to the artist, with a double bind of being “authentic” to themselves while being “culturally aware”. But before trying to see things differently, I would like to make a detour to understand how romanticism is actualized in today’s era.

The neoliberal illustrator

These romantic ideas about creative practices of stylization are the favourite food of neoliberal ideologies today. Neoliberalism encourages the idea that each individual artist is responsible for tapping into this internal pool of creativity to «find their style» and that it is also their own responsibility if they fail to do so (Wilf, 2014). All of this creative work done while occupying one of the most precarious positions in a very, very competitive industry. But the beauty of neoliberalism is that not only does it makes us work twice as much as previous versions of capitalism but it also encourages us to be proud of it !

I’m working two jobs, one of them is creative so it makes it ok to be underpaid, and unreliable, I understand that I have to come up with a certain style to attract clients, but it is hard to focus, be reflexive and authentic sometimes, does it mean I’m a bad illustrator, or even worthless person ? maybe, but it is ok, it is worth it because deep down, I know that if I make it, it means I had it in me, and I’m being recognized for my own style, my own self.

By now I might sound like an angry union worker, and truth be told, I kind of am. We know the violence of neoliberalism for freelance workers, but somehow, creatives have it even harder than others because of ideologies around creativity and the value of our work.

Few hands but many eyes

At this point you may be thinking that it’s a cute story but at the end of the day, it IS up to me to create style, I’m the one with a pen in the hand. I think seeing things in a more collaborative and interactional way can help us come up with a new definition of style, a healthier one.
Think of it this way : style is about what an artwork looks like, so it is as much about who makes it as it is about who looks at it. Illustrations get created by illustrators who have looked at other illustrators’ work. These illustrations have been looked at and selected by art directors and designers before being published. Agents propose certain styles to clients before reaching out to an illustrator. Teachers in art schools give feedback on student’s work based on certain criteria. Spectators might follow some artists rather than others on social media, impacting research algorithms, and the list goes on.

These actors all have an impact on what one’s style might be, as style is neither created solely by the neoliberal genius nor it is only applied a posteriori by onlookers, it is made through long back-and-forth chains doing and looking and involves tons of actors. And like any social dynamic, it is also mired in power dynamics. For example, an art director might pick samples of the work of an illustrator in their portfolio to guide them in a particular direction for a new piece. This is a practice of style production, as it reinforces certain features and put aside others, it just takes place in the eyes of the looker instead of the hands of the maker. Figures of authority in the creative industry can work as gatekeepers, arbitrating what work will be seen or not. And in considering the gatekeeper’s role, artists may pre-emptively alter their work to align with work they know the gatekeeper is likely to appreciate. In this scenario, style exceeds the individual. It becomes an intersubjective process where people create things thinking of how other people are going to look at them and vice versa.

Dear reader, I do not mean here that illustrators don’t have any responsibility for their work, let alone that the impact of others on our work is harmful, quite the opposite. Thinking of style as a “distributed” (Gell,1998) process allowed me to consider my relationship with art directors and other gatekeepers as truly collaborative for example. It also has a healing effect since in the past, I’ve felt deep anxiety because I thought I was the only one who was responsible for the creation, success or failure of “my style”. And my self-worth was becoming a function of these professional ebbs and flows. Deconstructing my own vision of style and creative work by investigating its origins and contextualizing it into a broader historical, cultural and economic context, has really helped me cope with this anxiety.
It is a work I found cathartic and motivating, and I hope sharing it with you through this letter will have a positive impact by igniting stimulating conversations within our creative community.

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Further Reading

Gell, Alfred. Art and agency: an anthropological theory. Clarendon Press, 1998.
Gombrich, Ernst H. Style. 1998.
Shusterman, R. “Style and lifestyles: Originality, authenticity, or the splitting of the self.” LITTERATURE 105 (1997): 102–109.
Wilf, Eitan. “Semiotic dimensions of creativity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (2014): 397–412.