Humanities and Arts

Visual style hermeneutics: from style to context

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This essay re-examines the once promising idea that style analysis can provide an independent source of insight into an artifact's non-stylistic context. The essay makes explicit the consequences of treating collective style as such a source in archaeology and anthropology of art, and further develops a new framing for the idea that avoids the criticisms largely responsible for the decline in theoretical interest in the epistemic import of visual style analysis since World War II. This re-framing proposes that inference from style to context is permissible on those occasions when a collective style signals by its morphology its suitability to serve a certain function. And it does so because it prescribes publicly certain modes of behavior or spectatorship. Furthermore, the public nature of the signaling may be such that it allows even uninitiated spectators to get a sense of it and thus to gain access to some of the motivations and norms informing the collective's form of life.