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Late Style and its DiscontentsEssays in art, literature, and music$
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Gordon McMullan and Sam Smiles

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198704621

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198704621.001.0001

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Late Style and its Discontents

(p.1) Introduction
Late Style and its Discontents

Gordon McMullan

Sam Smiles

Oxford University Press

If students of the humanities have learned anything over the last fifty years, it is to be wary of universalizing aesthetic categories and to be especially diligent in examining the roots of the preconceptions that underpin such categories. Responsible criticism requires its practitioners to avoid lapsing into cliché or prolonging the life of discredited concepts when discussing creative activity; yet, while critics may have become wary of using terms such as ‘genius’, ‘masterpiece’, ‘the work of art itself’, and similar formulations, one critical trope has survived seemingly unscathed: that of ‘lateness’, ‘late work’, ‘late style’—the idea that the work of the last few years of truly ‘great’ creative artists is marked by a profound change of style, tone, and content which tends both to look back to the artist’s earlier years and forward, beyond his death, to future developments in the field, and which can be seen in certain ways to transcend its immediate context, to mark a moment both within and beyond time and place. For all the conceptual sophistication with which critics approach the so-called ‘late works’ of writers, artists, and composers, they rarely—surprisingly rarely, in truth—confront the evidence that the idea of late style, far from being a universal creative given, can be understood quite differently—as a critical and ideological construct, the product of a certain kind of critical wish fulfilment. To suggest this, it should immediately be said, is not to reject the observation that the work of creative artists late in life may manifest remarkable changes in output and style, sometimes involving a breaking out into new possibilities, sometimes a turning back to and rethinking of their earlier work, but it is to require the critic to reflect on a category that is so often deployed unreflectively, perhaps even unthinkingly....

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