We often see reference in sale catalogs to coins which are struck in an "excellent style," or perhaps "the best style" or even "superb style." The use of adjectives describing "style" has become so widely, and I submit erroneously, adopted that we must wonder whether catalogers of ancient coins might start to apply grading standards to style as well as condition.
It would help perhaps if we had a common understanding of just what style is. The term, in this case, is one describing the execution of an image or design on a coin. It is an art term and refers, in numismatics, to the subject as a reflection of the engraver's particular method of representation. The New York Graphic Society, in its Dictionary of Art Terms, defines style as: "The characteristic manner and appearance of the works of an individual artist, school, or period."
To refer to style in quantitative terms, with adjectives such as superb, outstanding, excellent, very fine, etc., is to make a value judgment in terms of a sensory appreciation or beauty. Some art critics may judge an artist's fluency or interpretation, perhaps his draftsmanship or creativeness, but never will the sophisticated critic pass judgement on the beauty of a work of art.
St. Thomas Aquinas has left us with the only universally accepted definition of beauty - simply that which pleases the eye. Obviously, not everyone is pleased by the same sensory stimuli and therefore beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. The 18th century German antiquarian, John Winckelmann, attempted to define beauty in his four-volume treatise on the history of ancient art. He argued that the ancients had achieved the ultimate expression of beauty in their art and that works simply echoed their preeminence. Although Winckelmann's view did indeed attract a great deal of support, in the end the concept of beauty could not be quantified.
It is certainly appropriate to comment on an artist's rendering in descriptive terms, however those terms should not be quantitative. For example, we might find that a Celator engraved a particular die with precision, warmth or realism. We might comment that the representation is particularly humanizing or severe, idealistic or veristic, stylized or flattering. A narrative scene may be interpretive or allegorical, perhaps exhibiting a high degree of perspective - but never a high degree of style.
Ah, but this is all a simple matter of semantics! Perhaps so, but we cannot communicate effectively unless we speak a language that is precise and universally understood. The next' time you look at a coin try describing the artist's rendering in terms that are not quantitative - not good or bad, better or worse, but descriptive of what you see and feel. It will do wonders for a person's understanding of coins as works of art.
Thank you all for a glorious two years, this issue takes us into the third with a great deal of enthusiasm and a sincere appreciation for the opportunity that has come our way. It has been a real team effort, with a host of contributors, and one that we are very proud to have been a part of.
Keep those letters coming. Your opinions are valued, so let us hear your point of view!