Why You Should Rethink How You Think About Art

For the sake of historical clarity, artists of the past are often bunched together into uneasy groupings known as Movements. This practice is usually carried out by the educated hindsight of writers, critics and art historians, and much less frequently by the actual artists themselves. It often happens later, when the artists in question are dead and unable to defend or articulate the subtleties in their artworks, which are often whitewashed by this overriding process.

Creating movements serves another purpose, it makes it easier to classify and organise the vast quantity of artworks that already exist, and are constantly created every day.

A problem with this model is that we are encouraged to imagine and organise artistic development in a linear, chronological fashion. Neatly labeled movements fit nicely into this timeline, and can be easily understood, enjoyed and compartmentalised. Each movement quietly picks up where the previous generation left off, but in reality I believe that these transitions were much more volatile and chaotic.

Using this perspective as a mental framework is counter-productive. Art always reacts to the past, and the principles and motivations that run through it do not conform to this model above. The strengths and qualities of one period often last long enough to become redefined as the weaknesses and hallmarks of poor taste by the next. They overlap, clash and argue. Artistic development is often the same set of ideas being passed back and forth, simply reinterpreted in new ways by different people.

Instead of a long straight line, think of interconnected circles, with underlying currents relating to wealth, power, religious influence and historical circumstance driving and motivating the work of each artist.

From the Renaissance to Romanticism

Without naming names, or dating dates, here is a brief account of the undercurrents that shaped painting from the High Renaissance to Romanticism.

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The High Renaissance favoured fiercely analytical, scientific and visually innovative religious paintings. They were reflections of the astonishing intellectual progress that was being made during this period. As these artworks reached a creative pinnacle, new ideas about art came into being and Mannerism was born. This movement rejected these principles in favor of a decadent dedication to the pursuit of drama and elegance. Rigorous academic accuracy became unfashionable, and their figures were elongated beyond the physical and formal ideals of the previous generation. All this in the name of sensuality.

The practitioners of the Baroque in turn rejected these achievements. They championed a return to the close study of the human form and the natural world in their paintings.

Subsequently, the decorative flamboyance of the Rococo movement rejected what the Baroque period had established, until they too were superseded by Neo-Classicism, harking its return to the allegorical stories, rigid compositions and firm, classical sense of order. But even this didn’t last.

The empowering and spiritually rejuvenating force of nature, and the triumph of emotion over reason characterized the artworks of the Romantic Movement, which set itself in opposition to Neo-Classical principles.

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When we look at this important segment from art history, it is clear that the basic concepts that characterized these periods were repeated. Simply using a chronological timeline ignores many of the fascinating and intricate connections between the various ideas and practices that lie waiting to be discovered.

Artistic development doesn’t travel in a straight line, it moves back and forth, ripe with animosity and an inability to stand still. Innovation always needs circumstance to push against. If you suspend the idea of linear progression in Art then you will find more of the beautiful complexities, ties and unique perspectives that make it so special.

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