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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Art Eras

What with everything else there is to know about art, why is it we have to learn about art eras? In teaching art and about art for roughly half my life, I've been asked the quite often...and not just by kids, but by adults in community college classes. It does not go without saying that people who like art, like art history...often quite the opposite. Art history entails artists, first, followed by their art itself, coupled with  their style, and finally, the art era (dates) in which they lived and worked, all draped over the social/political history (more dates) thrust upon them. This history, of course, has its own eras, most of them having little to do with art. Whether history in general or art in particular, eras are the framework upon which those who write about history hang their prose. Theoretically, they compartmentalize history, often by decades--the 20s ended in 1929 with the stock market crash. The 30s lasted a year or two beyond its time until Pearl Harbor. The 40s ended with "I Like Ike," the 50s lingered lovingly until November, 1963. Then came the Vietnam era, and so forth.

This is what you're faced with when you tackle art history without the compartmentalization
of art eras.
If the framework of general history is not always neat and chronologically tidy, believe me, it's a masterpiece of social organization compared to that of art history--no nice, neat little decades here. Early eras in art history were centuries long. More recent ones tended to last about a generation. Then with the advent of the Modern Art we find an era once more lasting for about a hundred years, from Impressionism in the 1860s until Modernism burned itself out with Minimalism in the 1960s. Today's art era we call Postmodern (how creative of us). The problem in dealing with art eras is that they seldom correspond to the various decades or historical eras upon which they are projected. Add to that the fact also that art eras seldom have sharply defined dates--December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, or 9-11. Modern art didn't end with the car crash death of Jackson Pollock in 1956. The era lingered on its deathbed for another ten years. Although we could say that Postmodern art began with a "POP" (Pop Art), more accurately it sort of "petered in" as the era of Modern art "petered out."

The transition from Modern to Postmodern. The break was ragged, not decisive.
Despite the massive shadow Pablo Picasso cast over much of the Modern Art era, art history is more than any single artist, or in the case of Modern art, any single style. While earlier eras have often correspond to certain styles--Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Classical, Romantic--that was not the case with Modern Art and most definitely not the case with Postmodernism. Modern Art included as many as a dozen different styles, and Postmodern Art boasts so many "isms" that the whole concept of style becomes nonsense. (The chart above features only a few of the more notable styles or movements.) Art history can only tolerate just so many revivals, neos, and retros before regurgitating. Therefore, if it makes you feel any better, today we have fewer and longer eras and you can forget about Postmodern "styles." However, if you begin trying to study and understand what's going on in art today, you may find yourself longing for the "good ole days" and the framework of eras, which helped make sense of it all.

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