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  • Writer's pictureMitch Smith

What 'ism' are we currently in?

Welcome to a journey, where I explore an inherently pointless but profound question. Something I wonder about often when making artwork. Is this rhetorical or genuine? I’m not sure. Maybe you’ve thought about this too, when you’re making artwork - you look to your peers, your influences, expanded network… aaaaannd if you keep on looking, you start to wonder where it all fits in the grand scheme of things. Where does your work sit in the canon of human society as a whole? As someone who makes things, it’s flattering to think of the work I’m making to be powerful enough to contribute to the larger conversation of humanity. In reality it is quite likely that this is not the case and only a select few of excellent creators are making the work which is of a quality that is strong enough to push along wider conversations in society. But wait! On the contrary - what if a vast majority of smaller creators have more power to fuel these vast conversations? Hmmm.... !

As we look back to the past we often romanticise the great art genres, some of these periods still exist in evolved form, many faded, others were born and immediately exploded in a flash of the pan.

Who is "we" anyway?

Ultimately I think that the task of defining today’s “ism” in art is futile, because nothing in this phrase is static enough to come to a satisfying conclusion. Though, maybe it will be fun/painful to try and so I’ll start by attempting to define the "we” in this. As I am aware that I have a specific perspective of the world due to my race, gender and location, as well as a unique combination of experiences and genetics - I can only see the world in one way. Even if I try to hide from my bias, I cannot. As such, much of this thinking exercise can only be made up of guess work ( on behalf of the human race, you’re welcome!).

Well, with that out of the way - I thought the next logical step of defining today’s “ism” would be to look at the past, how were movements and genres defined back in the day? Maybe we can apply the same logic. As documented records are quite helpful with stuff like this, let's just focus on the previous 1000 years to keep it simple (lol).

In a desperate attempt to get this over with, we can look at a chart for some of the more popular art movements during this one thousand year window. We can see that this time is dominated by Gothic Art, which spanned from the 12th century to the 16th century in some areas (in the form of ‘High’ Gothic Art). We can focus on this period to start things off. Woop woop!

Source: artincontext

How Gothic Art (Probably) Started

As Catholicism was growing rapidly throughout Europe, in the form of scattered churches - governments were starting to thrive. From which, the world's first recorded universities and teaching institutions began to pop up all over the place, particularly in France to begin. In short, monks and worshipers spread a divine way of thought around society. This way of thinking placed humanity firmly within a hierarchical scale, at the top of which was an almighty god with unrivalled power.

As this religion grew, so did trading centres and towns. Churches often took decades to build - so trade, population and finances grew during this time. Christianity was regarded as the most positive influence on society. This informed dedication from the people and from governments, encouraging further financial donations toward great building projects. As monarchs sat high on this hierarchical scale of divinity (said to be closer to God), monarchs too were influenced and did influence society further into this narrative. Before you know it, gothic architecture was well underway. Bringing stained glass windows and decorations into the world with it. The visual influences of the early gothic architecture and art can be matched to Middle Eastern and Romanesque techniques that were around at the time, such as pointed arches.

Scenes from the Life of Christ - Flight into Egypt, Giotto di Bondone, (1304 - 1306)
Scenes from the Life of Christ - Flight into Egypt, Giotto di Bondone, (1304 - 1306)

The visual style of gothic architecture and art can clearly be traced to styles that came before but of course there was innovation within - and you can bet that folks weren’t walking around referring to themselves as gothic architects. It was only in the 16th century renaissance where writers and artists coined the term gothic in reference to this period. Supposedly it was the architect Giorgio Vasari (often known as the first art historian) who coined the term gothic as a derogatory term. And so the term gothic was used by Italian writers because they preferred classic art and architecture. Gothic referred to the Germanic tribes that decimated the Roman Empire in the 5th century… Before this negative term was coined the gothic art style was simply known as opus Francigenum, latin for French work.

So What Does the Birth of Gothic Art Actually Tell Us?

(In Reference to Contemporary Society)

Right then... So during the early 12th Century, Europe experienced mass enlightenment. Society shared a single motivation which was to praise god, something which could be achieved through creating earthly representations of worship - also giving monarchs and elites a primary focus to spend finances on. THEN, the combination of profound artistic innovation and decades of unmatched craftsmanship resulted in an overall art style. This was realised through multiple mediums such as paintings, sculpture and architecture. All of which can be summarised with a derogatory term, from the 5th century, as a sort of joke.

I've made this list of factors needed to create an 'ism' as big as Gothic Art:

  • Mass enlightenment

  • A clear financial goal

  • Unified elites over multiple countries

  • A somewhat art style, shown through multiple mediums

  • Haters who write about you

In the year of 2022 - during a time that is so fractured and disconnected. The very word humanity is a synonym for disagreeable. I'm confident in saying that a dominating 21st century gothic genre of art won't pop up anytime soon. Though, perhaps it could be global warming’s wrath that might cause something like this again. We could speculate many potential scenarios such as an AI uprising or engineered pandemic which could light this type of fire under our asses, but what’s the point in that?

Anyway, anyway... I think that's enough food for thought for now! I'm going to think on this further and allow you some time to regret your decision in reading this. I'll follow up in the future. Until then, stay cool.



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