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Periodization of the Arts

What Is A Period?

Art historians and aesthetic philosophers employ a number of ways to group world arts into systems of classification, known as periods. Periodization subdivides the continuous flow of artworks through time and space into groupings. Period groupings are defined by the perception that the artworks within them share a single quality or a set of qualities that are significant. Significant qualities can include the formal, stylistic, iconographic, thematic, or other aspects of art. Moreover, period groupings are further defined by the perception that the quality or qualities by which each grouping is defined is distinctive.

Rather than being neutral, periodization organizes art according to critical viewpoints and explanatory hypotheses. The definition of a period reflects judgments about the nature of meaningful connections between artworks and between art and its larger context. The divisions made between periods reveal judgments about the paths of artistic development or moments of artistic disjunction.

Periodization also influences the perception of the audience according to the quality or qualities that are used to group artworks. Qualities in individual artworks that are deemed significant to the period are more visible to viewers, while other qualities in the same artworks tend to be overlooked.

Is it necessary to periodize?

Some theorists object to the concept of periods as a contradiction against the very nature of the art. According to this viewpoint, periodization merges the individuality of the artist and the uniqueness of artworks into homogeneity that is inherently the antithesis of creativity. Other theorists object to the utilization of periods as a distortion of the historical process. According to this viewpoint, periodization falsely divides the continuity of history. Critics of periodization argue that history should be written as a continuous chronicle of occurrences and their interrelations and that the principal purpose in writing art history should be to enhance our appreciation of the uniqueness of individual works of art.

One such critic was Roger Fry (1866–1934). While employing period names in his critical writings, Fry applied an overall approach that is essentially timeless. In his analysis of early-twentieth-century art, Fry denied that modern art was the next element in a cycle or sequence of periods. Artworks, in Fry's view, should be construed as the fruitions of independent creative acts, and hence as fundamentally unhistorical. Instead, Fry postulated a great tradition whose representatives can belong to any age.

Despite objections, most art historians and critics have utilized systems of periodization. Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945) both recognized that time can be convincingly presented as an uninterrupted flow and asserted that systems of periodization were crucial apparatuses to intellectual understanding. While acknowledging that, at some level, the concept of periods is invented, Wölfflin felt that periodization was necessary for the self-preservation of the scholar. He pragmatically observed that the infinity of images and events was overwhelming unless structured in some way.

The pragmatic justification for periodization offered by Wölfflin has been extended beyond its utility on the personal level. Periodization is defended as a necessity in educational enterprises, including community programs, college and university courses, and media programs. According to this viewpoint, periods offer institutions a useful way to package information into topics and courses; periods offer introductory students a reasonable way to absorb information; and periods offer professional teachers a commonly acknowledged way to define a special area of study by which to justify inclusion in the academy. When education is treated as a businesslike enterprise selling a commodity, the information must be packaged in a manner that meets the expectations of all its consumers to some extent.

There is a widespread consensus that periodization is a convenient and utilitarian schema. At the same time, debate persists over whether periodization is an arbitrary system that segments historical continuity or an embedded structure that reveals historical meaning. Proponents of the second viewpoint argue that, without periodization, observations about artworks would consist of little more than masses of unrelated visual observations and historical incidents. With periodization, it is suggested, not only is visual data collected and organized but relevant comparisons about artworks over time and space can be discerned; the past visual traditions can be described in a meaningful way; and the present imagery can be interpreted as a logical outcome of the past. Periodization is defended as being embedded in history because with it intentions, patterns, and purposes can be revealed, and without it some types of visual analysis and interpretation become impossible.

What types of periods are used?

Both extrinsic and intrinsic periods are applied to the visual arts. Extrinsic models that are used to categorize and organize art rely on elements external to the artworks themselves, particularly chronological time and political history. Most extrinsic systems of classification are anchored by firm dates to mark beginning and end points. Therefore, extrinsic period names can be shared between various disciplines (the Neolithic period, for example).

Models of periodization that correspond to specific centuries and decades are among the most conventional and most deeply entrenched systems used to divide Western art into groups. These models result in familiar periods such as the medieval, Renaissance, and modern periods.

Additional factors extrinsic to the artworks themselves can also provide the frameworks through which periods may be defined. Some systems of periodization are determined by political figures and events. These models generate periods based on factors including the reign of particular rulers (as in the Georgian, Victorian, or Edwardian periods) or dynasties (Carolingian, Ottonian, Tudor), revolutions (such as the French and Bolshevik Revolutions), wars (such as World Wars I and II), and other public events. Still other extrinsic models of periodization are grounded in factors such as inventions (for example, the invention of writing as the endpoint of the "prehistoric period" or of metallurgy as the beginning of the "Bronze Age").

Extrinsic periods can become internal factors that influence artists and imbue artworks with particular qualities. Artists in the last decades of the nineteenth century were conscious of their art as fin de siècle, just as artists in the last years of the twentieth century were aware that they were producing art at the end of a millennium. But passages of chronological time and even events in political history are rarely determinants of aesthetic changes or stylistic choices. Since extrinsic periodizations are usually extraneous to the arts, many systems of periodization group artworks on the basis of factors intrinsic to art. Differences in the appearance of artworks, changes in the production of artworks, shifts in the purposes of artworks, and other factors particular to the history of art are frequently cited as more significant bases for the definition of periods. Therefore, some systems of periodization are considered to be intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, in nature. Intrinsic periods can be determined by either single or combined qualities, including skills (such as the discovery of foreshortening, perspective, light and shade in painting), materials (oil painting, ferrocon-crete), content (dada, surrealism), and formal choices (abstract expressionism, cubism). Changes in these qualities are often explained as the result of changes in the ideals, interests, beliefs, and/or lifestyles of artists and audiences. Thus intrinsic periods are correlated with sets of values that are distinctive to themselves and assumedly or demonstrably different from sets of values prevailing in previous or successive periods. The most common paradigm used to explain changes in the values considered normative for a period is a gradual process during which ideas are first proposed, then fully realized, later regarded ambivalently, and eventually replaced by newly formulated ideas.

In contrast to extrinsic period names that can be extended to many disciplines, intrinsic period names are usually appropriate to only a few areas or to a single field (such as abstract expressionism or pop art). Although they arise directly from the study of the artworks, intrinsic periods in art history can become complex. The complexity of intrinsic period names is exemplified by the term Baroque. Baroque initially was a pejorative label for shapes and designs that were regarded as bizarre or extravagant. It was applied as a negative characterization for the art of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries that followed after and differed from Renaissance art. It later became identified with a period style admired for distinct values of its own. As a period, the Baroque takes on a spatial character defined by the spread of those characteristics to different regions. This spread is recognized as occurring earlier in some countries and later in others, resulting in chronological dates of the Baroque period that vary according to region. Moreover, the Baroque period is also differently regarded in terms of a period sequence. Sometimes it is regarded as the last major subdivision of the Renaissance and sometimes as reaction against the "classicism" of Renaissance art. But the Baroque also appears in geographical regions in which Renaissance art is absent and therefore is sometimes independent of the paradigmatic style by which it is defined. Finally, the Baroque is sometimes regarded as a set of values that infuses morphological unity into all artworks of the period. This viewpoint stresses putative shared values underlying the artworks of contemporaneous painters such as Georges de La Tour, Nicolas Poussin, and Pietro da Cortona, artists who were born within three years of each other. In contrast, the Notre Dame Cathedral, c. 1900. Notre Dame was built during the intrinsic High Gothic period in architecture, which art historians note was marked by high, vaulted ceilings, a sense of flowing, uninterrupted space, and an abundance of light. © BETTMANN/CORBIS Baroque is alternatively regarded as what James Ackerman described as one of several "confluent, overlapping, and intersecting" stylistic trends. This viewpoint stresses the evident dissimilarities in the visual qualities of the same artworks by the same painters.

The complexity of intrinsic period terms is further illustrated by other uses of the term Baroque. Baroque is used as a period concept either to imply that a set of ideals or values pervaded an age or to suggest a set of visual elements that were predominant in a given spatiotemporal context. At the same time, Baroque is used as a style name that imputes a certain visual quality independent of time and space. Thus the term Baroque can be applied to one of the visual arts to designate formal elements that were widespread in the seventeenth century. But it can also be applied to other cultural phenomena, such as the "Baroque" organ, that share a common temporal context but none of the formal elements by which the Baroque was originally characterized. And it can be applied to visual designs produced in distant regions at unrelated dates, such as contemporary Latin American Baroque art.

The complexity of periodization is compounded by the convergence in the practical usage of extrinsic and intrinsic periods. Some extrinsic periods become identified with distinctive cultural and intellectual attitudes (such as "the Roman Empire"), others with a set of shared myths and memories (the 1960s, "the Reagan years"), or still others with a specific aesthetic outlook ("the Victorian era"). Because they can assume attributes of intrinsic periodizations, extrinsic period terms can mistakenly imply that each period automatically had a distinctive and unified visual character and necessarily differed from its predecessor or successor.

Periodization is complicated by at least one more issue, the issue of whether every period is unique or whether periods can be analogous. Meyer Schapiro (1904–1996) argued that periodization must recognize the fixed and unrepeatable order of events. However, intrinsic definitions of periods are based on qualities that are potentially applicable to more than a single period. One strategy that is frequently used in order to preserve the uniqueness of a period employs a dual method of description. A period description can be defined principally in The Annunciation (c. 1432) by Fra Angelico. Tempera on panel. Critic Henrich Wölfflin (1864–1945) composed an analytical study of art that divided the discipline into three phases based on conflicting visual concepts. He applied his model to European art during the Renaissance. PHOTO CREDIT: ERICH LESSING/ART RESOURCE, NY terms of intrinsic qualities but can also claim that those qualities are fully realized only in the extrinsic context of a specific time and place. As a consequence, for example, many periods might contain art with baroque qualities, but the claim is sometimes made that only one period can be Baroque.

How do periods change?

Because periods, with their beginning and ending moments, purportedly chart shifts in visual expression, the use of periodization poses questions about the nature of artistic change over long durations of history. The nature of these changes has been addressed by many writers, among them Alois Riegl (1858–1905). According to Riegl, art always develops under universal laws, and these laws dictate that art always moves in a forward, unremitting progression. Riegl saw the final phase of a period as a necessary stage because it formed the foundation upon which the next phase would rest. Period endings and beginnings, therefore, blurred together almost seamlessly.

The use of periodization also poses questions about the nature of change within shorter spans of time. Periods are generally subdivided into shorter units of time that purport to track internal dynamics of stylistic development. Descriptions of the progression of art through sequential subperiods generally employ metaphors of either organic evolution or physical mechanics.

Metaphors of organic evolution describe change in terms of the biological processes of birth, florescence, decay, and death. An early, and highly influential, art critic who utilized such a metaphor was Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574). In his Lives of the Artists (1568), Vasari celebrated the accomplishments of fellow Renaissance artists in an anthology of biographies. While Vasari portrayed the lives of famous painters, sculptors, and architects in a roughly chronological order, he divided the corpus of biographies into three distinctive groups. In the prologues that introduce each section, Vasari reveals the purpose for his divisions.

According to Vasari, the quality of the artists' works paralleled the relative time period in which they worked. Vasari The Conversion of St. Paul (1600–1601) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. During the Renaissance scholars and historians first began to divide works of art into specific units or periods. © ARALDO DE LUCA/CORBIS placed the earliest Renaissance artists, such as Cimabue (Bencivieni di Pepo) and Giotto di Bondone, into his first group. The works of Piero della Francesca and Andrea Mantegna occupied the second category, while the third, and temporally latest, group included the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Vasari's primary criterion for judging the quality of the artworks was based on the degree to which the art adhered to nature. Thus Vasari admired those artists, including Cimabue and Giotto, who initiated naturalistic styles of representation. He awarded high acclaim to Piero della Francesca and Mantegna for their increasing facility in accurately depicting nature, but Vasari bestowed the maximum degree of praise upon Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael for not only masterfully portraying nature but also surpassing nature by perfecting its flaws.

Vasari's scheme established a biological model as a way both of dividing periods and of judging the quality of artworks. According to Vasari, internal cycles dictated the progression of art, and these perpetual cycles transcended any individual artist's talents. Vasari equated the artistic change to the human life cycle, a cycle governed by a clock beyond human control. To Vasari, art was born, grew to maturity, and eventually died. The artists who were described by Vasari as surpassing nature itself and as thereby attaining the highest level of artistic mastery were placed in the category of growth and florescence; they represented the blossoming maturity that would eventually decline with subsequent artists of the seventeenth century.

The biological analogy utilized by Vasari has been adapted and applied to the arts for centuries. The twentieth-century literary critic Northrop Frye (1912–1991) also compared stylistic change to organic growth. Frye attributed the dynamics of change to the necessary process of technical mastery required of artists and craftsmen. He argued that, in any art form involving complex technical knowledge, each generation of practitioners must learn from its elders as it also struggles to introduce innovations. The phase of initial experimentation is followed by another of mature development and a final one of exhaustion and abandonment.

In counterpoint to metaphors of organic evolution, metaphors of physical mechanics have also been applied to periods. These metaphors describe change in terms such as cycles, oscillations, waves, and pendular swings. An influential critic who used a cyclical model was Heinrich Wölfflin. Wölfflin ushered in a phase of artistic inquiry in which formal qualities of art constituted primary data. Using this primary data, Wölfflin devised a new method of analysis that centered on comparing the observable formal qualities. According to Wölfflin, art follows cycles of three phases, early, classic, and baroque. In order to identify these phases, Wolfflin identified five pairs of opposed visual concepts by which art could be analyzed: linear versus painterly; plane versus recession; closed versus open; multiplicity versus unity; and absolute versus relative clarity. Wölfflin applied his comparative scheme of vision to European art of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries and associated the early Renaissance, or quattrocento, with the early phase of an artistic cycle, the High Renaissance, or cinquecento, with the classic phase of the cycle, and the Baroque with the late or baroque phase of the same cycle.

Some eighteenth-century aesthetic theorists, including Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), described period changes in terms of a series of pendular swings between polar opposites such as optic and haptic, additive and divisive. In the twentieth century, Martin Warnke (b. 1955) proposed a model of pulsation in which every age of classicism will be followed by an age of anticlassicism.

While pointing out the shortcomings in the pendular and pulsation metaphors, Ernst H. Gombrich (1909–2001) utilized the dialectic of the classical with the nonclassical. To Gombrich, every form of unity represented by classicism is followed by nonclassicism, that is, by disintegration. But Gombrich also consistently stressed the relevance of the changing functions of images in their social context and proposed an ecological metaphor for art. Similarly, Marxist and social historians of art have explained period dynamics in demographic and socioeconomic terms.

Critics have objected to analogies drawn from biology and physical mechanics. In the view of Horst W. Janson (1913–1982), such analogies result from the imposition of similar critical viewpoints rather than from an inherent organic unity. According to Janson, these analogies amount to no more than pathetic fallacies in which living consciousness is attributed to historical accident. Other skeptics include James Ackerman (b. 1919) and George Kubler (1912–1996). Ackerman refuted the premise that change follows innate dynamics. He considered the process of change to be motivated by the constant incidence of probings into the unknown. Kubler cautioned that changes within a period often result from myriad randomly timed shifts rather than from a patterned progression.

Why should accepted periodizations be challenged?

Periodization can be regarded as intellectually restrictive if it is accepted as the inevitable foundation of art history and theory rather than as a trigger for critical analysis and debate. Revisions to accepted periodizations often arise when researchers recover materials that have been ignored or dismissed. Reevaluations of the art corpus that are initiated to redress social injustices and to counter stereotypical imagery lead not only to the expansion of the visual record but also to the reconsideration of periodizations. Revisions to accepted periodizations also arise when new art theories are promulgated or when new visual styles are formulated. Challenges to existing periodizations can consist of modifications within an accepted structure or the proposal of an entirely different scheme. Rival periodizations do not necessarily diminish their utility or discredit the concept of periods. Instead, they may serve to underscore the dynamics of artistic complexity and to express the multiplicity of aesthetic creativeness.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismPeriodization of the Arts - What Is A Period?, Periodization And Globalization: Mesoamerica As A Case Study, Feminism And Periodization