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Periodization of the Arts


Notions of boundaries, categories, and periods frame discussions of art and visual culture. The desire to organize visual information and material into clearly defined, manageable units has provided an irresistible impetus for periodization since the emergence of art historical and critical studies in the Renaissance. The application of periods to art and visual culture was extended in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when philosophers, historians, and critics of the arts searched for objective ways to explore their world. Their search for objectivity resulted in their conceptualization of periods as a metalanguage rooted in empiricism through which to communicate ideas. Centuries of scholarship have produced a multiplicity of periods underscoring diverse perspectives and serving diverse ends. For some observers, the study of periodization is an exercise in disillusionment. The absence of any single, consistent system of periodization is construed as a symptom of the failure of the intellectual disciplines surrounding the arts. For other observers, the study of periodization is an affirmative endeavor. The existence of alternative schemas for periodization indicates that intellectual discourse about the arts is open to debate, reconsideration, reorganization, and reinterpretation.

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 (18661934). 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 (18641945) 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 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 (19041996) 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 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 (18581905). 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 (15111574). 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 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 (19121991) 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 (17291797) and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (17591805), 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 (19092001) 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 (19131982), 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 (19121996). 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.

Periodization and Globalization: Mesoamerica as a Case Study

When scholars encountered the artistic traditions outside of the Western world, they applied conventional systems of periodization that had initially been developed to organize the investigation of Western art. One non-Western region to which conventional, formalist periodization was applied was ancient Mesoamerica. Present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras constitute a region described as Mesoamerica, based on its position between North and South America and a number of cultural practices and characteristics shared among the many peoples who occupied this area between 1800 b.c.e. and the sixteenth century c.e. When the explorer Hernán Cortés arrived in the New World early in the sixteenth century, he immediately became interested in indigenous artworks fashioned of gold and precious stones. Cortés sent a sampling of Aztec-crafted gold objects back to Spain as evidence of the potential richness of the region, along with a few Aztec books and maps. Despite this early appreciation of indigenous artworks, within a few years of the Spanish arrival, Spanish governors and religious leaders ordered the mass burning of thousands of native books and the destruction of sculptures. Europeans entering the New World saw native artworks as dangerous purveyors of indigenous religious beliefs, as crafts, and as "idols," which were far inferior in quality to known Western art.

It was not until the nineteenth century that scholars took an interest in analyzing the aesthetic qualities of the arts of the ancient Americas. An early system of periodization was designed by Wendell Bennett and Junius Bird to classify the great variety of artifacts from the central Andean region of South America. Bennett and Bird consciously addressed theoretical issues involved with the creation and application of periods in artistic traditions outside Western, literate society. They noted that the choice of features by which a culture was identified was in some respects an arbitrary outcome of historical preservation and archaeological recovery. They further recognized that the problem of determining general periods was compounded by the absence of absolute dates and by the use of differing relative systems of dating employed in local regions. These relative systems included dating by the use of stratigraphy, surface collections of ceramics, sampling pits, and trade pieces. In addition, Bennett and Bird realized that a single system of periodization risked obscuring regional cultural variation within the central andean region.

Nonetheless, Bennett and Bird argued for the definition of overall cultural horizons as a means to permit the central Andes to be treated as a single unit and to be compared in its cultural developments and achievements with other parts of the world. The system designed by Bennett and Bird simplified relative chronologies of different regions named after local sites into cultural horizons named by terms that cross-cut local terminology. Their system of periodization employed accessible period names, in part because period names were based on Western perceptions of indigenous economic and political organization. Those periods were termed Early Farmers (c. 25001200 b.c.e.) Cultist (c. 1200400 b.c.e.), Experimenter (c. 4001st c. b.c.e.), Master Craftsman (c. 1st c. c.e.900), Expansionist (c. 9001200), City Builder (c. 12001450), and Imperialist (after c. 14501532). The sequencing of periods in a linear progression suggested an evolutionary model of development.

The principles by which the Andean system of periodization was created were subsequently adapted for use in Meso-america. The occupation of the region was divided into Archaic (prior to 1500 b.c.e.), Formative (c. 1500 b.c.e.250 c.e.), Classic (250900), and Postclassic (after 900). While this periodization utilized less descriptive names, it was nonetheless based on the same Western perceptions of indigenous economic and political organization as the Andean scheme. Thus Archaic corresponded to Cultist, Formative to Experimenter, Classic to Master Craftsman, and Postclassic to Expansionist, City Builder, and Imperialist. Similarly to the Andean scheme, this periodization suggested an evolutionary model of developmental progression in its linear serialization while the subdivision of periods into phases echoed Vasari's organic model of biological cycles.

Still another Western model of periodization was also applied to Mesoamerica. The artworks created by the ancient Maya particularly interested Western scholars, and Maya artworks and style became a measuring stick against which all Mesoamerican artistic traditions were judged. The Maya occupied much of the eastern portions of Mesoamerica. Between 250 and 900 c.e. they constructed numerous large cities, with elaborate palace complexes, soaring temples, and vast plaza systems. They lavished their built environments with hieroglyphic inscriptions, paintings, and large-scale sculpture. The great architectural achievements evident in ancient Maya cities, combined with a style of sculpture that portrayed the human subject in an especially naturalistic manner, impressed Western viewers, who saw affinities between Classic Maya art and the celebrated Greek art of the Classic period (480323 b.c.e.).

Like Greek sculpture during the Classic period, Maya art created between 250 and 900 seemed to exhibit the highest degree of naturalism and idealization, as though the indigenous artists looked to nature for their models and fused this observation with native ideals. Like the Classic period in Greece, the Classic period for the Maya was seen as the pinnacle of civilizationa time in which the Maya excelled in the realm of sciences, especially astronomy, and a time when Maya scribes recorded temporal and mythical histories using sophisticated calendrical systems. Western scholars also saw the Classic period as a moment in which theocratic rulers, guided by piety, religion, and logic, governed the activities of the Maya cities (an assumption that has subsequently been disproved in both the cases of Classic Greek and Classic Maya periods). With the term classic denoting a period of brilliance and the pinnacle of Greek cultural production, classic was similarly employed to describe the apparent florescence of the Maya world between the years 250 and 900 c.e.

The periodization of Maya art thereby grafted Western perceptions of qualities described as "classical" or "less than classical" into a system of periods originally based on Western principles of economic and political organization. The resultant schema resembles the pendular models of periodization based on physical mechanics and parallels Gombrich's theory of periodization and style. In the literature on Maya art, the time period that chronologically preceded the Classic period frequently was termed the Preclassic rather than the Formative. The choice of this term suggested that the period represented a stage of infancy that would eventually mature and blossom into the splendor of the Classic. In examining the artworks created after the Classic period, scholars observed that artists no longer lavished monuments with lengthy hieroglyphic texts; artists no longer focused their attention on building large-scale architecture; and sculptors no longer placed priority in inscribing each monument with the most sophisticated systems of calendrical notation. In addition, Maya artists no longer imbued the human subject with the elements of naturalism and idealism that they had in the past. Thus the period known as the Postclassic was seen as a period of decline and decay.

Far-reaching consequences emerged as a result of the assumptions intrinsic to the system used for periodizing Meso-american art. These assumptions implicate the scholarly, economic, and social spheres that surround the artworks themselves. For decades, Maya art created during the Classic period received the most acclaim. Acclaim translated into importance, and Classic period art drew greater numbers of scholars than Preclassic and Postclassic art.

The desire to celebrate aesthetic qualities deemed Classical has promulgated a skewed picture of Mesoamerican art. Far greater financial support is directed, especially by North American and European institutions, toward the preservation, restoration, and exhibition of Classic period Maya art than to any other Mesoamerican artistic tradition. By extension, a distorted concept of Mesoamerican culture has also resulted. Far more archaeological investigations are proposed and funded for the purpose of studying Classic period Maya sites than any other set of Mesoamerican sites. As a result, both art historical and archaeological scholarship presents a lopsided view of Mesoamerica in which the importance of the Classic Maya period is overestimated.

By the turn of the twenty-first century scholars attempted to eliminate the attendant value judgment from conventional models of periodization by replacing value-laden terms with more neutral terms. The period named "Formative," for example, gained popularity over the period name "Preclassic." In addition, scholars strove to present the names of periods simply as temporal boundaries without attached notions of quality or sophistication.

Technology and periods in Mesoamerica.

Technologies that had been unavailable in the formulation of early models of periodization now allow for the discussion of artworks based solely on time. Radiocarbon dating, for example, provides a simple and reliable way to date ancient artifacts (if they contain organic matter), by measuring the residue of radiocarbon. Another useful dating method termed obsidian hydration is especially useful since Mesoamerican peoples frequently fashioned local obsidian into tools and artworks. Thermoluminescence, a more recently discovered dating technique, is employed to date rocks, minerals, and pottery. These recently developed methods allow investigators the option to remove artworks from previously codified systems of periodization, to reinterpret past models, and to define periods in new ways.

Western and indigenous traditions of time and periodization.

Western-imposed modes of periodization often clash with indigenous traditions of dividing time and indigenous approaches to conceptualizing their material past. Among the ancient Maya, time was seen not as a single linear progression but as a series of unremitting cycles. Divided into subcycles and almanacs, native concepts of temporality dictate that time itself possesses distinctive qualities and purposes. Unlike some Western theories of time, which operate outside the boundaries of intrinsic nature, the Maya situated time as an entity that acts upon and shapes the content that it frames.

Feminism and Periodization

Voiced principally by women, radically new questions about artists and artistic canons emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Feminist artists and writers, particularly Linda Nochlin (b. 1931), vigorously probed the history of art in order to understand why female artists were not celebrated in Western history and in contemporary culture. Deep within the internal structures of the discipline itself, feminist writers located inherently exclusionary foundations. One exclusionary strategy has been identified as the construction of definitions of art. Women traditionally created artworks that were often made, used, and exhibited within their homes. Media conventionally seen as "crafts," such as embroidery, miniature painting, and ceramic production and decoration, constitute some examples of artistic production in which women historically participated. Conformist notions of "high art" and canons disregarded artworks created by women and subsequently excluded such art from the majority of periodization models (Alois Riegl is a notable exception who regarded crafts as equally important as figural arts). In the 1960s and 1970s women identified this exclusion and fought to unravel the system.

While designers of periodization paradigms ignored women, the trajectory of feminism itself gradually became divided into periods. Rather than hinging on factors external to feminism, feminist ideologies operated as the content around which periods were framed. Known as "waves," these periods became incorporated into discussions of the differing interests within feminism, which loosely correlate with periods of time. Writers now place some of the earliest feminists in the first wave of feminism, which began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when women fought for legal rights, including suffrage. Influential women such as Simone de Beauvoir and Susan B. Anthony have been placed within the first period or wave.

During the 1960s and 1970s, women concentrated on reviving the efforts and trajectories of issues explored by feminists during feminism's first wave. This new movement, now known as second-wave feminism, strove to elevate the position of women, especially in professional contexts. Women of this period wanted to "have it all," including equal access to privileges and positions along with equal compensation. Other paramount concerns for second-wave feminists included rights and control over their bodies. Other trajectories of feminism within the second wave focused on the difference between male and female in terms of sex and different reactions to gender. Cultural feminism and radical feminism, for example, held opposing views about the goal of feminism. The radical view argued for the cultural reconstruction of gender, reducing gender differences of males and females. Cultural feminism, on the other hand, emphasized the need to liberate, valorize, and preserve female difference as an absolute category.

The second wave of feminism bears particular relevance to periodization of the arts because it is within this period that Nochlin and others began to deconstruct the cultural paradigms that omitted women artists from the canon of masters. Second-wave feminist artists include Judy Chicago, Audrey Flack, and Miriam Schapiro, all of whom subverted notions of artistic canons by creating artworks that foreground the feminine through subjects and techniques that reference the artistic traditions of women and femininity itself.

Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s a new wave of feminism took shape and aimed at probing and revising some of the aspects of second-wave feminism. The third wave of feminism recognized exclusionary tendencies that characterized the interests of second-wave agendas and doctrine. Blurring the loose boundaries that separate the second and third waves, some feminists from the second wave shifted their interest and entered the third. Third-wave feminists recognized that the second wave had advocated social change primarily directed to the rights of white, straight, middle-class women. Third-wave feminism deemphasized the role played by sexual difference and explored the social structures, material and economic, that oppressed both women and men. As a result gender was framed in more neutral terms and as a product of enculturation rather than an innate quality.

Third-wave feminism's multiplicity of foci and fluid boundaries oftentimes incite criticism. This strategy simultaneously generates power to sustain the movement. By their presence in popular media, participation in politics, and commitment to academic discourse and critique, proponents engage feminism with other discursive modes. Because they share the quality of persistent cultural subversiveness, second-wave artists such as Judy Chicago and Audrey Flack are embraced by new feminist artists. With its roots broadly anchored in cultural dialogues, third-wave feminism addresses immediate issues and influences that affect far-ranging audiences.


No single system of periodization has emerged. Some observers regard the existence of multiple systems based on varying criteria as a symptom of the arbitrariness and illogicality of period schemes, while others interpret the same multiplicity as a positive result of the study of history. In this view, each periodization offers a possible strategy for the study of art, which encompasses widely diverse activities, including writing surveys, artistic biographies, catalogues raisonnés, iconographic analyses, or cross-cultural overviews. If the definition of periods and their temporal limits can be regarded as provisional strategies rather than objective reality, then the choice of periodization schema can be determined by the problem at hand. Different systems of periodization can be regarded as beneficial rather than chaotic when they permit the same masses of data to be organized by different principles and to yield different insights. Thus the ongoing debate about periodization contributes to the continuing vitality of the disciplines related to the visual arts.

See also Aesthetics ; Classicism ; Communication of Ideas ; Historiography ; Impressionism ; Mechanical Philosophy ; Modernism ; Organicism ; Renaissance .


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Kaylee Spencer-Ahrens

Linnea Wren

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