My Crackpot Theory of the 3 Phases of Cultural Movements

This is more “idle talking to people at a party” art history than “responsible, well-grounded, academic” art history

Hey, there,

So, again, I want to be really upfront that what I’m about to lay out here is in no way a responsible or serious way to approach art history. It’s a combination of a pattern that recurs a lot of times and a fairly outmoded means of framing some past art movements. If you tried to base any academic work on this, you’d deservedly get shit thrown at you.

But if you used it as grounds for shooting the shit with your friends, you’d probably have fun. So take it on that level.

OK. That’s a lot of preamble for a pretty simple thing: in my head, I have this kinda functional/kinda shitty model for the way a lot of cultural movements shake out. This started out thinking about art (and another disclosure here: I can’t tell for sure anymore how much of this is original thought on my part and how much is just kind of old art history zeitgeist that I’ve internalized), but it winds up making just as much sense in other cultural areas (brace yourself for a lot of music talk later). The basic idea is as follows:

A surprising number of art and cultural movements follow the same 3-phase pattern. There’s an initial breakthrough phase, when shit’s exciting and new and all kinds of weird experiments happen as everyone plays with the new technique/idea/construct/whatever. Then there’s a high phase, where the rules and conventions that evolved out of the experiments of the breakthrough phase are in force, and creators can use that structure to create what are often acknowledged as the masterpieces of the form. But eventually, working within those conventions gets stale and tired, and creators start intentionally breaking, subverting, or exaggerating them in increasingly meta ways, and the movement enters a baroque phase.* The meta weirdness of the baroque phase becomes impenetrable and unwieldy and self-indulgent, often leading angry dissenters to experiment with something new, leading to the breakout phase of a new form. And on.

*And to be super clear: this is my own idiosyncratic use of the term “baroque,” related but not actually directly equivalent to the more standard way responsible art historians use it.

Again, this isn’t universal, it isn’t prescriptive, it isn’t predictive, and you could pick holes in it and throw out counterexamples with just a moment’s thought. But with those caveats, I think it’s a useful model to use to think about a lot of culture. If nothing else, it provides a (simplified) narrative arc that can help fix movements in your head.

I mean, think of the Renaissance, which is how I got here to begin with. You start with pre-Renaissance Church art, which was certainly far enough up its own ass, aesthetically speaking, to count as a stale and exhausted baroque phase. Then, in Italy, you get Giotto and Fra Filippo Lippi messing with exciting new techniques in the 1400s, and hot damn, you’ve got yourself a breakthrough phase. Things get worked out, anatomy and perspective and composition get developed, and before you know it the Renaissance has entered its high phase and all of the Ninja Turtle namesakes are making masterworks in Florence. But eventually all of this expressive realism gets boring, and what is there to do that Michelangelo didn’t already do better, so why not, say, paint the Virgin Mary with an absurdly long neck just because you can, and hey boy this sure looks like a baroque phase.*

Giotto, getting all crazy in the breakthrough phase

High Renaissance. Cowabunga, dude!

Baroque (or mannerist, see note below): realism is boring, what if we made everyone look like they were made out of overcooked pasta?

*Of course, in actual, responsible art history, the convention is that the High Renaissance was followed by the Mannerist period—which is where the long-necked Madonna is usually assigned—which later flowed into the actual, official Baroque period. This is what I mean, I guess, when I say I’m being idiosyncratic. I think that as a word in the wider English language, “baroque” is a better term for the rootbound metaweirdness that follows a high period, so by my system the Mannerist and Baroque eras both kind of jointly count as a baroque phase. It would probably take two (2) beers for you to convince me to just call the third phase “mannerist” and make the whole thing much simpler. Anyway.

This isn’t a completely accurate view of the development of European art in the 15th-17th centuries, but it’s not completely out of whack, either; if you came out of an undergrad art history survey class with this in your head, you’d be towards the front of the pack.

And the thing is, the pattern really does recur, if not all the time. Look at rock music: breakthrough period in the 50s as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Bill Haley and others messed around with the exciting new possibilities of bringing electric guitars into uptempo blues and country forms. Then a high period in the 60s as the classic rock pantheon did their stuff. Edge into the 70s and the prog-rock movement takes off, and my god is that obviously a baroque phase. The punks get angry at the tired wankery of 70s rock, and bam, the new breakthrough of punk.

Again: not a definitive, accurate history, but not inaccurate from a squinting distance.

One thing about this that interests me is how often stuff that appeals to me is stuff that would seem to fit into a breakthrough phase (although I’m not much of a Fra Filipo Lippi fan). I think I just love the messy experimentation of transitional periods; that’s a big part of why I love punk. Musically, I also love the wild stretch in the 80s where everyone knew what sampling was but weren’t sure how to use it, and everyone went off in their own weird direction. Or that’s why comic books from the early 40s are both fascinating and incomprehensible; they were experimenting and working out the rules and conventions and if it doesn’t always make sense, it’s just entertainingly, endearingly bonkers.

Nobody in history has been more committed to weird experimentation in a breakthrough period than Fletcher Hanks was.

One thing that I don’t love about this model is the kind-of-between-the-lines implication that the baroque phase is somehow lesser or decadent. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true at all! But I do think that work produce in a movement’s baroque phase is often less accessible because the point of it is often in the way it breaks some rule or convention established in the high phase, meaning that the whole thing is impenetrable to you if you aren’t familiar the rules being tweaked. I think, for instance, that this is why so much of the public finds a lot of contemporary art inaccessible, since so much of it is a late-stage entry in an ongoing baroque conversation. Damien Hirst’s work makes no sense on its own terms, but you can see what he’s up to if you read it “in dialogue” with a bunch of art that preceded it.*

*In fact, I think this gets to a problem suffered by the big cultural franchises; that intellectual property laws and audience expectations lock them into permanent baroque periods where all they can do is comment upon themselves. How long has it been since a Star Wars movie included something genuinely new and wild? One of the many reasons The Last Jedi was divisive was that Rian Johnson was playing a very baroque game where everything in the movie was a comment on or a subversion of stuff from prior movies and people who didn’t see what he was up to were just confused about why everything seemed so Opposite Day. Star Trek is similarly rootbound, if maybe not as badly, and from a distance it appears to me that you can visibly see the Harry Potter franchise crawling up its own ass at high speed.

By the time you get to talking about Star Wars in footnotes, you can tell that an art discussion has run its course, so I’ll wrap this up. But give this some thought! You’ll see that the pattern’s out there a bunch of places. And that there are all kinds of places it doesn’t hold up! The bottom line is that “Fra Filippo Lippi” is pretty fun to say.


Made the realization last night that somewhere in my head, the FAVORITE BAND dial had shifted again recently, moving Low from “band I like a lot” to “reigning favorite.” So hey: check out Low, if you haven’t. They’re weird and moody and idiosyncratic, reflecting their home city of Duluth, which is weird and moody and idiosyncratic. They’re certainly not for everyone—which, hey, I can relate—but they also reinvent themselves every few albums, so you never know when they’re going to swing into a phase that suits you. For my money, The Great Destroyer is one of the great rock albums of the 21st century, so I say start there. Or its weird follow-up, Guns and Drums, where they were farting around with a bunch of synthesizers they didn’t know how to play.


You probably already know about this, but if you don’t: every day, Josh Fruhlinger reads the newspaper comics and comments on them and it’s damned hilarious every time; he even makes Mary Worth worth reading. Although it gets a little unsettling, seeing how often there’s a sexual subtext to Crankshaft.


OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!