(Aaaaand, cue David Bowie)
Art has a habit of changing, a lot. Art made today is certainly different than art made 100 years ago, and it’s never too hard to find avant-garde artists seeking to further push its limits with creative trailblazing. Despite the radical exploration in every direction, some of the new paths art has taken seem a little, well, familiar, like taking the left turn at Albuquerque only to wind up in Albuquerque again. Throughout history, art has pursued a particular trend for a while only to gradually swing like a pendulum towards something different, if not completely opposite, and eventually arrives at a place similar to where it started before continuing again.
This pattern is certainly seen in the history of Western painting, at least. You’ll get much better insight from your friendly neighborhood art historian, but I think I can give you a brief rundown. Let’s start with the Italian Renaissance. Known for its religious works, the Renaissance also exhibited a trend towards humanism, shown through the near-deification of its individuals with heavy detail, balance, and classical proportions .The Protestant Reformation followed with an influx of secular art towards the middle class, featuring everyday domestic scenes and landscapes. There was a swing back towards the religious with the Baroque period, but with a twist: using asymmetry and harsh lighting to create dramatic scenes, rather than fanciful ones, inducing piety among common folk.
The Rococo style reacted by playfully surrounding aristocratic subjects with graceful lighting and florid backdrops filled with muted colors. Neoclassicism countered that frivolity with a literal return to form, highlighting the restrained, emotionless forms of ancient models. Romanticism heralded a return to optimistic humanism and lavish emotion, as well as an emphasis on folk, nature, and nostalgia. However, Realism swung back towards an objective, sober detachment to acknowledge things as they were, utilizing drab earth tones and didactic imagery in an orderly imitation of nature. Much of Modern art forgoes any sense of imitation or structure for abstraction… and you probably got my point back during the Baroque period.
Before I lose you, let me clarify why I’m writing this by pointing out another area where this pattern often occurs: Pop Culture. It’s packed with artistic entertainment franchises that have re-imagined themselves dozens of times to reach out to new viewers, inevitably treading old ground in newer ways. The franchise that recently got me thinking about this was Scooby-Doo (yes, I’m talking about Scooby Doo after I just got done talking about the Renaissance and Neoclassicism. Roll with it).
Scooby-Doo started out as a goofy romp with hardly any real danger or horror, a tone kept by its following spin-offs and sequels for decades. However, with the 90s came a progressive penchant for darker storytelling, hence Batman: The Animated Series or Gargoyles, and even Scooby-Doo was affected, leading to movies in which the Scooby gang faces zombies, ghost witches, and—strangely enough—phantom viruses (Sure, they weren’t that scary, but their soundtracks still give me chills). Even the live-action theatrical films (which I promise to never speak of again) had Scooby face real monsters and demons. An influx of lighthearted films and shows like What’s New, Scooby-Doo and Shaggy and Scooby-Doo Get a Clue followed, fully embracing the campy-ness the franchise was originally known for. 2010 got dark and gritty again with Mystery Inc., involving drama, death, and a serial mystery nearly culminating in global destruction. Since then, there have been many upbeat Scooby-Doo comics published, and last year premiered Be Cool, Scooby Doo (which I’ve talked about before), possibly the most tongue-in-cheek show of the franchise. The re-imaginings continue with the recent announcement of Scooby Apocalypse, which (duh) places the gang in the middle of the apocalypse to battle real mutant horrors.
Similar patterns lie in other franchises as well. Sonic the Hedgehog started as a simple rodent with attitude and a goofy tv show. Finding even more attitude, he went on to fight tyrants, juggernauts, demi-gods, and other all-powerful deities before returning to silly stuff like this in Sonic Boom:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started out as a gritty comic, became goofy with the colorful 80s cartoon, returned to something darker with the comic-inspired 2003 cartoon, and currently found some middle ground with the 2012 series and the IDW comics (though the comics are much darker). Even the goofy Archie comics have bleak spin-offs featuring zombies or the Predator.
Whether it’s Pop culture or High culture, art changes, but it doesn’t always change into something completely new, at least not for long. I’m not trying to bemoan us for being fickle or unoriginal (even though it’s kinda true). It’s a tale as old as time. As society’s reflection, art changes as people and their cultures, seeking their identities, change and grow over time, determining what’s worth keeping and what’s worth putting aside. There are treads and re-treads of particular paths of art because something about those paths, the ideals expressed, the skills praised, and the emotions explored, transcend generations and encourage deeper exploration down the line. If we pay attention, even moving on to another trend helps us better explore and appreciate the trends we do return to, helping us all the more.
Earlier I compared art’s changes to a pendulum, implying that it just statically swings between two general directions out of an impulsive instinct, changing for the sake of changing, but it’s more apt to call it a dynamic spiral, propelling forward by looping around itself. Just as we build off our own experiences, so does art. Good art uses what came before it as a springboard into something new, acknowledging the past while still creating something different. Even the dark Mystery Inc., which isn’t exactly my favorite Scooby show, has playful nods and references to the campy, formulaic patterns of the original series.
Art’s growth shows that change can be cyclical, like seasons in a year, but change can still be hard to deal with at times. Too many changes can happen at once, rattling us, and it can take all we have to keep up (“Spiderman is getting another reboot!? I didn’t even see the last one yet.”). Changes can happen too slowly, and we’re stuck in frustrating situations longer than we’d like, suffocating us (“Ultimate Spiderman got another season!? Why!? Spectacular Spiderman was way better and got cancelled after two!”). Stressful times like that make it easy for us to feel like we’re stuck in a rut with nothing good to show for it, as if things wont change for the better, but, if we can hold our heads up, learn from what’s past, and simply keep going, we will move forward, just as art does (“Here’s hoping Tom Holland does well as the newest Spidey”). Things will change, and, whenever that happens, the things worth keeping around are never as far off as we think. We each just have to figure out what they are and hold on to them as we grow.