How Useful Are Classifications?

Renaissance, Romanticism, Modernism: we often label any given movement, artist or work according to an overreaching label for the sake of classification. But how useful are these terms, if at all? How much authority should be given to them?

It’s 2nd August 1492. Two farmers meet, somewhere in Spain, after a hard day’s labour. The crops don’t look promising; a famine is threatening their lives. Everything looks dark and gloomy. Together they pray for the love of God to give them some form of consolation.

The following day, Columbus discovers America. The farmers, as usual, go about their daily lives, but things are changing. They feel a bit wiser than the previous day, and more awake to novelties. When they meet in the evening, one of them says to the other, ‘Thank heavens we live in the Renaissance! Wasn’t it dreadful in the Medieval period?’

Needless to say, the farmers from our little story never existed, but it demonstrates that using common classifications for a work of art, artist, or Zeitgeist, are not always particularly useful. It’s not as though the rise of a new philosophical or artistic movement made any immediate difference to the way people felt. No – to them, things would probably feel much the same.

This problem isn’t even limited to ‘ideological’ awakenings, but stark historical changes as well. What difference would the fall of the Western Roman Empire have made to a Roman peasant living in the southern tip of the Italian peninsula? Probably not much.

However, while using such classifications doesn’t come without its severe issues, they still have remarkable benefits. So, to help you make up your own mind about whether you think they make any sense, here are a few ideas for and against using classifications.

Lack of historical consensus

Most historians place the beginning of the Renaissance at the beginning of the 14th century. Others name the discovery of America. Others, again, place it at the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453. The problem, obviously, is that experts never seem to reach a consensus.

But they also disagree about ‘sub-periods’ included in a particular period. When was the Medieval period? Do we include the Anglo-Saxons in it? How far into the Renaissance do we extend it? If a poet like Yeats uses tropes from the Romantics, does that mean the Romantic period can last until the early-mid 20th century?

Also, how do we treat artists, philosophers and such who don’t adhere to the general tropes of a classified movement although they fit into the correct time period? Do they belong to another? Doesn’t that mean that the definition of the classification should change, since it obviously also includes others?

The problem lies in the fact that in any given time period or movement, there are too many individuals, many of whom have their own idiosyncratic ideals and ideas as to what their movement should include. Therefore, theorists can take their arguments in any number of directions in order to make a case for their own personal interpretation of how we should classify X and Y. There is no true or false answer; just perspectives from extremely different backgrounds.

Lack of fundamental impact on lived experiences

For the most part, the overarching labels for certain philosophical or artistic movements wouldn’t affect the general population. Michaelangelo wouldn’t have thought of himself as a Renaissance man as much as an Italian living in the late 15th / early 16th century; Dickens wouldn’t have considered himself as a Victorian, but as a Brit living in the 19th century.

That’s not to say that these movements had no impact whatsoever on the general population, but that they didn’t to the extent that one might think. For most people the transition to a new period would have seemed seamless – with the exception being large-scale events, of course, such as the French revolution.

As such, we need to acknowledge that classifying certain people as members of a certain group isn’t particularly useful, since to them the transition wouldn’t have been of immediate consequence. Yes, they would feel progress and change, but not from one day to another, and not in the sense that they’d see it as the result of a particular philosophical or artistic movement.

Lack of philosophical consensus

This goes back to my first point. There are probably no two philosophers or artists who shared the same ideas within the same movement. This is even more evident in rather broad labels, such as the ‘Modernists’. What would the Harlem Renaissance have in common with Dada or the Surrealists? Probably not much.

Finding common ground, therefore, can prove to be neigh impossible. With a movement as large as Modernism, we soon reach a point where we can locate different schools, all Modernist, which have virtually nothing in common. In other cases, some movements were even created as a rejection of a former school with the same overall label (such as Vorticism versus Futurism).

And yes, the differences among smaller movements also make classifications difficult. Whistler was only a part-time Impressionist; Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s later Pre-Raphaelite paintings were much more idealistic than the movement’s earlier focus on hyper-realism would demand.

Need for taxonomy

One strong reason for using such classifications is our innate need for taxonomy. This is certainly the case with the Sciences, where we need to define certain objects as precisely as possible in order to understand and contextualise them. While artistic and philosophical movements are highly complex – as we have seen – it’s not entirely impossible.

The ideal thing to do would be just to identify the period and the name, e.g. T.S. Eliot – American-born poet in the first half of the twentieth century. But that’s quite a mouthful – so we can say he was a Modernist poet, although we haven’t defined Modernism yet (and good luck with that!).

On the other hand, it would probably be possible to cite overarching labels, subcategories etc. – e.g. Modernity (the modernisation of the Western World) – Modernism (all philosophical movements stemming from Modernity) – Vorticism (a particular movement within Modernism) – Wyndham Lewis (an artist who was part of the Vorticists). Setting this up for each artist and philosopher would, of course, take a long time to do and be of questionable use, but for people obsessed with taxonomy – why not? But yes, it still doesn’t solve the problem of artists changing throughout their lives and occasionally switching movements (if they even see themselves as part of a school).

Need for simplification

Related to the above point, having categories, classifications or labels makes it easier to understand what any given person is talking about. If I declare that Langston Hughes was a Modernist, others probably know that I’m talking about the time period and very rough classification, not that I am saying he has a lot in common with Pound or Williams.

In that sense, it saves time. When talking to people casually about art you’re (usually) not approximating a precise definition for everything, so using simple and wide-reaching labels for things serves one simple purpose – simplification. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. Although it’s not ideal using classifications, it makes our lives easier, enables quicker and simpler communication, and therefore does very well serve a decent purpose.

Closing thoughts

As we have seen, classifications are of limited use, but not completely useless. It’s always important to remember that they serve the purpose of assisting you in identifying ‘things’, not shoehorning those ‘things’ into a box. As such, all these movements and periods are in a state of flow, not blocks which follow each other directly.

Do you agree or disagree? Can you think of other arguments for or against using classifications? Then why not leave a comment? Otherwise, if you liked this post, why not share it on social media? Then please click on one of the tender buttons below.