Trends and Movements

Video still from "Gangnam Style"

Jörg Colberg put out an article on trends a little while back with some thoughts on avoiding them. While I like the idea of Jörg rocking parachute pants and friendship beads with a 60x70 inch color c-print between his hands, he apparently avoids trends, dashing that image, and he has good arguments for why we should do so, being true to ideals and so on.

In his piece, Colberg puts Pictorialism, the Düsseldorf photographers and New Formalism down as trends. First he writes, "Photography, much like any other area organized around human activities, has been experiencing trends for a long time, older ones now firmly established as important historical episodes (think "Pictorialism")," then he adds, "Right now, after the apparent demise of the Düsseldorf Photography trend, it's all about the New Formalism."

He got me thinking about the differences between "trends" and "movements." And we can throw in "schools" as well while we're at it. I would have put Pictorialism down as movement and the Düsseldorf gang down as a school. So, today's question: what is the relationship between artistic trends and artistic movements? What is the role of trends within art? Are they pure evil, to avoid contact with at all costs? Do they play any sort of necessary function? Where do trends come from in art?

The question of definition can always be dismissed as semantics, but I think it's important to square terms so we can have progressive conversation. Like you would have done, my Sherlock-level PI shit began with a Google search for "differences between trends and movements" producing a predictable string of Wikipedia entries and Yahoo! Answers links.

The Wikipedia page on Modernism swaps the terms "movement" and "trend" around in the opening text, referring first to Modernism as "a philosophical movement" and then as "a socially progressive trend of thought."

thefreedictionary.com defines movement as "A tendency or trend" while in turn it defines trend as "a general tendency or course of events" and also, interesting to us for reasons that follow, "Current style; vogue."

So Wikipedia swaps them interchangeably, while the dictionary defines movement as a trend, but gives us two options forward on how to consider a trend. Let's keep looking.

On to "Gruffalo" posting nine years ago on Yahoo! Answers. She/he/it responds to the original poster's question: "There are some literary movements in fiction and some trends in fiction . what is difference ?" [sic] by writing "A trend implies something a little more transient, a fad that will pass over and be discarded in favour of the next trend. A movement implies something a little more significant that will be moved on from, but referred back to in later works."

Gruffalo writes here wisely about literary trends and movements, and frankly it's not bad as a broader answer for the arts. I poked around a while longer and couldn't come up with anything better – no scholarly research papers, no art-based site investigating the difference.

Gruffalo intertwines an answer with time and I think that's key to providing separation between the terms trend and movement. Combining this response with the dictionary, we come to some potential conclusions. A trend can be interchanged with movement in the sense of "A general tendency or course of events." Colberg uses the word in this sense when he calls Pictorialism a trend, for example. I would suggest, however, that the second definition of trend, "Current style; vogue," gives us more specificity and utility by working more directly with the concept of time. A trend is more transient, while a movement is sustained. Choosing this second definition thus gives us two words to work with that can be used in conversation to locate meaning more exactly.

"School," to go back to that term, is defined on the same site as "a group of people, especially philosophers, artists, or writers, whose thought, work, or style demonstrates a common origin or influence or unifying belief." Using time to separate terms, we could conclude that a school relates more to movement, and could be considered a movement centralized around a single origin, commonly an educational institution or a single teacher or master.

Let's build on this, and move from investigation to creation of terms. The answers we have so far relate to time, but what about trends and movements in relation to space? We can imagine both as local or worldwide, a local trend on the Colombian coast of dancing el choque or an international trend of dancing Gangnam Style. A local movement for the defense of the rights of truckers in Colombia or an international movement for gay rights.

These examples aren't random. While space doesn't differentiate our terms in the sense of breadth as we see above, perhaps it could in terms of dimension. That is to say, perhaps a trend is a concept that has little or no dimensionality – an idea of little substance, a surface, while a movement provides a sense of both substance and depth. These imaginations bring us to a crucial idea as far as the two terms and art. A trend cannot sustain conversation – it is repetition and redundancy between practitioners because the context provides so little space to operate, it is the inevitable burn out of a dance style or the boring interlocutor that corners you at the high school reunion that inevitably has little to offer or say.

A movement, on the other hand, sustains conversation. Various practitioners work with the same set of ideas or problems, but they create space within the conversation to say something different on the subject. There is more substance, many levels on which to work, much more at play. The collective of artists pushes downwards and outwards until the space has been more or less fully expanded, explored, resolved, or, in some exciting cases, ruptured leading to new movements.

Moving on the question of the role of trends within art and where trends come from. One possible way to think about trends within art is as proposals. So, for example, there's a trend towards "digital glitch," a proposal to work with the very fabric of digital production by manifesting its architecture and highlighting error. Before throwing away this idea, however, consider the possibility that a movement could come from this trend, or come from the confluences of various trends. If these glitch photographers and, let's say, photographers who composite multiple negatives come together and invite Jörg's dreaded New Formalists to the party, we might have the creation of some sort of movement – a sustained interlocking of various strategies for understanding digital presence in photography.

Trends also provide opportunities for subversion. For all the cars of Cuba I've seen, all the slums, all the Ché murals, Irina Rozovsky's "Island on my mind" is compelling for how it plays away from these expected visuals that have emerged from the trend of photographing Cuba. It in part needs exhausted trends to offer surprise and a sense of freshness.

Seen this way, trends many not be so noxious in terms of their role in photography. They are merely proposals, seeds and opportunities. Some we quickly realize offer nothing and die away and we label them, forever, trends. Others stay, combine, grow and we realize that they offer enough dimension to sustain conversation. They become a movement. In either case, they also are a potential source for reactionary chemistry.

We've arrived at the last part of our conversation, where trends come from. That is a question I'm realizing I am not prepared to answer, but that's never stopped me from taking some guesses.

The first door to knock on looking for an answer to a question like this is, for me, always money. Before getting there, however, let's observe that trends can definitely develop organically, from the artist or group of artists reacting to larger social, political and technical changes by building similar work. Photographers react to McCarthyism by creating abstract work instead of social documentary work to avoid persecution. Photographers react to the perceived lack of investigation of new digital media to explore its components instead of simply trying to ape analog. Suddenly we have trends towards abstraction in the 1950s and digital media explorations in the 2010s.

There is, however, a more cynical view to take. We could say trends are defined top-down, with galleries, museums, collectors and other financially invested parties giving opportunities based only in certain ideas. Artists are coerced into creating in certain modes because they need to survive and they knew opportunities are only offered to works created in modes A and B, and that mode C will never sell and therefore are consciously or unconsciously discouraged from exploring C. Colberg pushes the artist towards staying with C anyways if it comes from an honest place true to your interests, and I would suggest the same, but the reality is that many look for name and fame and will opt for A or B and find a justification. I would imagine this observation compelled Colberg to write his original piece.

Loring Knoblauch of Collector Daily wrote a strong post called "In Defense of Ferocity" a few months back and it's revelatory when read in relation to this proposal of trends being defined top-down. It's a call for collector's to create a market for riskier, edgier, uglier work. He writes, "By sending this direct signal that we are ready and receptive (rather than timid and afraid), we can break the log jam, allowing the fierce and the vivid to once more reclaim their rightful place in the photographic conversation." The concept one could extract from his writing, that collector's can promote the growth of trends through investment decisions, is fascinating in the implications. Let's see if riskier, edgier, uglier develops.

As always, I would say the answer lies between, not at the extremes. Some mix of organically developed trends and marketplace reinforcement of certain of those trends at the expense of others is the guess I'll leave you with.