Monday, August 30, 2010

Building a Culture From a Concept

In 2003, I went to Europe with my dad, as a final father-daughter thing before I moved away to university. Dad was also using the trip as research for a book idea he had, so we spent a fair bit of time wandering around baroque churches, cathedrals, and palaces, and then discussing them later. This triggered an interest in architecture, which surprised me, but also taught me something important: the products of a culture are connected to that culture.

Yes, I know it sounds obvious, but let me explain.

Up to that point, I'd learned about 18th-century wars, 18th-century industry, 18th-century nobility (via films), 18th-century music, and 18th-century literature. They were all presented as separate subjects or at least separate events within the same subject. Nobody made an effort to connect them, to link them together with an overarching theme or a timeline. In fact, nobody in university really did that either, for any era, which is a shame. Figuring out what connected everything really helped me get a sense for the era.

So what ties Baroque and Rococo art, architecture, music, literature, and fashion together? The idea that artifice and symmetry are highly important. It found its way into everything, as all good cultural ideas should. I'm going to explain how pervasive and influential the idea was, but first I want to point out two ways of looking at the explanation.
  1. This is an explanation of a past mindset, and an explanation of how all things in a culture spin off from a single thread. This might be better presented as a web, but it would be harder to read and infinitely more time-consuming to produce on this end.
  2. The bolded idea above is the core concept for a fictional world. Now that we-as-writers have that idea, we have to create an entire world out of it. The following is that creation.
Art in the Age of Enlightenment

The Baroque cathedral in the St. Gallen monastery. One of the great Baroque churches.
  • "Artifice" means "clever or cunning devices or expedients, esp. as used to trick or deceive others", according to my computer's dictionary. Emphasizing artifice in 1700 meant emphasizing the mind, the products of the mind, and man's ability to make things (art-, from ars 'art'; -fice, from facere 'to make'). The adjectival form of artifice is artificial.
  • Wit is a product of this. The goal was to be pithy, clever, funny, and allusive, and thereby show off your education and your creativity*. This is at least as important as making people laugh, if not more so. The concept of wit directly influenced/engendered periodicals such as The Spectator, satire such as Jonathan Swift's, and comic drama such as The School for Scandal and The Beggar's Opera
  • "Clever or cunning devices" also applies to both the heroic couplet, brought to the fore by Alexander Pope in works like The Rape of the Lock, and the desire to have a Latinate word for everything.
  • The same phrase also applies to architecture, which was incredibly ornate in a very symbolic sort of way (every church we went to had a different 'theme' that all the paintings and stucco adhered to, such as "ocean"); fashion (just look at how detailed the embroidery was); and music (counterpoint, especially).
  • "Devices … to trick or deceive others". Take a second look at the picture of the cathedral above.** Do you see the marble? That's painted and varnished plaster. Do you see the gold? That's gold foil or gold paint, over plaster or maybe wood. Every palace from the era uses the same or similar tricks to make cheap objects look expensive, or to convince people that they were seeing one thing, when they were really seeing another. Schloss Favorite, for instance, has a "hand of cards" in the parquet of the ballroom, as well as an "beetle". The goal was to show off your skill (or the skill of your workers), and to elicit moments of surprise from your visitors.
  • Being able to stick to a form while doing something new was also applauded. I think this is a big part of why there were themes in Baroque cathedrals, why every noble's ceiling was painted with Greek and Roman mythological figures, and why the sonata and symphony appeared during this period. They're all very organized—symmetrical, even—and yet there's so much variation at the same time.
  • Also, in terms of music, technical prowess was emphasized. This is why Bach made so many of his compositions difficult, and why Mozart wrote in flourishes and trills. (Another reason why Mozart was one of the great Classical composers, even in his own time: he had a thing for surprising people.)
  • Baroque gardens had clean, geometrical lines, wide open spaces, and a tendency to identical on both sides of an axis.
  • I'm also using "symmetry" to mean Enlightenment nostalgia for the good ol' days of the Greco-Roman period. They brought the gods and goddesses into their paintings, sculpture, architecture, and writing in a big way. Nostalgia can also be credited for the drive to make English more like Latin (which is, by the way, a pretty symmetrical language).
  • The emphasis on the mind and creativity surely had something do with the advancements of science and rational thought during this time. 
And of course, we can't have world-building without reasons why. 
  • A lot of the artifice (and probably the symmetry) that crops up in the Baroque/Enlightenment era was there to break up the monotony of aristocratic lives. It would have to be—nobles, and to an extent, the middle classes, were the only groups of people with the time and wealth to enjoy, create, and sponsor this stuff, and really, they had nothing better to do with their time. 
  • A lot of the artificial architecture can probably be attributed to the nobles and Church being much less wealthy than they wanted everyone to believe.
  • The importance of the idea grew over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, as the nobles began sponsoring more creative people and we made more scientific discoveries. It's there in Renaissance England too (sonnets, for example).
Now, I know I've missed stuff here. It's bound to happen when you're trying to condense an entire historical period and philosophical movement into a blog post. I also know that artifice and symmetry weren't the only influences on Enlightenment culture, just the biggest ones. Orientalism was also very important, judging by how many orangeries there were, how much porcelain was produced, and how often Asian imagery crops up in artwork.

Going back to the ways of reading this post:

  1. If you chose to read for history, rather than world-building, I hope you've gotten a better picture of how all the cultural pieces fit together, and how they all spring from the desire for perfection and the lauding of technical prowess.  
  2. If you chose to read for world-building, rather than history, I hope you saw how one idea can generate multiple cultural outcomes, all connected to each other and forming a whole. We tend to think of history as a series of disjointed events, when it's actually more of an ecosystem of ideas and human action. I think world-building should follow the same holistic path. 

One caveat to all this: I do not, in any way, shape, or form, have a degree in history, nor have I explicitly studied the Baroque era. I could be flat-out wrong about everything I've just said—but I don't think I am.

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** Its theme, by the way, is Eden. All the ornamentation looks like plants, and there are an awful lot of cherubs.


Hannah said...

So true! I used to study Alexander Pope in college, and I love all the emphasis on artifice in 18h-century poetry. The poems comment on their own structure in such a delicious, deconstructionistic way!

Um, sorry. Pope brings out my inner lit nerd. But I think that's a great worldbuilding point. I'm trying to write, right now, a civilization with no mathematical intuition (for plot reasons). So their "weaving" is really crocheting, without a pattern, their music is rhythm-less, and so on. Of course, there are mathematical objects in their world, but they don't interact with them in any kind of abstract context.

Le Loup said...

Good post. If you are interested in other aspects of the 18th century, why not take a look at my blog.


Anassa said...

Hannah: Yes! I loved the 18th-C poetry we covered. Found it a lot more interesting than the Romantics and Victorians also covered in that class. Pope et. al worked in so much humor and allusions … I really need to read more of their work. (Who doesn't have an inner lit nerd to some degree?)

Sounds like you've got a challenging (and interesting) culture to deal with. I hope it works out in the end!