The Emergence of Art Systems

Cycles of Change in Art Styles


J. David Flynn, Sociology

James Hay, Chemical Engineering

Madeline Lennon, Visual Arts

University of Western Ontario






Our objective was to develop a model of social change to explain changes in art styles as they are affected by changes in the surrounding society. We derived our model from complexity science and network theory to show how systems move from chaos into the complex region at the edge of chaos from which emerges order. Eventually, the cycle reverses back into complexity or even into chaos, before a new cycle begins.

In order to account for these cycles in art styles, we subsumed many social and economic factors under two general system variables: differentiation and centrality. Differentiation refers to the amount of variety within a system, for example, the range of services in an urban system such as the city of Florence during the Renaissance period. Differentiation also refers to how a variety of skills and techniques are organised, say, through political and economic links among art patrons. Centrality is the extent to which a system is connected to other systems, and, hence, exposed to incoming information. Thus, centrality varied over time for a city such as Florence during the Renaissance from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, depending upon its links with other cities. We then showed how the ratio of differentiation to centrality accounts, at least in a general way, for cycles of art.


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