When I took my first art history class I was fascinated by all the -isms. The way it was taught gave me a pretty naïve initial impression since, after all, Impressionism was the first -ism that was covered in that class. Yes, Impressionism was preceded by Romanticism and Neo-Classicism, but we actually didn’t get to those until later, which just added to the confusion. And it didn’t help that in that first class I got a pocket-sized introduction that made it sound like the different -isms were distinct and separate: Impressionism was followed by Fauvism which was followed by Expressionism, although that mostly happened in Germany, which was then followed by Post-Impressionism and then Cubism happened and everything exploded. And along the way there were some one-person -isms like Seurat and his Pointillism.
It wasn’t until I was reading a biography of Picasso, while I was taking that first art history class, and he complained in a letter that one of his girlfriends had run off with “an Orphist”—Orphism hadn’t even come up yet and never would be covered in that class—that it dawned on me that a lot of these movements overlapped and really weren’t even all that strictly defined. Picasso is a good example. He’s filed under Cubism in most books but he joined the Surrealist movement.
And Surrealism is an even better, if weirder, example, since the group that first called themselves Surrealists tried to be an exclusive club with formal rules and yet they also included people like Hieronymus Bosch who’d been dead since the 16th century, and they tried to include Frida Kahlo who told them she wasn’t interested, she just wanted to do her own thing. The Surrealist group’s founder Andre Breton also kicked out pretty much everyone in the group at one point or another, including himself, probably, but it didn’t matter because the term “surrealism” quickly took on a life of its own.
Splitting up art into -isms is convenient for making art history into a narrative, even if it means putting artists who didn’t think of themselves as part of a certain group into one, and for those who did join a group it was, I think, mostly just about like-minded folks hanging out together so they could hang together in art galleries.
It’s really funny to me that someone who tags dumpsters with BRUX also came up with BRUXISM, which probably wasn’t intended to be the name of a movement. Maybe it’s just an expression of a personal philosophy, someone saying they’re an individual, they’re doing their own thing.
Just like everybody else.