Designing with Chaos. A brief history of chaos | WebReference

Designing with Chaos. A brief history of chaos

  A brief history of chaos

The concept of chaos, as well as the word "chaos" itself, comes from ancient Greek philosophy and literature. Understandably, back then people were exposed daily to the hostility of nature untamed, and they had a deep feeling of contrast between the artificial harmony created by people and their gods and the wild chaos of the primordial world. The shell of human culture was still very thin in those times, and despite its thinness it was indeed perceived as a protective shell against the intimidating Unknowable that lurked everywhere.

This viewpoint makes it easier to understand many characteristic features of the classic ancient art. Its harmony, clarity, and exquisite simplicity are the direct manifestations of the human harmony vs. unhuman chaos mentality of the creators. Nature is random, asymmetric, unpredictable, complex; therefore, whatever is created by a human must possess the opposite qualities. For the ancients, just a proportion of two lengths could carry an aesthetic message of almost divine profoundness.

As centuries went on, however, the noble simplicity was lost, in part due to the religious and national turmoil that ensued and in part because nothing ever remains static - as we see from today, if there's one thing that differentiates human creatures from inanimate objects, it's not their regularity but the capability to develop. The art of the middle ages was developing towards complexity and intrication of Gothic architecture and medieval miniatures - although this complexity failed to maintain the pure perfection of the classical art.

It was only by the late 15th century that the Italian Renaissance movement has reestablished the link to the classical art of the ancients, rediscovering the value of simple harmony and regularity backed up by the newest scientific discoveries in optics and geometry. The whimsical style of the previous epoch was now regarded as something not only disgusting but directly antagonistic. Perhaps the most illustrative example of this is the birth of Humanistic Antiqua fonts that drastically overturned the centuries-long tradition of blackletter fonts.

Within the next several centuries, however, the level of complexity in visual arts started building up again. Baroque, rococo, and new antiqua dominated in 16th through 19th centuries - and, although the development was far from linear, on the whole there were no more drastic revolutions until early 20th century when the rules of the game changed again in many ways. Abstract geometric compositions and sans serif fonts have beaten their way through initial public skepticism to being hailed as the new visual language for modern times.

Of course this new epoch cannot be directly paralleled to Renaissance or classicism of the past. The laxity and polystylistic diversity of modern art, at the first sight, is hardly comparable to the perfection of the ancient classics. But on a deeper level, one important recurring motif is the understanding that a simple single line - be it precise, carefully drawn or lax and sweeping - may amount to a philosophical masterpiece. It is this understanding that links our modern art, weird and novel as it may be, to the most inspired and prodigious eras in the history of arts.


Created: May 15, 1999
Revised: May 15, 1999