For many of us who write speculative fiction, worldbuilding is a key part of the process. I enjoy harmonizing the story world, themes, and characters. When I succeed, the results are rewarding, and I’m equally fascinated by complex cultures in the books I read. Since art both reflects and affects worldview, its role in a culture reveals many secrets.
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, legends are retold as poems held sacred and true. In Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, legends are reduced to fairy tales that mothers repeat to their children and traveling bards recite at taverns. Though neither culture is better or worse for its customs, the two differ starkly in how they preserve and communicate historical lore.
Art matters. And so does the medium.
In the real world, the relationship between culture and art changes over time. Stunningly detailed paintings have been replaced by canvases dribbled with hundreds of colors. Our culture’s lifecycle causes shifts in how people express creativity. Understanding these patterns will help us reach a higher level of connection to the themes and stories we’re trying to tell.
The Evolution of Art
Over the course of Western civilization, art has undergone four major stages of development: mythical, classical, intellectual, and chaotic. Three inventions pushed art from one stage to the next by revolutionizing how we formulate ideas.
Before diving into this theory, keep in mind that Western civilization is a conglomeration of many cultures that have risen and fallen. Each individual culture hasn’t necessarily experienced all four stages. Additionally, remember that I’m looking at the broad strokes of real-world history to manufacture a tool for fictional worldbuilding. Because of this, the transitions won’t be exact. History happens by degrees, and although inventions catalyze change, the influence of each stage extends beyond the perimeters I’ve set.
The goal is to clarify art’s importance throughout the ages so we can construct cultures that resemble reality. A large portion of this article is dedicated to explaining my theory, but don’t get bogged down. Afterward I’ll list three distinct applications that will serve to channel your own musings on the subject.
Stage 1: Mythical (Beginning of Civilization to ~800 BC)
Strong tribal identity and belief in the supernatural marked daily life in this stage. Literature was verbal and commonly relayed the exploits of royalty and a pantheon of gods. Songs and stories also exalted (or decried) the deeds of long-dead heroes, linking listeners to their ancestry. Homer’s epics are oral tales that were eventually transcribed.
Visual art forms, such as cave paintings, household idols, and frescoes, tended to be rudimentary and religious. Architecture honored family and religion. Places of worship were the most ornate and/or physically prominent (high points, ziggurats, temples), and houses were centers of society (the atrium in Roman homes doubled as a place of business).
Change Catalyst 1: Written Alphabet
At some point during stage one, a writing system developed, allowing facts and opinions to be preserved permanently. This made communication more individualistic and less communal. Ideas could now be recorded, shared, and read at any pace, which lead to deeper realms of thought.
Stage 2: Classical (~800 BC to ~1300 AD)
Culture began to spread, with the military as the main trigger. But during the second half of this stage, the pen proved to be just as effective—sometimes more so. Due to the written word, people began to look to manmade ideologies instead of faith for answers to life’s questions. Most literary works were heavily philosophical, and the authors ranged from Greek philosophers to biblical scholars to medieval poets like Dante and Chaucer.
Visual arts remained largely religious, except the symbology now encompassed the community’s values and heritage. Architecture continued to highlight religion and family, as well as politics. Castles, palaces, cathedrals, and political halls stood as monuments of power.
Note that the fall of Rome is the primary reason the classical stage lasted so long. Cultures still in the mythical stage seized Rome, which meant they needed time to absorb its artistic advances. This time period is roughly equivalent to the Middle Ages.
Change Catalyst 2: Printing
With a printing press, information traveled faster than by hand. Since ideas had less permanence in the human mind and could be exchanged freely, constant progress became the norm.
Stage 3: Intellectual (~1300 to ~1950)
During this stage, art separated into two strains. One elevated logic and reason while the other celebrated emotion and beauty. Yet both departed from traditional conclusions and sought out new revelations. Gradually, however, the answers that logic and emotion provided were exhausted, and Western civilization began to fracture.
Literature was complex, realistic, and philosophical, requiring familiarity with previous works to fully appreciate its significance. It eventually addressed questions such as: How can we confirm our knowledge is sound? And how can we ensure that others understand our creations?
Visual art branched into personal expression. The artist’s perception of reality took precedence over universal truths (mythical emphasis) and community values (classical emphasis). Architecture stopped reflecting society and became an art of its own.
Change Catalyst 3: Photography/Videography
Film transformed communication from a system of symbols that represented reality to actual snapshots of reality. This reinforced the notion that everyone has a limited perspective—the same scene from two separate angles will often look irreconcilably different—and feeds directly into postmodernism. Neil Postman tackles the subject at length in Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Stage 4: Chaotic (~1950 to Present)
Neither reason nor emotion can replace a foundation of religion and philosophy, so our civilization has collapsed. Meaninglessness (nihilism), the absurd (subjectivity), the pursuit of pleasure (hedonism), and the denial of objective reality (postmodernism) abound. Contemporary art responds to this existential crisis.
Literature has become intensely personal and sometimes borders on being ridiculous—or, far more commonly, is designed for amusement. While it may occasionally grapple with deep topics, it no longer resolves them.
The visual arts show humanity’s internal reality instead of external reality. Architecture either displays absurdist tendencies or focuses on comfort and utility.
In general, all art forms have descended toward pure entertainment, unlike the previous stages, in which such a purpose was considered degrading. Unfortunately, the majority of “high art” that attempts to balance this trend is so hyper-subjective that it cannot be a true antidote.
Applying the Theory
After journeying through the history of Western art, you may be wondering how it enhances worldbuilding.
Studying the patterns of change in the real world offers an advantage. We can either follow those patterns as speculative fiction writers to give the impression of realism, or we can purposefully deviate to make a point. Moreover, we’ll be able to deal with cultures that are fundamentally different from Western civilization—or human civilization entirely. But we can also utilize this theory in specific ways, and I’ll outline three of them.
1. Determine How the Stage of the Culture Impacts Its Art
Before worldbuilding, take a moment to pinpoint which of the four stages your story is in. How do the people communicate? Do they have a writing system, and if so, how popular is it? Or is everything verbal? The answers to those questions will inform where you place your culture on the timeline of growth. Some details will be irrelevant to readers, but as the author, you need to trace where your culture has been in the past, where it is now, and where it will go in the future.
Is the culture aging? Then be sure to convey a sense of discord, existential angst, and art fixated on progress, self, or the search for meaning. Come up with two opposing artistic movements and see what happens.
For example, a famous young painter may recreate classical artwork in a style that subversively mocks the originals and instigates the destruction or defacing of ancient monuments in his city. Such an extreme anti-classical movement would likely foster enough pushback to spur a revival of classical emphases in other regions. The result is a nation divided over artistic traditions and re-interpretations.
Once you’ve positioned your culture on the timeline, tie it to the past. Your culture’s modern art should contain characteristics of previous works or continue a tradition. While this sounds like a daunting task, it will make your worldbuilding more unique and evocative.
Remember that the pattern is more important than the details. Change follows patterns, and if we learn to recognize them, we’ll be better equipped to craft rich and intriguing cultures.
2. Consider How Specific Elements Could Alter Artistic Development
The ripple effect from one small (or big) factor can give your setting a ring of truth that will captivate readers. Furthermore, it will inspire them to meditate on the ideas behind both the story and the culture.
For instance, maybe your magic system allows writing to be recorded and copied from the beginning of human history. This births your culture with the communication technology of the intellectual stage but the youth of the mythical. Art would likely enmesh myths and religion into a highly complex, philosophical worldview. Stories and architecture would probably be structurally intricate, timeless, and adhere to objective standards for beauty.
C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Till We Have Faces demonstrate this flavorful blend of mythology and religion.
3. Consider How Clashes Between Cultures of Different Stages Would Affect Art
Imagine the changes that would occur if an alien culture in the mythical stage encountered an established culture on the verge of collapse. The infant culture would suddenly face the ideas, technology, and problems of an advanced (and decaying) culture, with only mythical traditions, religion, and community values to combat it. The older generation would cling to ancient customs while the younger generation would be more openminded. The aged culture might adopt the art of the infant culture and treat it as a curiosity.
A real-world analogy would be Europe’s conquest of America—or any colonization throughout history. Usually the younger culture gradually loses strength and merges with the lifecycle of the older culture. But what if instead the younger culture rejected the technology and corruption and prevailed? I think this would be a fascinating possibility to explore, and I bet readers would enjoy the ride.
Whatever you do, remember that cultures are not static, and art constantly fluctuates. To represent either as immobile is simplistic, boring, and unrealistic. Artistically dynamic cultures may be harder to write, but they’re infinitely more compelling.
When we evaluate the ingredients of a strong story, plot is essential. Characters give hands and feet to the big questions we’re asking (or answering). But art opens a whole new avenue to subtly explore a story’s themes—all while building a robust setting.
So play with these four stages and see what events, individuals, or mindsets might cause artistic traditions to develop in diverse ways. A few what-if questions can act as a launchpad. Run with the ideas that come, and bring your fictional cultures to the next level of relevance and magnificence.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.