On Progress in the Arts

Note: This page is part of the archives of the Phrontistery, but is no longer being updated.

	The question of whether there is progress in the fine arts, 
including literature, visual art and music, is the subject of much 
tension between the generations.  On the one hand, there is a 
traditionalist element which reveres the “masters” and their 
achievements.  In its extreme form, this principle sees a Rousseauian 
fall from grace as characteristic of human achievement and progress.  In 
general, such views are the cause of the frequent rejection of new forms 
of music by each successive generation.  On the other hand, there is a 
more progressive school which holds that art forms can and do get better 
as the accumulated wealth of generations is absorbed by each new 
tradition.  This “evolutionary” trend, while not inevitable, is 
continuous, but, somewhat paradoxically, relies on the existence of 
continuity from earlier generations.   There is an evident trend in that 
each generation of youth rejects the music of the previous one, while 
the older generation derogates new music in very harsh terms.  This 
phenomenon requires explanation, and leads further to the question of 
which one of these views may be more correct. 

	I should emphasize that I can see no clear correlation between 
holding the one or the other of these viewpoints and broader ideological 
concerns.  Although traditionalism is normally equated with 
conservatism, there is, I think, greater support for classical music 
from the left than the right, and the same could probably be said for 
the other fine arts.  It would be extremely suspicious indeed to assert 
the existence of a correlation between leftist views and, for instance, 
heavy metal music.  Granted, then, that musical preference and political 
ideology are relatively independent, we are still left with the problem 
of determining which of these views might be closer to the truth.  I am 
also not convinced that changes in musical quality can be explained by 
referring to the development of artistic technology.  Clearly, new 
inventions give artists greater freedom of expression by increasing the 
number of potential media - from air-brushes to morphing and from the 
Bach trumpet to electronic synthesizers.  Still, the more fundamental 
question is whether, given the same piano, Mozart and Ellington are on 
the same level.  Such processes seem to me to reveal an entirely 
unrelated sort of artistic change.  

	A fundamental value which seems to have a fair degree of validity 
is the old adage “practice makes perfect”.  This phrase is, of course, a 
product of the fine arts.  What it implies, and what is often ignored by 
amateur critics, is that, in a very loose sense, time equals skill.  I 
suspect there would be little disagreement in the assertion that I, as 
one with no formal training, cannot produce art of the same quality as 
someone with twenty years’ experience.  Postmodern considerations of 
value aside, it is widely accepted that art forms are a skill which can 
be learned; experience counts for something; one expects to get better 
as one continues to practise the art form.  Raw prodigious talent, of 
course, can give someone an edge, so that the eight-year-old Mozart is 
often compared to an adult Salieri or Haydn.  But if it is not the case 
that hard work and effort are to be rewarded by an increase in ability, 
then we are faced with a number of insurmountable  problems. It is not 
my intention to go into a complete synopsis of the postmodern critique 
of art history and criticism herein.  It is worth discussing the degree 
to which our value system may be influenced by cultural prejudices and 
bias.  Still, accepting the validity of the critique does not prove, or 
even necessarily imply, that no objective criteria of value exist.

	However, if we accept this principle, we are led to a conclusion 
that many people, particularly anthropologists, are unwilling to reach.  
If it is the case that someone who practises ten hours a day will be 
quantitatively a better artist than one who only spends two hours, then 
artistic quality will be directly related to the ability of a society to 
extract surplus to enable artists to engage in non-productive 
activities.  It seems unlikely that if Mozart had been born into a non-
stratified society, even if he would have had the technological and 
theoretical know-how (a questionable assumption indeed), he still could 
have produced the same quantity and quality of musical output.  There 
may not have been enough hours in the day.

	But, too, we must recognize that free time is not the only 
consideration.  !Kung San hunter/foragers have much more free time than 
the average Westerner, and yet, without the resources to encourage 
artistic activity, it does not occur.  For instance, the use of 
perspective in art did not truly reach perfection until the Renaissance, 
when the system of tutoring and private patronage was coupled with 
increased knowledge of the physical world.  None of these things would 
be possible in most other social milieux.  Trying to play the 
Brandenburg Concertos on the bagpipes is, I think, a good way to 
disabuse oneself of the notion of the absolute relativity of artistic 

	One might still object that one can create more complex artistic 
forms within a stratified society, but that these are not truly “better” 
in a musical sense.  I cannot prove that there are any objective 
criteria by which to judge art.  I merely point out that this leads to 
some thorny problems.  One would no longer have to practice art, for the 
principle of ars gratia artis comes to assume utmost importance. 
Although there are those who insist that they judge art merely by their 
own personal preferences, not by any pre-set societal dogmata, it is 
notable both that one sees with remarkable consistency that large 
segments of the population of each generation seem to make the same 
choices, and that even the most anarchistic art lover has certain 
personal “rules”.  Contrary to popular belief, no one is so isolated 
from the rest of society that these rules can be independently invented.  
It is thus highly fallacious to assert that there are no principles of 
artistic evaluation; whether they truly exist is not the point, but 
rather that they exist in the minds of the audience, and thus cannot be 

	At this point, one might concede that artistic quality can only 
flourish in a society with sufficient free time to enable the production 
of art as a specialized craft, and also with the technology to produce 
adequate tools and instruments for its practice.  But, you might say, I 
have still not answered the more pressing question.  Is Bach better than 
the Beatles, or vice versa?  Clearly, continuing with the argument 
outlined above will get us nowhere, except to further cloud the issue.  
Such thinking leads inevitably to the conclusion that all music is 
artistically equal, a position which I have rejected above.

	Thus, I abandon the question of what specific rules are used to 
determine these choices, seeing as the answers are so problematic.  
Instead, let us examine more general historical principles by which art 
forms thrive and exist throughout generations, and by which they are 
viewed in retrospect.  In essence, I am saying that critiques which 
focus on specific styles or elements of art are asking the wrong 
questions, for they fail to use historical analysis.  And, since the 
questions we are dealing with are evolutionary in nature, they are 
inherently historical.

	My analysis focuses on the process of selection.  Selective 
processes are those by which certain things are preserved, others are 
transformed, and still others are eliminated.  In this respect, natural 
selection is a major sub-category of selection in general.  But clearly 
natural selection is not applicable to art, as there is no evident 
analogue for the concepts of organism, species, gene, reproduction or 
mutation when referring to artistic works.  But we can in another sense 
refer to the fitness of a work in terms of its survival through time.  
Here, I am referring not merely to the survival of a manuscript in 
someone’s attic, but rather to the retention of a work of art as a 
fundamental part of the culture.  The Mona Lisa is a classic example of 
a work which, I suspect, can be identified by name and artist by a large 
proportion of any Western society despite its great age.  Although music 
may not share the same name recognition (witness "the theme from 2001"
and the ever-popular "kill the wabbit") I suspect that many pieces of 
classical music are just as widely known.

	Survival is clearly not the only criterion that could be used 
to define artistic quality.  Its main advantage is that, unlike nearly 
every other relevant aspect of art, one can at least conceive of 
objectively determining survival durations.  The key word in the 
previous sentence is “relevant”.  Size is a relevant and quantifiable 
element of artworks, but I do not think that we would contend that 
bigger is better in this case.  Although bigger may indicate greater 
commitment to the art form, or greater creative ability, one can also 
paint a house, or produce an enormous opera which is pure schlock, 
without any real artistic talent.  

	Why, then, is survivability relevant to the question of quality?  
The answer, oddly, lies in the subjective nature of human perceptions.  
It is true that one person, in evaluating a work of art, cannot say 
objectively that one piece is better than another with any degree of 
accuracy, because of the subjective nature of such critiques.  But, when 
we take into account a large number of people, over a long period of 
time, then we have a large statistical sample of opinions.  If these 
opinions all share the same or similar conclusions, we can say that more 
people have appreciated A than B, given two works from the same time 
period, or that X% have appreciated A where only Y% have appreciated B, 
to compare two works from different periods.  Although the scenario I 
have presented will probably not be possible in numerical terms simply 
because of the lack of reliable information, there may be ways to 
extract popularity from extant historical records.

	But, I think, there is more to the question than merely 
comparing the total number of people who appreciate a certain art form 
or artist. In that case, we would have to argue that twentieth century art 
is better, simply on the basis that there are far more people around to 
appreciate it.  Demography does not seem a likely causative factor of 
artistic merit.  But, if we assume that people, in general, can 
apprehend merit to a certain extent (and I believe that they can, at 
least in general outline), then the art which they appreciate will be 
retained by them, mounted in their houses, used in their movie 
soundtracks, and so on.  

	More importantly, the legacy of that material will be passed
on to their offspring, who, while probably rejecting that art in their
youth, may find themselves returning to it as they age.  It is not because 
classical music was more popular in the 1930s than today that most opera 
buffs are over the age of fifty.  The staying power of washed-up 
operatic singers such as the T**** T***** (who shall remain nameless) 
shows, I think, that classical music has a great deal of staying power.  
When today’s seniors were young, they were not listening to the 
classics, but rather to big band, swing, and so on.  Rather, the 
retention of earlier music is a legacy which is inherited early, but 
which often does not express itself until later in life.

	At this point, the counterargument could be raised that, since 
each generation of artists builds its legacy on an ever-increasing and 
accumulating body of culture and knowledge, progress and improvement 
would counteract the effect of historical selection, thereby rendering 
modern art superior to the classics.  This is, of course, very difficult 
to assess from any standpoint.  If it is the case that each generation’s 
artists reject enough of earlier generations’ work that it must start 
from scratch, then it is fairly obvious that no real “standing on the 
shoulders of giants” can occur.  If, on the other hand, there is 
significant continuity (not necessarily in form, but almost certainly in 
technique) between generations, then there is a distinct possibility 
that progress is real in a meaningful sense.  This is a factual issue 
which, to my knowledge, no one has addressed.

	My conclusion, therefore, is as follows: On average,
Renaissance and Baroque art (the earliest periods for which a
significant body of music and visual art survives to the present)
which survive today will, on average, be better than the music and
art of the twentieth century.  This is not because the art is inherently
better, but merely that, because poor quality works have been selected
out over time, what remains is better on average.  This also means that,
for instance, my model is unable to predict whether Bach is better than
the Beatles.  The sort of trends I am talking about do not apply to single
artists, but rather to historical and technical clusters of artists.  It 
also implies that, somewhere among the art of every generation, there
will be masters who, due to historical recency, have not had the influence 
or longevity of earlier generations, but whose work is equally good.  The 
problem we now face is to discern who among current artists are likely 
to become tomorrow’s masters.

	In the end, however, doesn’t my position make me an elitist 
bastard?  Probably.  On the other hand, without getting into a debate 
over “high culture” and “popular culture”, it is probably likely that 
the cream rises to the top quickly enough that no particular variety of 
art consists purely of duds.  The one exception, of course, is country 
music, which is inspired by Satan and should be eliminated at all costs.  
At the same time, fans of modern music may take heart in one of two 
possibilities.  Firstly, one could argue, as I have alluded earlier, 
that because modern artists may pay greater homage to the masters than I 
have claimed, real “progress” in the average quality of each 
generation’s art may be a reality.  The second possibility is that, 
while accepting my argument, one could assert that his/her particular 
artistic tastes represent the finest of the generation, and that, 
centuries from now, the staying power of such art will be recognized.  
To this, I reply: Only time will tell.

Copyright 1997 Steve Chrisomalis.  This work may be downloaded for personal
reference but may not be redistributed or altered without permission.
Return to main page