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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 forms. 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 ignored. 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