The ‘killer myth’: the fallacy of progress in the arts

In the last century, very often the concept of ‘progress’ was projected upon the arts as a measurement of quality: ‘good art’ was ‘progressive art’: if an artist did not commit some ‘groundbreaking’ artistic deed, his work was considered worthless. While progress in science is a fundamental notion, in the arts it is meaningless, because the nature of art has nothing to do with progress. There may be progress in terms of physical means, like the types of pigment used in painting that got more stable in the last century, or the availability of relatively cheap music notation paper during the 19C industrial revolution, or iron fittings in architecture to vault bigger spaces. Also the discovery of perspective by Bruneleschi in the 15th century was something of progress, like the invention of the ‘sfumato’ brushwork Leonardo da Vinci developed, and which gave painters the opportunity to create a hazy atmosphere on the canvas. But expression, artistic vision, the quality of execution has never been dependent upon the physical means of an art form: Vermeer has not been superseded – in terms of artistic quality – by Picasso or Pollock, Bach not by Mahler or Boulez, Michelangelo not by Giacometti or Moore, Palladio not by Gropius and Le Corbusier. And we can appreciate the brilliance of the ‘primitive’ masters of Flanders, who lived before the great surge of 16C inventions in Italian painting, as we can the music of Palestrina who had no clue of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin, simply because he lived in an earlier time.

Because of addressing itself to our most sensitive aesthetic receptivity, the successful work of art – successful in the sense of achieving artistic greatness – lifts itself from its physical ‘body’ and becomes ‘timeless’: because of addressing universal capacities of the human mind and heart, it ‘speaks’ to us over distances of time and place. Great art is aspirational, i.e. it represents the best of the human species and stimulates the development of our inner experience of and reflection upon our life; great art is a symbol, a mirror of and a stimulus for the human condition. Of course not all art aspires to that height, but the best works offer something of a focus point, an ideal, and an instrument of quality assessment; gifted artists attempt to emulate the great works of contemporaries and of the masters of the past, and try by hard work to get the best out of their talents. The serious and gifted artist will not look at ephemeral fashions, but will try to get at the heart of his art form, and will look for the best instruments available to realize his vision. It will be clear that all this has nothing to do with the intention to be ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’; already by fact, the artist is always contemporary, whatever he tries to do. Artists who try to be ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’, i.e. try to be consciously and intentionally ‘of their time’, betray their superficiality and lack of substance – and their attempts as a cover-up of an empty space.

In the same way, serious artists do not try to be ‘conservative’, as a conscious attempt to affiliate themselves with groups or movements in the art world for opportunistic reasons. J.S. Bach was considered ‘conservative’ in his own time, since other composers were exploring very different paths after the ‘strict’ Baroque style which they considered outdated. But Bach, about whom there is no evidence that he considered himself to be a conscious ‘conservative’, created new music based upon that style, found many new ways of combining things, filtering them through his own superb musical personality and thereby giving them a fullness of life which, with hindsight, looks like a last overwhelming sigh of the Baroque period in which all strands that made up its language, found an apotheosis. (Of course, at the time the word ‘Baroque’ as applied to music did not exist; we use it here for convenience’s sake.) In comparison with the then new styles, Bach found the possibilities he discovered in older styles much more interesting than the new, fashionable and more naive way of composing, and rightly so: how could he have known the miraculous synthesis a Mozart or a Beethoven was going to create? Their precursors – contemporaries of Bach – were interesting, but by far not as interesting as what Bach was doing, or what Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven were going to do.

While the concepts of ‘progressiveness’ and ‘conservatism’ have thus no meaning in the arts, it is nonetheless true that the art forms developed, and were in constant flux, under the influence of the many diverse artistic personalities, circumstances, social contexts and the like. The current situation in both the visual arts and in (serious) music is not the result of a linear, ‘progressive’ development in the various art forms, but of the flow of a broad delta that spread its many streams since the bedding of traditional art gradually lost its more or less stable form after the demise of the Ancien Régime. The liberation of the bourgeoisie brought with it the liberation of the artists, patronage was gradually replaced by a market, and in the enthusiasm of free exploration – often against the constraints of bourgeois tastes – the arts found their stasis after World War II in the various forms of modernism. Concept art and concept music (atonal music: sonic art) became the established forms of ‘new art’ in the Western world, in Europe supported by the state and the educational institutions, while in America private funding took on the role of mecenas. And in the 20th century, it has been the myth of ‘progress’ which has propelled these developments, like a wind blowing the many little streams of the delta upon a barren coast of stone and sand where only the sea of oblivion would wash away their products, which were often merely the wreckage of artistic failure if seen from the point of view of the highest achievements of the art of the past. Modernism and conceptualism in the arts (including its watered-down progeny) never strove after artistic greatness; this explains its gradual disappearance in both the visual arts and music.

We can also translate the term ‘progressiveness’ as ‘innovation’: artists who seem to invent something that has not been before, are often considered ‘greater’ than artists, who seem to have been content with available materials and styles. But this is a relative new phenomenon: in pre-revolutionary times, say the 18th and 17th century, there were no discussions about ‘innovation’, ‘progressiveness’, ‘exploration’ and the like, as they popped-up during the 19th century and got riotous in the 20th. Did those artists not explore and invent? Of course they did, but not intentionally so. Invention and exploration where the result of their artistic efforts, not a conscious goal. They tried to create good art, and if they had something of a personal signature, they automatically transformed the available materials and styles into something personal. That is why we immediately can recognize the personal styles of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, Velasquez, Caravaggio, etc. while they used the same visual ‘language’. Innovation had always been a natural part of the artists’ craft, they did not need to turn it into a banner or a marketing device. So, great art is always innovative, but not in the way innovation has meaning in science: in art, innovation is personal, temporal, and not part of a movement, of a communal enterprise where the boundaries are explored as part of a common attempt to liberate the arts from dominating restrictions.

The myth of progressiveness and conscious innovation as it raged in the last century, had the unfortunate effect of giving teeth to the philistines: people in establishment positions used it to make distinctions in terms of quality which had nothing to do with real artistic quality, resulting in the nonsense of concept art (where an unmade bed wins the Turner Prize) and of sonic art (where indigestion noises are dressed-up as music). It also had the effect of reinforcing suspicions about art which still adhered to older notions of artistic value and meaning: they were seen as expressions of an elitist and conservative culture attempting to suppress the tastes of the masses, as remnants of undemocratic and unjust times where hierarchical thinking led to authoritarian, arbitrary violence. To many people, the notion of artistic quality became tainted with associations with totalitarian regimes, crime, injustice, especially since Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia showed how classical art could be misused as instruments of legitimization of criminal governments.

And here we have arrived at a very sensitive problem and paradox of the arts of today. Official, established modern art and modern music are supposed to reflect free, modern times, occupying different spaces than those of pre-modern art which is safely locked-up in the museums and in the concert halls and opera houses dedicated to classical music. What is considered ‘classical’ art nowadays, hardly ever was considered so in the time of its conception. It has become ‘classical’ since modernism became the ‘official’ new art of the 20th century, to define the difference between that what was, and that what is – the art of former generations who still suffered from a hierarchical society and the art of today, of us, who are liberated and enjoy the luxury of a progressive, egalitarian society where everything is valued by its own intentions, and where hierarchical quality norms have vanished because of being elitist, suppressive, etc. etc. And yet, a great majority of people with enough developed sense of the artistic to understand and appreciate the great art of the past, flock to the great collections as enshrined in the big museums like the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Uffizi, and to the concert halls and opera houses, to taste the thrills of what dead white males from undemocratic times had invented. This ‘old art’ has not naturally developed into the modern art of today, but forms an altogether different world of sensibilities. The upheavals of two world wars and industrialization, together with fundamental cultural shifts in society, play a crucial role in the appearance of this rift in creative thinking, of which the roots can be found in the 19th century. Eyes and ears educated on the best of what any art form has to offer, will not fail to see and hear the difference between ‘old art’ and ‘new art’. This is not ‘conservatism’, since that does not exist in the arts, but a normal observation supported by experience. And very much ‘new art’ is, by any standard, simply not good – at least, it fails abysmally in comparison with the best art of former ages.

It is a mistake to see criticism of modern art as a bourgeois defense reaction against modernity, since the bourgeois society which protested against the impressionists and against Debussy and Schönberg, no longer exists. If we could not criticize ‘modern art’ in our own day, there would not exist any bad modern art, because how could we know? Therefore, we should feel free to criticize inferiority where we find it, trusting that indeed there are general, objective norms and standards for artistic quality and talent, even if they cannot be precisely formulated: all great art of the past has been created on this assumption, thereby empirically proving the fact (that these norms change over time does not refute the idea that indeed there are norms). In the same way, we know that something like ‘love’ does indeed exist, although it is impossible to formulate the phenomenon in such a way as to arrive at an objective, testable description, as in science, and in spite of the different forms in which love manifests itself, in other places, other times, other cultures. Also we have an inborn sensitivity to aesthetic quality, which is (to name an example) otherwise expressed in the intentions to create our living areas in such a way that we feel comfortable therein. Beauty – which had always been a natural part of any work of art – is not persé kitsch or Adorno’s ‘false consciousness’ (how could he know?), but an indication of a higher vision of life, and therefore of importance for what we best call the human condition.

‘Old art’ and ‘old music’ still ‘speaks’ to us, because it has universal qualities, transcending time and place. That is the reason behind the iconic value conferred to the great ‘old’ collections in the museums, and the ‘old’ repertoire fêted in the ‘traditional’ concert halls and opera houses. In fact, this ‘old art’ is not old at all, but contemporary for ever, because of its great qualities which can be interpreted again and again by every generation. There is an interaction happening between the living generation and the voices which come to us from the past, a dialogue, and this dialogue is ever new. Concept art and sonic art, whenever attempting to be serious, could create a similar dialogue, but it is different in nature because these art forms have different ‘messages’. Often these messages reflect a negative outlook upon human life, contemporary times, human nature. No doubt, these criticisms have a rightful place in our society, but they should not be seen as natural descendents of the art of former times. Concept art and sonic art are something really new, like photography developing alongside painting in the 19th century. To call concept / sonic art the result of progress and thereby implying that it is just the old art but developed towards and into modernity, is denying the newness of these new art forms altogether. Let it be new, but don’t let it be art in the sense of art of former times. The fact that ‘old art’ and ‘old music’ is still of great importance to us, keeps it new, and presents it as an alternative to what is nowadays establishment modern art and music. Would it not be great if contemporary artists would try to emulate the ‘old art’ and pick-up former artistic values and norms and develop them according to their own insights and life experiences? And indeed, that is already happening for many years: new figurative painting enjoys a renaissance, as does new tonal music based upon ‘traditional’ values. These are not conservative movements but fully modern, contemporary art forms that give the lie to the outdated myth of progressiveness and innovation for its own sake. Are these art forms dull, imitative, derivative, nostalgic recollections of times which have long past? By no means. In contrary, compared to establishment modern art and modern music they are a breath of fresh air, since they explore techniques, values and aesthetics which – as we have seen – are not restricted to time and place and are thus universally valid and renewable.

There is a good reason why a Jackson Pollock or an Andy Warhol is not hung next to a Velasquez or a Manet or (even) a Dali, and why there are museums exclusively dedidated to modern art, as there are ‘modern music festivals’ and specialized ensembles and concert venues exclusively dedicated to ‘modern music’, which is mostly sonic art or derivations from pop or ‘world music’. They form a different field of sensibilities and aesthetic values which would rightly be experienced as an intrusion from outside within the context of ‘old’ art and music. But new figurative art mixes very well with the ‘old’ collections, as new classical music fits very well in a regular, classical music programme in a classical concert hall. There is a continuum that naturally flows from the first figurative art and tonal music, till and including new figurative art and new tonal music. The element that unites all the different forms of these arts is mimesis, the old Greek concept of art as representing, and interpreting, reality as experienced by man, including the stirrings of the inner life, and which is realized with means that make use of the forms of perceived reality – in the case of visual art – and means that metaphorically reflect emotional experiences in the case of music. (Mimesis was first formulated by Aristotle.) Thus the visual arts include elements of visual reality, but great art never merely imitates it (as the many religious works amply attest); in music, the flow of lines and the changes in harmony reflect the movements of the emotions, while never merely imitating them (which would result in directionless utterances). In both the visual arts and in music, human experience is stylized in an aesthetic, imagined space, which gives these experiences a meaning and quality on a higher level than when experienced ‘in the raw’. This explains the stimulating effect of great art: it transcends the earthly level of our life into a higher realm, and thus ennobles it, even where the experiences as such are not pleasant at all (like the numerous crucifixions in religious art, which can be considered fairly regular human experiences symbolically re-enacted in mythological form). This transcending quality can, most of the time, not be found in establishment ‘modern art’ and ‘modern music’: they have very different aims.

New mimetic art explores meaning, value, and beauty as universal qualities of the human condition. It exists next to modernism in all its forms, not in opposition but as a fruitful alternative after more than half a century of celebration of negation of universal values. What is progress? In culture, and especially in high culture, progress is the attempt to make something better, which implies hierarchical thinking: if there is something better, this means that there is also something worse. In the Italian Renaissance, artists strove after making things better, to paint better, to build better, to compose better (read Giorgio Vasari’s ‘The Lives of the Artists’). In their time, they were modern as a result of the intention to be better, not the other way around as in the last century. And they choose as a measurement of quality the art of antiquity: a thing of the past. Eventually, in their intoxicating self-confidence, they tried to surpass the art of antiquity – which shows their freedom in interpreting their examples. At the end of the 17th century a discussion ensued in France – then in the forefront of contemporary, modern, backwards looking art – about the question, whether ‘the moderns’ were better than the ‘old’ or not, the ‘querelle des anciens et des modernes’. This would have been unthinkable in the 20th century…. when being ‘better’ was, under the delusion of the myth of historical progress, considered the result of being ‘modern’.

Of course Vasari was wrong to think that art of earlier times than his own was ‘less good’ than the works of his contemporaries: Mantegna is not superseded, in artistic terms, by Leonardo or Raphael. It was the means that became available to artists, which got better, not the qualities of artistic vision. The point is, that developments on the material level are something different from the psychological / aesthetic level of art; what a work of art ‘says’ is something different from the materials in which it is ‘said’. If ‘progress’ is used in reference to the material level, more possibilities become available to the artist; if the term is projected upon the artistic vision itself (the psychological and aesthetic level), and on top of that put in a linear historical perspective, as happened in the 20th century, artistic possibilities will eventually diminish. And that is what we have seen in the last 50 years. The obligation to be ‘modern’ closes-off the arsenal of means that developed in the past, with the result that the range of possibilities becomes ever narrower. And in the end, all available material means seem to be ‘exhausted’, since the artist looks upon the material level as the most important one.

The modernist composer György Ligeti said in an interview that he felt imprisoned between, on one hand, the past, and on the other, modernism – the avantgarde which he himself had helped into being but felt he had somehow to transcend because ‘being progressive’ meant, to him, to ‘go forward’ all the time on the line of historical development. For Ligeti, modernism had become petrified into a mentality which had to be ‘overcome’, had to be ‘surpassed’ along the line from past to future – but in which direction? The artists of the Renaissance (and of later times during the ancien régime) never got into such dead-end street because learning from examples and freely delve into the material means of the past protected them from a historical, linear perspective. They tried to create good art and, if possible, to emulate or surpass the works of other artists, be them in the past or in the present. While trying to create good art, the past was always there to be of help and support. They never felt ‘threatened’ by the art of the past because their awareness of being ‘modern’ was not in opposition to it. This freedom of thought made infinite exploration and variation possible.

From 1648 till 1665, Amsterdam built its new, ‘modern’ town hall. It had to express the power, wealth and importance of the capital of the United Provinces of the Netherlands at the climax of what later generations called the ‘Golden Age’ of Holland. Amsterdam was built with small, individual houses in the traditional gable style in brown brick and / or wood, along small streets and a network of canals (which would be extended over the years). But this new, central building had to be different and as modern as possible, i.e. underlining the present as something of a higher order than the past in which the town had developed, because Amsterdam’s glory was a thing of the present, not of the past. The style chosen was Italian classicism, at the time considered most up-to-date and modern in the sense of ‘the best’, forming a stark contrast to the other, older architecture of the town. So, the new town hall was supposed to be ‘better’ than the recent past and the way to achieve this, was to hark back to an older past, as was then the contemporary way of thinking: people could explore the past as a treasure trove of possibilities and choose what they thought of as ‘the best’. In the Amsterdam of the 17th century, ‘the best’ was represented by an architectural style which recreated the grandeur and spaciousness, plus the rich ornamentation, of Roman antiquity; the classicist Italian Renaissance tradition fulfilled that requirement in an excellent way, according to the city council and the architect, Jacob van Campen. (It must have been a very expensive undertaking, since the lightish natural stone and the sparkling marble had to be imported from abroad, Holland being a country of clay and sand.) Following the same line of thought in which past and present share a continuum from which can be freely chosen, the dome of Rome’s Saint Peter was modeled upon the Pantheon, the famous circular temple of Roman antiquity. The building of Saint Peter was by far the most spectacular building adventure of the 16th century, and again: the most ‘modern’ in the old sense. The invention of the opera – a totally new idea at the time – was born from the attempt to recreate the theatre plays of Greek antiquity. These rather random examples reflect a very different interpretation of the concept of modernity than was custom in the last century, and an interpretation which did not see a conflict between past and present: instead of a myth of progressiveness and modernity it was a myth of a golden age in the past which stimulated new creation. It was idealistic nostalgia which spurred artistic developments, with innovation as a result of a universal vision of the arts as a timeless continuum where works of art from the past interact with art of the present, and in which examples stimulated emulation and thus created an endless progeny of great works. This continuum is best described as ‘classical’, not in the sense of ‘old’ and ‘bygone’, but as a formulation of a continuity which does not hamper new innovation and personal interpretation, but instead stimulates personal creation under the influence of examples which provide standards of excellence. In this sense, new classical art is a continuation of the great tradition of European art of the past, as a living process of continuous renewal and interpretation – but without the delusions of progressiveness and modernity as a goal to strive after consciously.

To which extent is new classical art, because of its focus on examples, derivative? What do we mean with the term derivative? If we mean thereby an art which is a mere imitation of what already has been ‘said’, the term can be applied to any art, of any time and place. But even ‘derivativeness’ should not be considered as a mere negative quality, as the art of old Egypt amply shows, where repetition was de rigueur. Individual freedom of the artist, as developed in Europe over the ages, is a great good, as it created the possibility of multiple variation. But individuality which becomes so personal that it has no meaning for other people, results in the void of pointlessness. Art needs a continuum of works of art which refer to each other, as to create a framework of meaning, value and norms, against which personal originality can stand-out. New classical art is an attempt to restore something of this framework, which existed before the emergence of modernism, and which now – in the 21st century – offers the best hope for renewal of the arts. New classical artists, both in the visual arts and in music, do not imitate, but apply mimetic ‘languages’ to express individual experience, and this experience is inevitably contemporary. That these ‘languages’ freely take their means from traditional mimetic art forms, is perfectly natural, as Renaissance artists looked towards antiquity to develop their skills and personal styles.

Classicism, thus interpreted, may become the landmark of artistic innovation in our own time: interpretation of the past as a contemporary exploration, and a liberation from the restricting myth of modernity in the arts which has created so much confusion and havoc in the last century.

(The philosophical and aesthetic implications of the different interpretations of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ can be found in ‘The Classical Revolution’, described elsewhere on this site.)

 John Borstlap / 2013


Addition September 2015:

Interestingly, in May 2015 the Donauesschingen Festival – famous / notorious for its celebration of sonic art – was dedicated to the subject of how new music could be best inflicted upon the young, still unspoilt by cultural awareness. One of the organizers mentioned the sad fact that some schoolteachers resisted the idea that sonic art should be fed to innocent children, and this attitude was considered ‘conservative’, but fortunately, they could be gradually converted because new music is, after all, great fun. Here we see a good example of the deep misunderstanding that there is something like ‘progress’ in art, in music, and that resistance to ‘progress’ and a critical stance towards nonsense is ‘conservatism’. In such context, anything can be used to prepare new generations for cultural illiteracy and create barriers for the classical performance culture.

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