THE MYTH OF PROGRESS IN THE ARTS
By John Bortslap.
( Painting: Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano sonata no 7, Op.10, no 3, 1798. Second movement- Largo e mesto. Acyrlics on canvas by EdwardianPiano).
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 paint, which became more stable in the last century, or the relatively cheap paper for musical notation that became available with the advent of the 19th century industrial revolution, or the iron fittings in architecture that allowed builders to vault bigger spaces.
The discovery of perspective by Bruneleschi in the 15th century was also something like progress, as was the‘sfumato’ brushwork developed by Leonardo da Vinci, which gave painters the means 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vision, the quality of execution has never been dependent upon the physical means of an art form: Vermeer has not been superseded in terms of artistic quality by Picasso or Pollock, Bach not by Mahler or Boulez, Michelangelo not by Giacometti or Moore, Palladio not by Gropius or Le Corbusier. And we can appreciate the brilliance of the “primitive” masters of Flanders, who lived before the great surge of 16th century inventions in Italian painting, just 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 it addresses itself to our most sensitive aesthetic receptivity, the successful work of art – the one that achieves artistic greatness – lifts itself from its physical “body” and becomes “timeless.” Because it addresses universal capacities of the human mind and heart, it “speaks” to us over distances of time and place. Great art is aspirational: it represents the best of the human species and it stimulates the development of our inner experience of and reflection upon life. Great art is a symbol for, a mirror of, and a stimulus to 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 both contemporaries and the masters of the past and they 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.” The artist is already and always necessarily contemporary, whatever he tries to do. Artists who try to be “progressive” or “modern” – i.e., who try to be consciously and intentionally “of their time” – betray their superficiality and lack of substance, and they betray their artistic efforts as attempts to cover-up an empty space.
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