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  The Illusion of ProgressSaturday, May 25th, 2024  
by Kenyon Cox

Read before the joint meeting of The American Academy of Arts and Letters and The National Institute of Arts and Letters, December 13, 1912.

In these days all of us, even Academicians, are to some extent believers in progress. Our golden age is no longer in the past, but in the future. We know that our early ancestors were a race of wretched cave-dwellers, and we believe that our still earlier ancestors were possessed of tails and pointed ears. Having come so far, we are sometimes inclined to forget that not every step has been an advance and to entertain an illogical confidence that each future step must carry us still further forward; having indubitably progressed in many things, we think of ourselves as progressing in all. And as the pace of progress in science and in material things has become more and more rapid, we have come to expect a similar pace in art and letters, to imagine that the art of the future must be far finer than the art of the present or than that of the past, and that the art of one decade, or even of one year, must supersede that of the preceding decade or the preceding year, as the 1913 model in automobiles supersedes the model of 1912. More than ever before "To have done is to hang quite out of fashion," and the only title to consideration is to do something quite obviously new or to proclaim one's intention of doing something newer. The race grows madder and madder. It was scarce two years since we first heard of "Cubism" when the "Futurists" were calling the "Cubists" reactionary. Even the gasping critics, pounding manfully in the rear, have thrown away all impedimenta of traditional standards in the desperate effort to keep up with what seems less a march than a stampede.

But while we talk so loudly of progress in the arts we have an uneasy feeling that we are not really progressing. If our belief in our own art were as full-blooded as was that of the great creative epochs, we should scarce be so reverent of the art of the past. It is, perhaps, a sign of anæmia that we have become founders of museums and conservers of old buildings. If we are so careful of our heritage, it is surely from some doubt of our ability to replace it. When art has been vigorously alive it has been ruthless in its treatment of what has gone before. No cathedral builder thought of reconciling his own work to that of the builder who preceded him; he built in his own way, confident of its superiority. And when the Renaissance builder came, in his turn, he contemptuously dismissed all mediæval art as "Gothic" and barbarous, and was as ready to tear down an old façade as to build a new one. Even the most cock-sure of our moderns might hesitate to emulate Michelangelo in his calm destruction of three frescoes by Perugino to make room for his own "Last Judgment." He, at least, had the full courage of his convictions, and his opinion of Perugino is of record.

Not all of us would consider even Michelangelo's arrogance entirely justified, but it is not only the Michelangelos who have had this belief in themselves. Apparently the confidence of progress has been as great in times that now seem to us decadent as in times that we think of as truly progressive. The past, or at least the immediate past, has always seemed "out of date," and each generation, as it made its entrance on the stage, has plumed itself upon its superiority to that which was leaving it. The architect of the most debased baroque grafted his "improvements" upon the buildings of the high Renaissance with an assurance not less than that with which David and his contemporaries banished the whole charming art of the eighteenth century. Van Orley and Frans Floris were as sure of their advance upon the ancient Flemish painting of the Van Eycks and of Memling as Rubens himself must have been of his advance upon them.

We can see plainly enough that in at least some of these cases the sense of progress was an illusion. There was movement, but it was not always forward movement. And if progress was illusory in some instances, may it not, possibly, have been so in all? It is at least worth inquiry how far the fine arts have ever been in a state of true progress, going forward regularly from good to better, each generation building on the work of its predecessors and surpassing that work, in the way in which science has normally progressed when material conditions were favorable.

If, with a view to answering this question, we examine, however cursorily, the history of the five great arts, we shall find a somewhat different state of affairs in the case of each. In the end it may be possible to formulate something like a general rule that shall accord with all the facts. Let us begin with the greatest and simplest of the arts, the art of poetry.

In the history of poetry we shall find less evidence of progress than anywhere else, for it will be seen that its acknowledged masterpieces are almost invariably near the beginning of a series rather than near the end. Almost as soon as a clear and flexible language has been formed by any people, a great poem has been composed in that language, which has remained not only unsurpassed, but unequalled, by any subsequent work. Homer is for us, as he was for the Greeks, the greatest of their poets; and if the opinion could be taken of all cultivated readers in those nations that have inherited the Greek tradition, it is doubtful whether he would not be acclaimed the greatest poet of the ages. Dante has remained the first of Italian poets, as he was one of the earliest. Chaucer, who wrote when our language was transforming itself from Anglo-Saxon into English, has still lovers who are willing for his sake to master what is to them almost a foreign tongue, and yet other lovers who ask for new translations of his works into our modern idiom; while Shakespeare, who wrote almost as soon as that transformation had been accomplished, is universally reckoned one of the greatest of world poets. There have, indeed, been true poets at almost all stages of the world's history, but the pre-eminence of such masters as these can hardly be questioned, and if we looked to poetry alone for a type of the arts, we should almost be forced to conclude that art is the reverse of progressive. We should think of it as gushing forth in full splendor when the world is ready for it, and as unable ever again to rise to the level of its fount.

The art of architecture is later in its beginning than that of poetry, for it can exist only when men have learned to build solidly and permanently. A nomad may be a poet, but he cannot be an architect; a herdsman might have written the Book of Job, but the great builders are dwellers in cities. But since men first learned to build they have never quite forgotten how to do so. At all times there have been somewhere peoples who knew enough of building to mould its utility into forms of beauty, and the history of architecture may be read more continuously than that of any other art. It is a history of constant change and of continuous development, each people and each age forming out of the old elements a new style which should express its mind, and each style reaching its point of greatest distinctiveness only to begin a further transformation into something else; but is it a history of progress? Building, indeed, has progressed at one time or another. The Romans, with their domes and arches, were more scientific builders than the Greeks, with their simple post and lintel, but were they better architects? We of to-day, with our steel construction, can scrape the sky with erections that would have amazed the boldest of mediæval craftsmen; can we equal his art? If we ask where in the history of architecture do its masterpieces appear, the answer must be: "Almost anywhere." Wherever men have had the wealth and the energy to build greatly, they have builded beautifully, and the distinctions are less between style and style or epoch and epoch than between building and building: The masterpieces of one time are as the masterpieces of another, and no man may say that the nave of Amiens is finer than the Parthenon or that the Parthenon is nobler than the nave of Amiens. One may say only that each is perfect in its kind, a supreme expression of the human spirit.

Of the art of music I must speak with the diffidence becoming to the ignorant; but it seems to me to consist of two elements and to contain an inspirational art as direct and as simple as that of poetry, and a science so difficult that its fullest mastery is of very recent achievement. In melodic invention it is so far from progressive that its most brilliant masters are often content to elaborate and to decorate a theme old enough to have no history—a theme the inventor of which has been so entirely forgotten that we think of it as sprung not from the mind of one man, but from that of a whole people, and call it a folk-song. The song is almost as old as the race, but the symphony has had to wait for the invention of many instruments and for a mastery of the laws of harmony, and so symphonic music is a modern art. We are still adding new instruments to the orchestra and admitting to our compositions new combinations of sounds, but have we in a hundred years made any essential progress even in this part of the art? Have we produced anything, I will not say greater, but anything as great as the noblest works of Bach and Beethoven?

Already, and before considering the arts of painting and sculpture, we are coming within sight of our general law. This law seems to be that, so far as an art is dependent upon any form of exact knowledge, so far it partakes of the nature of science and is capable of progress. So far as it is expressive of a mind and soul, its greatness is dependent upon the greatness of that mind and soul, and it is incapable of progress. It may even be the reverse of progressive, because as an art becomes more complicated and makes ever greater demands upon technical mastery, it becomes more difficult as a medium of expression, while the mind to be expressed becomes more sophisticated and less easy of expression in any medium. It would take a greater mind than Homer's to express modern ideas in modern verse with Homer's serene perfection; it would take, perhaps, a greater mind than Bach's to employ all the resources of modern music with his glorious ease and directness. And greater minds than those of Bach and Homer the world has not often the felicity to possess.

The arts of painting and sculpture are imitative arts above all others, and therefore more dependent than any others upon exact knowledge, more tinged with the quality of science. Let us see how they illustrate our supposed law.

Sculpture depends, as does architecture, upon certain laws of proportion in space which are analogous to the laws of proportion in time and in pitch upon which music is founded. But as sculpture represents the human figure, whereas architecture and music represent nothing, sculpture requires for its perfection the mastery of an additional science, which is the knowledge of the structure and movement of the human body. This knowledge may be acquired with some rapidity, especially in times and countries where man is often seen unclothed. So, in the history of civilizations, sculpture developed early, after poetry, but with architecture, and before painting and polyphonic music. It reached the greatest perfection of which it is capable in the age of Pericles, and from that time progress was impossible to it, and for a thousand years its movement was one of decline. After the dark ages sculpture was one of the first arts to revive; and again it develops rapidly—though not so rapidly as before, conditions of custom and climate being less favorable to it—until it reaches, in the first half of the sixteenth century, something near its former perfection. Again it can go no further; and since then it has changed but has not progressed. In Phidias, by which name I would signify the sculptor of the pediments of the Parthenon, we have the coincidence of a superlatively great artist with the moment of technical and scientific perfection in the art, and a similar coincidence crowns the work of Michelangelo with a peculiar glory. But, apart from the work of these two men, the essential value of a work of sculpture is by no means always equal to its technical and scientific completeness. There are archaic statues that are almost as nobly beautiful as any work by Phidias and more beautiful than almost any work that has been done since his time. There are bits of Gothic sculpture that are more valuable expressions of human feeling than anything produced by the contemporaries of Buonarroti. Even in times of decadence a great artist has created finer things than could be accomplished by a mediocre talent of the great epochs, and the world could ill spare the Victory of Samothrace or the portrait busts of Houdon.

As sculpture is one of the simplest of the arts, painting is one of the most complicated. The harmonies it constructs are composed of almost innumerable elements of lines and forms and colors and degrees of light and dark, and the science it professes is no less than that of the visible aspect of the whole of nature—a science so vast that it never has been and perhaps never can be mastered in its totality. Anything approaching a complete art of painting can exist only in an advanced stage of civilization. An entirely complete art of painting never has existed and probably never will exist. The history of painting, after its early stages, is a history of loss here balancing gain there, of a new means of expression acquired at the cost of an old one.

We know comparatively little of the painting of antiquity, but we have no reason to suppose that that art, however admirable, ever attained to ripeness, and we know that the painting of the Orient has stopped short at a comparatively early stage of development. For our purpose the art to be studied is the painting of modern times in Europe from its origin in the Middle Ages. Even in the beginning, or before the beginning, while painting is a decadent reminiscence of the past rather than a prophecy of the new birth, there are decorative splendors in the Byzantine mosaics hardly to be recaptured. Then comes primitive painting, an art of the line and of pure color with little modulation and no attempt at the rendering of solid form. It gradually attains to some sense of relief by the use of degrees of light and less light; but the instant it admits the true shadow the old brightness and purity of color have become impossible. The line remains dominant for a time and is carried to the pitch of refinement and beauty, but the love for solid form gradually overcomes it, and in the art of the high Renaissance it takes a second place. Then light-and-shade begins to be studied for its own sake; color, no longer pure and bright, but deep and resonant, comes in again; the line vanishes altogether, and even form becomes secondary. The last step is taken by Rembrandt, and even color is subordinated to light-and-shade, which exists alone in a world of brownness. At every step there has been progress, but there has also been regress. Perhaps the greatest balance of gain against loss and the nearest approach to a complete art of painting were with the great Venetians. The transformation is still going on, and in our own day we have conquered some corners of the science of visible aspects which were unexplored by our ancestors. But the balance has turned against us; our loss has been greater than our gain; and our art, even in its scientific aspect, is inferior to that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

And just because there never has been a complete art of painting, entirely rounded and perfected, it is the clearer to us that the final value of a work in that art never has depended on its approach to such completion. There is no one supreme master of painting but a long succession of masters of different yet equal glory. If the masterpieces of architecture are everywhere because there has often been a complete art of architecture, the masterpieces of painting are everywhere for the opposite reason. And if we do not always value a master the more as his art is more nearly complete, neither do we always value him especially who has placed new scientific conquests at the disposal of art. Palma Vecchio painted by the side of Titian, but he is only a minor master; Botticelli remained of the generation before Leonardo, but he is one of the immortal great. Paolo Ucello, by his study of perspective, made a distinct advance in pictorial science, but his interest for us is purely historic; Fra Angelico made no advance whatever, but he practised consummately the current art as he found it, and his work is eternally delightful. At every stage of its development the art of painting has been a sufficient medium for the expression of a great man's mind; and wherever and whenever a great man has practised it, the result has been a great and permanently valuable work of art.

For this seems, finally, to be the law of all the arts—the one essential prerequisite to the production of a great work of art is a great man. You cannot have the art without the man, and when you have the man you have the art. His time and his surroundings will color him; his art will not be at one time or place precisely what it might be at another; but at bottom the art is the man and at all times and in all countries is just as great as the man.

Let us clear our minds, then, of the illusion that there is in any important sense such a thing as progress in the fine arts. We may with a clear conscience judge every new work for what it appears in itself to be, asking of it that it be noble and beautiful and reasonable, not that it be novel or progressive. If it be great art it will always be novel enough, for there will be a great mind behind it, and no two great minds are alike. And if it be novel without being great, how shall we be the better off? There are enough forms of mediocre or evil art in the world already. Being no longer intimidated by the fetich of progress, when a thing calling itself a work of art seems to us hideous and degraded, indecent and insane, we shall have the courage to say so and shall not care to investigate it further. Detestable things have been produced in the past, and they are none the less detestable because we are able to see how they came to be produced. Detestable things are produced now, and they will be no more admirable if we learn to understand the minds that create them. Even should such things prove to be not the mere freaks of a diseased intellect that they seem but a necessary outgrowth of the conditions of the age and a true prophecy of "the art of the future," they are not necessarily the better for that. It is only that the future will be very unlucky in its art.

Copyright, 1914, by Charles Scribner's Sons

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