fort point 3, photograph
“There is no progress in art, any more than there is in making love.”
– Man Ray
I found this quote in another essay by Robert Adams in Beauty in Photography called “Making Art New”. He discusses whether art in general has improved over time, which is an interesting question that I’ve never really considered.
It is certainly true that our own individual artmaking can (and hopefully does) improve over time. We acquire more technique and perhaps dive deeper into what inspires our art, making it more personal and meaningful. But can we say in the same way that the quality of art overall is better today than it was a century or two ago?
It’s a hard case to make when we consider some of the art of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cezanne, etc. Even in the highly technology laden art of photography, in which the technology has vastly improved to allow us to make new kinds of pictures, can we say that the work of Weston, Cartier-Bresson, or Stieglitz is not at least as good as anything being done today? They used much simpler tools but their results still achieved greatness.
In many ways, we can say we have made progress over past times – medicine, sports, and technology come to mind. But other areas, perhaps more representative of the essential aspects of being human, defy the notion of progress. Methods change, styles come and go, preferences vary, but the basic quality of what is produced in different times doesn’t follow any linear line of progress.
I like this about art – it connects me in a unique way with people from other times. If time travel were possible, we’d have more in common as a result of our art than many other aspects of our lives.