Is Art Better?

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.

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11 responses to “Is Art Better?

    • Kalani

      True, if you go back far enough there are differences. On the other hand, I’m sure there are many who would say that the cave paintings are no less artistic than much of art today and much “primitive” art is highly sought after. I’m not sure new techniques and materials translate into higher quality when it comes to assessing art.

      But let’s say for the sake of this discussion we limit ourselves to the last 500 years. Comparing progress in the quality of art to progress in other areas over that period seems to reveal a significant difference.

  1. i’m not so sure. things were redefined from an epistemological approach to a rational approach during the enlightment. so instead of trying to define terms which led to hopeless conundrums, people started defining concepts. a lot of the paradoxes were resolved because concepts aren’t designed to apply to every imaginable situation. this had huge ramifications for art, philosophy, science, politics. the mind body problems still in the state descartes left it. but sticking to art things quickly went from trying to depict what we thought was reality to trying to depict how humans saw reality and what it meant to be human.

    a lot of art was keeping in step with technological and philosophical developments. just the past two hundred years we’ve seen several distinct art movements that progressed along with a better understanding of the world and human nature. they didn’t paint trains and write blues songs about riding trains before the train was invented for example. the unique freedoms people enjoy now a days that were earned through struggle didn’t exist in the u.s. until fifty years ago. art definitely progressed along with this popular mass movement. to say there’s a connection with artists from the past might be true within extremely narrow constraints ignoring a lot of historical and documentary evidence. it’s like saying musicians have a connection with other musicians from a few hundred years ago simply because they make music. superficially this is true but upon further investigation the comparison collapses and very real and distinct differences are found to exist.

  2. I found this blog fascinating. The more I thought about it, the more art over the years, decades, and even centuries, seems to simply be more like a “revisiting” than a striving to vastly improve how we interpret, or depict our notion of “art”. No matter how unique we strive to be in our artistic expression, and the newer tools we use to do so, we’re still paying homage to all the elements that make art.. art. The same elements from so many many years ago.
    And what a wonderful thought Bob, that because this is true, each artist today is connected to all the greats throughout history. Awesome.

    • I like the idea of “revisiting” – there are certainly many examples of artists revisiting similar themes, subject matter, and concepts over and over. The same and yet new.

  3. Your last paragraph brought to mind a quote from Ansel Adams:

    “These people live again in print as intensely as when their images were captured on old dry plates of sixty years ago… I am walking in their alleys, standing in their rooms and sheds and workshops, looking in and out of their windows. And they in turn seem to be aware of me.” – Ansel Adams

  4. I like the thought process behind the idea that art through the years is not linear— I think it is circular– themes and ideas coming round and back again– but changing as well like that T.S. Eliot quote.

    • I wonder if some people are circular and some linear in nature? I know many people who apply the circular notion to many areas of their lives, others who perhaps find that a frustrating notion.

  5. I believe it is talent and technique, over tools anytime.

    Having seen both Avatar and Michelangelo’s sculptures in Italy, I’m struck by the similarities. Both are faithful representations of the human form.

    What Mike did with stone, hammer and chisel, 600 years ago, has just now been equaled by computer. Albeit animated, I give you that. But still 60 years of computer development. Probably tens of thousands of programmers by now working toward this achievement. $300 million bucks just for the one picture!

    Seems like that old Mike guy really “rocked” if you pardon the pun.

    • Bob

      I love it! First time I’ve seen Avatar and Michelangelo compared directly. Seems like “Mike’s” work has held up well against overwhelming odds – I wonder what he’d think of all this imaging wizardry?

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