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Does art progress? Theodore Dalrymple has his doubts

One often hears of ‘cutting-edge’ art; indeed, the much older term, avant garde, is of the same ilk. This suggests that there is progress in the arts, as there is in science, and that what comes after must, in some sense, be better than what came before. Art has some kind of destination, with later artists further along the road to it than earlier.

In science, progress is a fact (except for the most extreme of epistemological sceptics, none of whom, nevertheless, would be entirely indifferent as to whether their surgeon used the surgical techniques of, say, the 1830s, rather than those of this century). The most mediocre bacteriologist alive today knows incomparably more that did Louis Pasteur or Robert Koch, for example; the most mediocre physics graduate knows incomparably more than Sir Isaac Newton ever did. This is because scientific knowledge is cumulative. But no one would suggest that the paintings of Rothko were better than those, say, of Chardin because he lived a long time after Chardin, and that Chardin’s were better than those of Velasquez for the same reason.

Art teachers and critics use the false analogy with science in order to deny the importance of tradition in artistic production. They do not realise that science is entirely dependent on tradition for its progress. It is not just that most competent scientists know a lot about the history of their subject, but that the very problems that they set about solving, their entire mental worlds, are inherited by them. No scientist has to discover everything anew for himself: no mind, however great, is expected to begin again from zero. Tradition is the precondition of progress, not its antithesis or enemy.

The comparison of art with science isn’t entirely convincing. One could argue, at least notionally, that the destination of science - its conclusion, as it were – would be a complete explanation of the entire physical universe, including the people in it who happen to ponder such things. It’s a pretty fanciful idea, perhaps, but a comprehensible one. But what would an analogous artistic destination be - a work of such staggering beauty that those who see it burst into tears and die contentedly?

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