• How progressive is art?

How progressive is art?


For a long time now, I have been thinking about possible progress in art. The reason for this arose from the constant talk of the existence of an "avant-garde" in current artistic production. This referred to people who allegedly initiated new, groundbreaking developments within the arts. The word "avant-garde" is a French military expression meaning a unit of troops marching in the vanguard. The avant-garde has never been a separate epoch of European culture. Today, avant-garde is generally used as a reflection on the shattering of traditional values with the "promise" of creating a new, altered catalogue of values or frame of reference to replace abandoned tradition.

I will return to this later in order to contrast avant-garde with the term "MODERN", which suggests something similar, but is actually connected with a completely different understanding.

Despite my preoccupation with this topic, it has become more difficult in recent weeks due to the war unleashed by Putin in Europe. Any progress, any idea of developing new forms of social life has been brought to an abrupt standstill by bombs. Instead of moving forward, we are falling backwards at least 70 years to the beginning of a time where the intention was to create stability in living conditions worldwide, in order to give people a chance for progressive developments, for example as Immanuel Kant says "... in progressing towards perfection... from the worse to the better," following a "hidden plan of nature that would lead to a perfect state in which man would be able to develop towards perfection”. Everything that has been achieved to date not only comes to a standstill as a result of the war, but also all the progress achieved in Europe and worldwide is lost. An unimaginable destruction of fundamental civilisational progress is currently taking place. We are standing at an important turning point, namely backwards.

In short, I am in an unstable state of mind and must try to regain ground that seems to have been lost. Therefore I would like to ask you, dear reader, for your understanding - for any possible weaknesses in the following essay, as it is currently not easy to think and write about progress. But perhaps it is not unimportant right now to formulate a feeling for the belief we have always associated with the idea of progress: our belief in progress!

The motto of the newly elected government of the Federal Republic of Germany already sounds like an echo from the past: Mehr Fortschritt wagen! (Dare to progress more!)

The development of adolescents is particularly tragic as they have to think about their future in a social environment that has long been characterised by a lack of orientation and has shown and taught far too few educational forms of life.

"Where does the ever-increasing dissatisfaction of young people with their condition come from, about which one hears so many complaints today? Surrounded by everything that flatters the senses, that entertains the mind, this elicits at most a momentary smile from them, but never fills the deadly emptiness they feel deep in their hearts."

I am inclined to put these words into the mouths of politicians today, but they come from the jurist Ludwig von Brockes (1767 - 1810), the friend of the poet Heinrich von Kleist (1777 - 1811), and ten years his senior, who wanted to point out that young people should be helped to find their destiny in bourgeois society "...as the first of all our wishes...".

Only education via the arts leads to this destiny against "the deadly emptiness in the heart." Unfortunately, it hardly takes place in educational institutions any more: to understand art as a form of human expression that cannot be circumvented. The total scientification of all areas of our lives is one of the catastrophic errors of modern times. For: "the truth of art prevents science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science preventsthe art from making itself ridiculous". (Georg Simmel 1858 - 1980)

The idea of progress and error

The belief in progress and the will to progress has always been accompanied by errors. Here I would like to name just one, because it became very popular and remains so to this day. It is the sentence of French philosopher, mathematician and scientist Rene Descartes (1596 - 1650): "cogito ergo sum". "I think, therefore I am." It was he who, in the early 17th century, postulated what was then regarded by all progressive, i.e. enlightened, contemporaries as the great wisdom of the century, and which has been drummed into the heads of pupils in schools for well over 300 years till today. According to this, being and thinking are identical. Rationality is everything! I think, therefore I am, leads to the fact that I cannot be a feeling human being, not an experiencing human being determined by the senses. To think is completely sufficient! Wrong: it must be: I am, and therefore I think, and that thanks to my senses.

People lost the insight that the human mind is limited and it needs to be broadened, namely through the arts. I am talking about the necessary aesthetic education, as an education of the feelings. We have criminally distanced ourselves from this and today treat the arts, above all the fine arts, in an economic context, which is always the end and goal of scientification: a market event that, like every market, extols material progress. In this mood, I now begin to address the question of progress in art.

How progressive is art?

Not only since Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882) presented his epoch-making theory of evolution on the course of human development to Homo Sapiens, have numerous researchers and scholars been concerned with questions of progress. Because his statement: "for knowledge itself is power”, (main work "Novum Organum”, 1620) has also remained a constant saying to this day, I mention one of the most famous masterminds, the English philosopher, statesman, but above all natural scientist Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626). Unfortunately, his very differentiated sentence was reduced to the short formula "knowledge is power"! This was then not infrequently misused out of this false understanding. Bacon was primarily concerned with the insights and methods of natural science, which should bring man to a higher state of existence: Knowledge and power coincide because ignorance of the cause also deceives about its effect. Less well known, but just as witty, is his humorous remark directed at the future: "Hope is a good breakfast, but a bad supper."

Human cognitive ability and creativity are seen as the basis for a desirable distance from nature to striving for an ideal society. Darwin primarily speaks of the development of the so-called "outer man". For Kant, "the release of man from the womb of nature" signifies progress in developmental terms, but a decline in moral terms. Since then, man has desired to resolve this contradiction by returning to his natural state. Reason, however, "does not permit him to return to the state of crudeness and simplicity from which it drew him." (Presumed Beginning of Human History, 1786)

Schiller attempts to resolve this contradiction in such a way that man, as a "free, rational spirit, should return to where he had started from as... a creature of instinct". (Something about the First Human Society, 1790)

Here we are talking about the search for the recovery of a harmony of nature and reason: an evolution of the "inner man", actually an involution in which he gains form through an inner, aesthetic education.

In his essay "On the Puppet Theatre" from 1810, Heinrich von Kleist writes about this education of the soul. No less an authority than the Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874 - 1929) describes this work as a piece of philosophy shining with intellect and grace, which no one since Plato's Myths has produced with such perfection and conviction.

From the philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831) comes the famous sentence: "World history is progress in the consciousness of freedom, a progress which we have to recognise in its necessity."

The named ideas of progress characterise the decisive guiding categories of modernity during the Enlightenment period in the 18th century. In the 19th and 20th centuries, these ideas became established within the framework of the then increasingly dominant purely scientific world view of industrial societies, which presupposes a steady social and cultural higher development of man.

Progress and development are considered a decisive factor and driver of socio-cultural change. Technical progress has always meant human progress.

In fact, there is no recognised definition of the term, so that the founder of the social sciences, Ferdinand Tönnies, stated succinctly in 1926: Progress is "the increasing overcoming of states of deficiency."

Criticism of progress

That the belief in progress must also be viewed critically, since the attribution of values and value concepts to the respective recipients can easily lead to dogmatisation, or rather to an ideology of progress, is something we frequently experience in the present and quite vehemently in the field of the arts, and again above all in the visual arts.

The words of the doctor, theologian, philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer (1875 - 1965) sound a warning note: "... Progress is only understood in the material sense: more coal, more oil, more power, more profit. Progress in the quality of man, and that is what matters, for what use are the treasures of the earth if man loses inner values?" Doesn't this remind you of the previous quotation from the jurist Brokes about the inner misery of adolescents?

Progress in the form of ideologies sprouts up everywhere in contemporary art. Therefore, the question of the progressiveness of art need not be made unnecessarily difficult. In any case, art tends to be one of the lightweights among the building blocks from which society forms views and insights. It serves the purpose of edification, is a beautiful appearance and appears predominantly as a companion to those who can afford it. It is hardly relevant to the progress of social development, as is often erroneously assumed. That is why there are no contradictions when it is twisted and turned and progress is prescribed to it by way of simple explanations. The climax of this game with many unknowns within the artistic melee is then formed by postulates such as: "Art is that which one declares to be art" or flanking this: "Every person is an artist." Everything seemed clear and everything suddenly seemed liberating for a new art. An avant-garde quickly emerged, nourished by spokesmen and hardly by the creation of new works. Where was this nourishment for the creation of new works supposed to come from? The concept and understanding of the work had long since fallen victim to the expanded concept of art. 

A variant of the current art business offers something like a parlour game, whose participants have the two important resources at their disposal: Capital and media power! Since both are in the hands of only a few, the artists and above all the art market are also in the hands of this group of players. A bogus question is presented as the instructions for the game: What does the zeitgeist tell us and how does art respond? Someone may hold a moistened index finger up in the air as an antenna and then formulate a contemporary style formula. No matter what is formulated in detail, the perspective is always the same: art should primarily reflect in its forms of expression how society likes to see itself. With its help, one wants to encounter one's own desired attitude to life in the respective objects (no more artworks!) and find confirmation of how modern and thus progressive one is. Art as an applause instrument for society. That’s the game, a game of chance, because there is a lot of money at stake, even dirty money!

What was it like before? Art put itself at a distance from society and created works from this perspective. Today, it is downright socialised and speaks from society into society and declares everything that pleases society to be art. My question: What is progressive about this?

Progress and art, how do these two terms go together, or in other words: is a connection between them possible at all?

Until about 100 years ago, no one would have expended even a single thought about the problem of progress in art. Why? Because a principle was adhered to, a principle of millennia-old artistic creation: continuing to work on what was always good in order to improve it and put quality before originality. Increasing never meant complicating, but simplifying towards elementary recognition and always returning to the sources of art in order to gain fresh creative forces. One's own artistic ability was to be trained and strengthened through elementary experiences.

In his essay from 1972 entitled "The crispbread made of cast iron - asked anew: is this still art?", the philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist Arnold Gehlen (1904 - 1976) sarcastically states: "there is no longer an avant-garde that could promise progress, there will now be an incessancy without progress." So a vortex at the centre of which is stagnation? His statement may lower our expectations. But apparently, for Gehlen, there was once something like the possibility of an avant-garde in art.

Before I proceed further, I would like to pause briefly to remind you once again that although we talk about art as if we could definitively declare what art, or rather what a work of art, is, it is still true that we cannot know this precisely because every work of art is an open system of signs and must remain accessible to every subjective experience in complete freedom. Nevertheless, in order to make epistemological progress, we need a practical statement about the object of our considerations as an alternative. Understandably, this can only be done with circumspection. Thus, we are not talking about what art is, but about what shapes its mode of existence and appearance, which expresses itself in forms. Not what it is, but how it appears? Let us be content with this aspect, for it is comprehensive enough and requires all our powers of experience and cognition.

The so-called modernity

Just as the avant-garde never characterised art epochs, the concept of a "modern age" does not. It is grasped by an historical consciousness that only ever reaches for determinations when, in retrospect, an epoch appears to be complete and thus offers the fundamental security of being able to stand up to an historical evaluation and a corresponding scientific investigation.

Thus, "The Modern Age" captures its statements from hindsight and not, as one might assume, from what is currently current. The so-called "Enlightenment" developed by English, French and German philosophers during the 18th century is referred to as "Modernity". In musicology, there is the "First Viennese Modernism", referring to the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. This is the Viennese Classicism, the music of the Enlightenment. This is followed by a "Second Viennese Modernism", describing the epoch of so-called dodecaphony, the twelve-tone music of Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, among others, in the years around 1920.

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, a so-called "modernity" took place in the visual arts that bore all the signs of an enormous awakening. So-called "isms" appeared, new art styles followed one another in rapid succession. Perhaps beginning in France with Matisse and the Fauves and moving on to statements of abstractions by a Kandinsky and Marc and above all Eastern European artists. These abstractions of early modernism, with all their difficulties of understanding, nevertheless convey something that art has never renounced: a residual connection with tradition. This is expressed in the fact that this art is also called "classical modernism".

In the development up to the present, something then moved that seems like an apocalyptic tension: brought about by the demise of the entire canon of forms and the emergence of a tendency towards deconstructivism. At this point I should write about the phenomenon - "that's all it is" - :of so-called "post-modernism". Post, derived from Latin "after", modernity, expresses pessimism and loss of meaning. There is no place for people in the modern world. The debate about what exactly is postmodern has been going on since the 1980s and refers to the basic assumption that "modernity" (18th century Enlightenment) was too idealistic and failed entirely. The French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyothard was formative with his report, "Postmodern Knowledge" in 1970. He talks about the "end of the grand narratives" in philosophy, art, culture, society, science and social sciences. They should no longer be believed. The lesson: the world is not to be looked at in terms of a goal of progress, but is to be shown as random, pluralistic and, above all, chaotic in its unstable connections.

In postmodern art, the previously mentioned expanded concept of art then appears and the adoption of past styles, which from now on, however, are used caustically and ironically, among others by

- Rejection of the Enlightenment idea of reason

- Abandonment of the autonomous subject as a rationally acting entity

- Loss of solidarity, traditional ties and a general sense of society.


- radical plurality in society, art and culture.   

- Deconstruction, sampling, mixing of codes as new cultural techniques.

All this not only called numerous opponents onto the scene, but also created the ground for what art galleries currently offer: there is nothing left to see!

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1929), one of the most widely received contemporary philosophers and sociologists in the world, states: "If, for example, we suspend the work of Kant or Max Weber, we run the risk of falling prey to irrationality.”

Conclusion: The idea of progress cannot find any meaning in art, since art by its very nature makes neither the beginning nor the course determinable and measurable. It loves leaps and bounds, just like nature. To give just one, perhaps the most significant example: the art of the Renaissance from the 13th to the 15th century was a return to the culture of antiquity.

Art management copied the idea of progress from the sciences and above all from the industrial revolution and its new techniques. Just as the latter sensibly presented their latest achievements in large fairs, this form of fair was also adopted for art, even though it knows no progress. The lucrative art fairs of today turn out to be the most ignorant side of art creation. However, ordinary stupidity is enough for lucrative business – that does not require very great intellect.

© Sibylle Laubscher