Progress. Ah, Progress!

art progressWhat a peculiar vision of the world my internet server’s news page would give me if I depended on it alone! Today, for example, it informed me that a paedophile taxi driver had kept a girl passenger as his sex slave for thirteen years and sold their babies, and that Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean leader, had put people to death for watching soap operas. As an old lady at a bus-stop in Manhattan early one Sunday morning nearly fifty years ago said to me when a bullet pinged on the road just in front of us, “I’m telling you, this city is a bad place.” The news service tells me, in effect, that this planet is a bad place.

Our view of reality is always partial, of course: no one can claim to have a panopticon-type view of the world. If it were accuracy rather than sensation the internet server’s news page was after, the stories would have been “782,482,782 people took taxi rides today without being imprisoned by their driver,” or “3,842,795,471 people watched an episode of soap opera today without being executed.” A drip-feed of disaster stories attunes us to the idea that the world is much more dangerous than it is.

Moreover, there is a possible silver lining even to the North Korean story. The country must have made great progress in the matter of personal freedom since I visited it if there were really people to shoot who had watched soap operas. In the North Korea of my day, as it were, no one watched soap operas, except perhaps of the Dear Leader, who was then still playing second fiddle to the Great Leader; but I am sure that just as many people were executed.

Whether watching soap operas in itself constitutes progress is, of course, not easy to answer and perhaps depends entirely upon the context. If jesting Pilate had asked what progress was rather than truth, his failure to stay for an answer might have been more excusable. Indeed, whenever I hear the word progress nowadays, I reach for my … no, no, I won’t go quite as far as that, but I do ask myself the question, “Progress towards what, exactly?”

The only answer I can give is, “Towards an existence without boundaries”—at least boundaries that have not been decreed by progressives. In other words, progress is movement towards rule by progressives; all else is reaction.

I don’t doubt that progress exists in, say, medicine. When I started my career as a doctor, patients who suffered from peptic ulcer swallowed tons of medicine of marginal utility, were subjected to diets by comparison with which the worst of British cooking was ambrosial, and underwent long, costly and sometimes dangerous operations that very often left them with permanent side-effects and relieved them only temporarily. All this is completely unknown to newer generations of doctors, just as we in our time knew nothing of the ravages of General Paralysis of the Insane or of tuberculosis of the hip. I cannot see the elimination of so many fatal diseases, or diseases that caused prolonged suffering, as anything but good; and all previously existing human generations would have been astonished by the degree to which we live pain-free lives.

I happened the other day (for literary reasons unnecessary to go into) to be reading Malthus on population; and I was struck by, among other things, his belief that St Petersburg was a healthy town because, he said, fifty per cent of the population reached the age of twenty-five years. Such a mortality today is unthinkable anywhere in the world, even in the worst hellholes such as … I leave it to you to fill in the gap, according to taste. In point of health, for example, the Gaza Strip resembles modern-day Cheltenham Spa or Montreux much more than it does St Petersburg of 1806, when Malthus published the third edition of his book (“By far the best edition,” the seller assured me, as books seem so often to be once they find their way into antiquarian booksellers’ hands).

Even in Russia there has been progress, famine and massacre notwithstanding. It is true that there is an incomparably greater difference in the life expectancy of men and women in Russia than anywhere else in the world, for reasons not very difficult to discern, and which will be known to any reader of Venedikt Yerofeev’s wonderful book Moscow Stations. But though the life expectancy of Russian males is abominably low by the standards of countries such as Guatemala and Vietnam, it still would have made Malthus gasp with astonishment and cause him to doubt whether the figures upon which it was calculated could be veridical.

The enormous success of science and medicine and their consequent prestige have led to the widespread application of the trope of progress in fields in which it can do nothing but harm. The prestige of science, justified in itself, has given a kind of inferiority complex to those who pursue activities in which there is and can be no progress, only change—for better or worse as the case may be. But instead of accepting that the trope is inapplicable in their field, artists of all kinds have latched on to it with a combination of envy and glee, for they have discovered in the idea of progress a liberation of sorts. It liberates them from the painful necessity of having to produce anything sub specie aeternitatis, which is to say something good in itself, a task that is not easy and by no means assured of success. With the idea of progress, all that became necessary was that what they produced should be the forerunner of something else, not a very high hurdle to jump so long as there continued to be people who called themselves artists. Everyone could claim he was John the Baptist, without having to specify who or what the Christ was.

Though art is not bacteriology, let alone geology or mining, one frequently hears the term “cutting-edge” applied to some artistic endeavour that is otherwise quite without virtue or even skill. Neither are works of art paving stones set in a path to a known destination to which we draw ever closer, as we do to the union in the European Union. Art is both of its time and of all time, or at least of all human time. We do not foresee an age when Velazquez, say, or Bach will cease to move us, nor do we expect them to be superseded by something better, as we expect more efficacious treatment to emerge for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and our present remedies for it to be consigned to the dustbin of history, or at least passed on to Third World countries.

How was what Wyndham Lewis called “the demon of progress in the arts” unleashed? Howsoever it was unleashed, it has certainly been nourished by a certain vulgate of art history ever since, combined with a good dose of faulty logic. The vulgate is as follows:

  • “Official” art in the nineteenth century was terrible.
  •  A group of courageous revolutionary artists grew up in opposition to it.
  • Their work shocked the public.
  • Though they were mocked, derided, reviled and persecuted at first, they produced great art and finally won through.

A number of false deductions from this vulgate are accepted consciously or unconsciously by artists, art critics and the supposedly sophisticated element of the public, among them:

  • Throughout history, all great art and great artists were not accepted as such in their own time.
  • All great art is oppositional, revolutionary and an advance on what went before.
  • The function of art and artists is to shock, and what does not shock is not art.

Of course it is true than art may shock, that a few great artists have gone unrecognised in their lifetime, that some have been revolutionary, that academicism may exhaust itself and become mere kitsch; but these are small aspects of art history, not the whole of it, nor are they historiographical principles that any aspiring artist ought to keep in mind, or that should guide the judgment of the critic or the public. The only proper judgment is sub specie aeternitatis.

Eternity versus soap opera: that is the choice. Not that every eternity is preferable to every soap opera, as the news today from North Korea proves, even if it is false.

Anthony Daniels’s latest book is Migration, Multiculturalism and its Metaphors: Selected Essays (Connor Court), published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.


14 thoughts on “Progress. Ah, Progress!

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    The best way to ensure progress in art is to remove all taxpayer grants and subsidies. A good artist will succeed and a poor artist will get a job. Win win.

  • Lacebug says:

    Such a finely crafted piece.

  • says:

    Finely crafted, indeed, in the best tradition of the art of verbal expression.

    As to “modern” art, indeed it often shocks and even more often dismays, as anyone could testify after visiting an art gallery, particularly one of a “progressive” variety. Much of what is displayed there would not look out of place on the walls of a kindergarten classroom or at a therapy session for the mentally challenged. The same can be said about “modern” music and poetry, the former being a random collection of dissonant sounds, the latter of words. For a “artistically uneducated” philistine such as yours truly, great art in any of its branches are those that fill one with awe, joy and more such similarly wonderful experiences when encountered. The best example that comes to mind is walking into a great cathedral or, indeed, a quaint little chapel in a little European village.

    • lloveday says:

      I stood in front of EG’s ego-buy Blue Poles and thought just that – “would not look out of place on the walls of a kindergarten classroom”. Junk.
      But James Patterson says it’s “worth” $350m and should be sold. And so say I.

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    I thought the Pintibi Tula paintings offered a measure of ‘progress” to contemporary art (re-invigorated and gave new meaning to abstract art) … yet they were probably first inspired into traditional culture forty thousand years ago. Perhaps little bits of progress can be overlooked and flow along with the traditional for thousands of years … before coming to a point of arrival (to consciousness). There is also the concept of ‘progressing backwards’ where the idea of progress – the word itself … has become commodified and corrupted … so that through lack of a clear definition, the dross claims to be progress – and an orthodoxy develops, an in-correct correctness.This is what we are mostly seeing in identity art/ diverse art/ black art/ eco art/Gay art etc. But then you can always walk up to Rodin’s Balzac behind the state Gallery and spend a few minutes in the presence of real art.

  • ianl says:

    > “Though art is not bacteriology, let alone geology or mining, one frequently hears the term “cutting-edge” applied to some artistic endeavour that is otherwise quite without virtue or even skill”

    I quite enjoyed that sentence 🙂

  • en passant says:

    I found the best thing about this essay was the use of unusual words like ‘vulgate’and anachronistic turns of grammar

  • Warty says:

    You’ve got me wondering, Anthony Daniels, and I’ve come to the conclusion that you lot (and I include my late father in the ‘you lot’) may have a lot to do with the current epidemic of political correctness. Though you may be very pleased with your contributions to the advances in medical science, but our fine crop of lefties have become so unused to the once daily evidence of human mortality, they are now primarily intent on hunting nits to pick. I mean how dare Peter Dutton decide to focus on allowing Christians and Yazidis entry to Australia, rather hordes of Muslims, who fein delight on being given immigration status, only to turn on their host country once accepted. Or, stuff teaching our kids about the Anzac spirit, or the older ones about the enlightenment and the need to safeguard Western Civilisation, when you can inform them about the delights of transitioning to an alternative gender.
    You may wonder what on earth such moral degradation has to do with you, but I say there is nothing like stepping to the other side of a muddy lane to avoid the abandoned carcass of a plague victim to make you focus on your own mortality.
    Put it this way, what demand is there, in this day of medical progress, for a lovely momento mori for ones mantlepiece? My wife might well have married again, as by all rights I ought to have died on our first wedding anniversary, spent instead at Concord Hospital, where I was resurrected after a burst appendix. Or again two years ago when I was fitted with a dual chamber pace maker. The specialist told me after a follow up appointment, that the pace maker had entirely taken over the systolic/diastolic signalling stuff. Should my lovely lithium battery decide to cark it, I’d undoubtedly ‘experience’ the loveliest of deaths: a little twitch or two on the floor and then no more. None of this rotting away stuff in St Petersburg 1806.
    But I digress. The point is that life is so good, we feel compelled to make a living hell of the lengthier spell we are now granted; and it is all the fault of the peace makers and the bloody do-gooder doctors. Bring back the rope I say. And how about a good flogging or two to remind you of your manners. Same sex marriage? You’ve got to be joking.

    • Warty says:

      ‘feign’ not ‘fein’.

    • lloveday says:

      I decided 4 years ago to do it Einstein’s way “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly”. Well, not so sure about the elegantly, but I gave up medication (just Pradaxa and Sotolol for Atrial Fibrillation) and seeing doctors and feel better for it; certainly I can exercise more vigorously and for longer.
      If I have a shorter life in consequence, so be it, but being fit & strong is very important to me. If I break an arm or gash a leg, of course I’ll be in a surgery quick smart – doctors are really good at knitting and sewing.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    We are of a similar opine Warty.

    I put it down to having faced death.

    The dogooders also want to make the world completely safe.

    But I reckon you don’t really live until you face death. You’re right focus follows.

    • Warty says:

      On the other hand, dear Bill Martin, Daniels gave no reason whatsoever that Medical Science or progress was responsible for political correctness, instead his was a critique on the banality of ‘cutting edge’, almost that the mere mention of the the phrase might induce a soothing sense of satisfaction that all is well with a world that feels incapable of coming to rest, if only to smell the roses. Not infrequently simply progress for the sake of progress.
      The sublime vision of a Turner, or a little later, James Whistler and his contemporary, John Singer Sargent, were hardly appalling artists as the ‘vulgate’ might assert, any more than the cubists or the surrealists or the post modernists or the artist without category, Francis Bacon (so shocking and grotesque are his butcher block images) can possibly be called ‘great art’. Indeed, it seems one has to be breaking new ground in order to win the Archibald, and even the Doug Moran seems to have moved from its ‘traditional’ underpinnings.
      So while we may be more than impressed by the latest iPad Pro and our 68″ smart TVs and the latest fitbit wristbands, there is a growing lack of satisfaction with today’s restless society, evident in the explosions of anger and abuse when opinions are challenged, particularly over issues as contentious as SSM. It seems to me that as there is an acceleration in scientific innovation, supposedly aimed at an improvement in the quality of life, so too is the parallel decline in our Western Civilisation and sense of moral well being.
      I know a number of Quadrant readers support the idea of euthanasia, and as indicated before, I’m not unfamiliar with the face of death and suffering, but it seems to be that whilst we are wowed by fanfare produced by the mere mention of the phrase ‘cutting edge’, so too do we become increasingly more fixated by the false promise of dignity in death through euthanasia. Is this too ‘cutting edge’ science? It seems to me that Shakespeare, the Stoic philosophers, Ross Cameron’s beloved Marcus Aurelius all advocated living life in preparation for death, and that facing the face of death is precisely where the dignity lies, not the fallacious choosing when and where you will die, for ‘what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause’.

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