What 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.