Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Change without Progress

                 Most art historians think of art history as evolutionary process of evolving styles which by some historical necessity die out and are replaced by next, more advanced styles in a long creative march. Obviously this model mimics other disciplines of human endeavors and indeed not just human but of all life. We start with very primitive forms and progress toward great complexity and sophistication. This view, used as an explanatory model has great power by offering to the mind hungry for easy, understandable, all-encompassing explanation an answer of simplicity. Theory of Evolution has such explanatory power. When applied to art history it proposes succession of styles orderly following a necessary path. In this view History marches onward not just along a linear path but upward as progress.
If that is so than whatever follows yesterday should by necessity of history be better, improved over the past-but is it? One cannot deny the facts of periodicity in art styles; they do have their own beginnings, development into its own high-style and a kind of “baroque” or an equivalent of “gothique flamboyant” of a late faze of its development. That much is very true. However, those inner developments are changes not progress.
              In the history of nineteen century art Impressionism is always presented as progress over academic, stale, overburdened with artifice realism of the late XIX century. Much of what was exhibited and lauded at yearly salons of the time was indeed too sentimental, serving expectations of the middle-classes too well. Artists provided them with competently executed comforting banalities. Impressionism brought in a fresher palette of dapple light, de-materialized somewhat the objects in view so that they seemed spun of light rather than solidities. However the subject matter has not been augmented deepened or made more interesting. On the contrary; it brought picture of the world singularly boring, banal, repetitive and un-imaginative, un-engaged with the world. It surely was not a progress but a mere change and considering how much less skill, less craftsmanship and thought is needed to complete an impressionistic painting –in fact seeming more like a regress. But when one looks closer, in a less schematic, less linear way at that era it is important to recognize that the true significance of Impressionism has been bolstered, inflated beyond its deserves by the enthusiasts of the progress view of art history. Contemporaneously with Impressionists a long row of artists who rejected dapple light&purple shadows created superb art and their achievement will grow in public esteem ever higher, while the masters of orange light and purple shadows will fade as their paintings alarmingly have had.