Where are we making progress?

When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey (in 1968), the year 2001 seemed impossibly far out into the future. Now it’s more than 2 decades in the past—back in the bygone neoliberal era. This recollection got me thinking about the new field of “progress studies”.

It seems to me that human progress is very uneven:

Technology: Very rapid progress
Science: Rapid Progress

Public morals: Slow progress
Sports: Slow progress

Human personalities: No progress
Art: No progress

Ex ante, this is not what one might have expected. The human body doesn’t change much from one generation to the next, but athletes are clearly better today than a few decades ago, and much better than a century ago.

On the other hand, art might have been expected to progress, as artists built on the achievements of their predecessors. And yet, as Tyler Cowen recently pointed out, the golden age of music was during the time of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Tyler is much better informed on music than I am, and as you might expect his post contains a number of interesting explanations for historical trends in “classical” music.  Nonetheless, I see a big flaw in Tyler’s post.  Tyler focuses on explanations specific to music, whereas it seems to me that the evolution of highbrow music is quite similar to the evolution of the other forms of art.  I know more about the visual arts, so I’ll focus there.

Just as the best music was created in earlier centuries, the same is true of the best paintings.  And that’s despite a huge increase in the global population, and a far greater increase in the number of humans with the economic resources to engage in painting as an art form.  Why aren’t there hundreds of great painters today? One response is that there are lots of great painters; it’s just that we don’t see it.  After all, artistic taste is subjective. 

But that merely pushes the question back one step.  Why are composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Bach widely regarded as the greatest of all time?  Why is it that in a 1985 survey of art experts by the Illustrated London News, only 2 of the 20 greatest paintings of all time were from the 20th century, one from the 18th century, and none at all from the 19th century?  Yes, it can take a while to appreciate new art, but surely by now we can fully appreciate the art of the 18th century.

It also seems to me that art has changed in similar ways in a wide variety of fields.  In some sense, modern art seems simpler and more idea-driven than the classics of the past, whereas older art involves a high level of craftsmanship.  Doesn’t Andy Warhol compare to Titian in much the same way that Philip Glass compares to Beethoven?

My preferred theory is that the field of art involves discovery, and those who arrive first have the greatest opportunity to make major discoveries.  If Thomas Edison were born today, he’d have trouble inventing so many new home appliances.  Instead, he might have gone into software or biotech.  A talented young artist born in the 20th century might have decided that painting and photography were exhausted, and gone into filmmaking.  (Kubrick is one such example; he started as a photographer.)

Filmmaking is a newer art form, and its golden age in the West and Japan was roughly 1920-1980 (and perhaps 1985-2005 in the rest of Asia.)  Even poetry seems to be in decline.  In 1820, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Blake were all writing poetry.  Are there 5 comparable living British poets?  

So what does all of this mean?  Are things getting better?  I’m sort of agnostic on that question.  I’d put about a 40% probability on the hypothesis that utility is rising due to improvements in technology and public morality, and about a 60% probability on the hypothesis that utility is not rising over time because people have the same sort of personality flaws they had 100 years ago or 1000 years ago.  I’m frequently surprised by the extent to which people can be depressed despite living conditions that are objectively far superior to those in the past.  And I’m also surprised by the extent that (from a psychological perspective), life as portrayed in old novels seems very much like life as experienced today.  In my own life, a huge increase in economic wellbeing doesn’t seem to have made me happier than when I was younger.  And young people today don’t seem to be happier than I recall young people being in the 1960s.

Nonetheless, because there is a non-trivial probability that progress is making us happier (say 40%), we should continue to strive for improvements in technology and public morals.  I recall the pre-novocaine era, and I don’t wish to go back even if hedonic set point considerations prevent the drug from making me happier.  I also don’t wish to go back to the pre-civil rights era.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind going back to a time when Revolver, Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde and Aftermath were all released in a span of 4 months.

PS.  Sorry, I don’t have a link for the old art survey from 1985, but it was dominated by the usual suspects (Velasquez, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Titian, etc.).  The two modern paintings were by Picasso, and there was a Watteau from the 18th century.  Not surprisingly, Las Meninas topped the survey (by a wide margin), with View of Delft coming in second: