Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is There Progress in Art? Society?

I'm working through Max Weber's methodological essays and one of the points he argues is that social progress is a myth.  Across the ideological spectrum of founding fathers of sociology, from Marx's communist view to Spenser's free market social Darwinism, the presupposition was that society not only changed, it progressed, that society's increasing complexity was a sign of maturity. 

But Weber argues that it is not change for the better or change for the worse, it is just change.  There is indeed a social progression, but that does not mean it is social progress.  For this, he argues by analogy.  Consider painting and music.  We can talk about movements in art -- cubism, surrealism, baroque, romantic, atonal -- and we can see each as a reaction to what came before it.  There is a progression in musical and artist theory and composition.  We get new techniques, new instruments, new media.  But surely, we don't think that Rembrandt or Mozart are less masterful than those who came after.  We do not, Weber, argues, contend that there is progress in the arts, just change.  the change is necessary to keep the art alive and fresh, but it is not making it more perfect with each new step.

The same, he thinks, goes for society.  It changes and will always change.  But that change is not social progress.  Things are different than they were, but the old days were neither the good old days or the bad old days, they were just what they were.  Similarly, new does not entail new and improved.

But does it?  Are we moving towards a place where there is increased freedom and increased possibility for human flourishing?  Does the analogy work?  Is there progress in art, music, or society?