04 July 2006

Progress and Decline

I want to talk about progress and decline as totalizing discourses: as meta-arguments that shape what we see and how we see it.

Progress and decline are among the most seductive totalizing discourses of our era (the ones that have survived despite postmodernism’s critique of such discourses). It is very, very tempting to look at charts, numbers, data-mined this-and-that and come up with a clear chain of events that shows either the waxing or waning of an individual’s health, an economy, a president’s popularity. These days, nearly anything can be represented in numbers, and numbers are the epitome of empirical fact.

Progress and decline might seem just to be patterns that emerge from data. It might seem that they just sort of innocently wave at you, calling out, “Hi! Looks like your company is dying!” And I guess maybe, for some kinds of data gathering, that might be all it is. But we tend to draw conclusions from progress and decline, and we tend to forecast the continuation of these. I remember back when I was a kid and the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square took place and the Berlin Wall was torn down, everyone said “Communism will soon die out”. Every time the leadership in China shifts and they get a new Chairman there is rampant speculation about the decline of communism in the immediate future. In the west, we believe so strongly in the inevitable decline of communism and our own democratic superiority that we see it happening even where it clearly has not been.

That is the danger of a totalizing discourse. It colors our perception of the present and the future, and it causes us to even recast the past so that what happened lines up with how we anticipate the future will be.

Progress and decline are difficult narratives to thwart, particularly in art. We like to think of art and artists as progressing through phases that are easily categorized and labeled. We like logical transitions, logical building-upons, logical progress. And at the right time, when we are sick of Mannerism, or Baroque, or Rococo, or Neoclassicism, or Academic Painting, or Realism, of Romanticism, or any other style that has given way to another style, we will carefully chart its decline in the face of some other progress.

What I’ve been wondering about lately though is this: Not every culture has such a well developed sense of waxing/waning in art. Chinese painting, for example, emphasized and extolled the same visual qualities (in essence the same style) for centuries. There was no narrative of progress. It was, if a narrative at all, one of continuity. So, does postmodernism mean anything at all to contemporary Chinese artists?


Dad said...

Good to see you blogging again, that must mean your paper is going along fine. This post has overworked my brain so I will need to rest and read it again later. 1433

Matthew said...

Postmodernism means that the propaganda posters are now anti-American and anti-Japanese.

katperkins said...

I'm not really familiar with contemporary Chinese art. I haven't noticed anything postmodern about any Chinese art that I have seen. I would have to say that postmodernism seems to be more identifiable in cultures like that through sculpture. But maybe I made that up.

Mary Ann said...

Dan, you and I disucssed something very similar while you were here. My new fastest time for a 5k is 30 minutes, but I would be wrong to think that my fitness is in decline if I don't go that fast every time.

The story of my progress as a runner would probably gloss over the many times, like today, when i didn't go that fast. And that kind of a retelling would be inaccurate.

Vatti said...

There is a lot to think about here. What are the virtues of "being" as opposed to "becoming"? Is the process of measuring progress or decline inherently destructive? Do we loose something important when when we classify or identify something? Can we observe without altering our perception through judgement? As a scientist I run into this all the time. "The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge." --Daniel J. Boorstin

Mary Ann said...

Exactly! I remember a conversation we had about the scientific method back in Germany, and along those lines, my current question centers on the dangers of a hypothesis. It really, dramatically limits what you are looking for and what you therefore will see. In terms of history, art, and art history this is also a problem.