A few years ago, I answered the question in this post’s title in the negative:

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

Now, I wonder if this judgment was too hasty.  Perhaps I was thinking about the issue in the wrong way.  In this post, I’ll suggest that I was mixing up stocks and flows, and that this distorted my view of the relative progress in these two fields.

To be clear, I understand the argument for why science seems much more progressive than art.  Science has advanced enormously over the past few centuries, whereas many of the best-regarded artists in music, painting, poetry and the theatre did their work hundreds of years ago.

But now I wonder if this is a sort of “apples and oranges” comparison.  It seems to me that a field can be judged either by its stock of achievements, or its flow of creativity.  Thinking back on my earlier post, I believe I was comparing the stock of scientific knowledge to the flow of artistic creativity.  Let’s reverse those criteria, using physics as a stand in for science.  What’s happened to the stock of artistic achievement, and what’s happened to the flow of scientific creativity?

During the first 30 years of the 20th century, physicists discovered the structure of the atom.  They developed the theory of quantum mechanics.  They developed special and general relativity.  Undoubtedly there were many more discoveries, but those are some of the most important.  Fields of applied physics such as astronomy also saw important discoveries, including the structure of stars, the existence of galaxies and the expansion of the universe.

Unless I’m mistaken, the past 30 years have not seen discoveries of this importance, although progress continues to occur in many areas.  Nonetheless, from a “flow of creativity” perspective, you could argue that physics is in decline, and that the greatest achievements occurred many years in the past.  Who is the Einstein of today?

Now let’s consider artistic knowledge from a “stock perspective”.  I would argue that the art world is significantly ahead of where it was 100 years ago, and vastly ahead of where it was 200 years ago.  This progress has taken several forms:

1. New artists continually appear on the scene, adding to our stock of artistic creations.  Painting such as Picasso’s Guernica did not exist 100 years ago.  If you go back 200 years, then entire styles such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism did not exist.

2. Our understanding of the field of art has improved relative to where it was in past centuries.  In the mid-1800s, Vermeer’s paintings existed, and were not completely unknown to art connoisseurs.  And yet most art experts lacked the ability to appreciate his greatness.  Today, even people with just an undergraduate course in art history can appreciate Vermeer.  Many more examples could be cited, especially as you move up in time toward the present.  Thus by 1890, Vermeer had been “discovered” and yet Van Gogh remained undiscovered.

Goethe was one of the supreme minds of the early 19th century.  In his book entitled Italian Journey, he shows what a superbly educated European might have been able to know about painting back in 1816.  And yet I suspect that I know even more about painting than Goethe did.  That’s not because I have a better mind, rather it’s because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, looking out over a field of knowledge that has expanded dramatically in the past 200 years.  As an analogy, a college sophomore majoring in physics might well know more physics than did Isaac Newton.

So why the perception that art is regressing while science advances?  I see several possible reasons:

1. Lots of abstract art and atonal music makes no sense to most people.  But it’s also true that quantum mechanics and relativity make no sense to most people.  Given enough time and progress, any field of human endeavor will advance beyond the comprehension of most people.

2. But people are willing to accept models such as quantum mechanics and relativity, when told that these models underlie the technology that leads to things like lasers or iPhones.  For this reason, science is more respected than art.  But the fact that people who don’t understand either field accept one of the two as a matter of faith is hardly a good argument for the claim that science is more progressive than art.

3. People apply a double standard.  They judge art on a flow basis—how does the flow of good new art compare to the flow of good new art in previous eras?  In science, they look at the accumulated stock of knowledge, which is generally increasing.  That’s a double standard, favoring science.

In my view, most of the traditional fields of art and science are well past their “golden age.”  Rapid progress tends to occur when new techniques open up possibilities for creativity—the knowledge equivalent of the Oklahoma land grab, when people rushed in to take land that was suddenly available.  In science, techniques like deciphering the genome have recently allowed big gains in our understanding of how and where ancient peoples migrated.  Areas of science without new techniques tend to eventually stagnate.  In art, painting has stagnated and filmmaking has taken over as the most vibrant visual art over the past 100 years.

In my own field (macroeconomics), things seem to have regressed in recent decades.  Fewer economists seem to understand that low interest rates don’t imply easy money.  Fewer economists seem to understand that fiscal stimulus is largely ineffective due to monetary offset.  Fewer economists seem to understand that the Fed determines the long run rate of inflation.  Fewer economists seem to understand that trade barriers don’t improve the economy.  Macro is declining in both a stock and a flow sense.