Evolution in the Arts: And Other Theories of Culture History

Evolution in the Arts: And Other Theories of Culture History

Evolution in the Arts: And Other Theories of Culture History

Evolution in the Arts: And Other Theories of Culture History

Excerpt

Does the history of the various arts--visual, musical, literary, and other--disclose any persistent trend or large-scale process? From its primitive beginnings to the present, in various regions and cultures, does it show any continued, over-all tendency or pattern in change? Can we observe significant analogies, recurrent types and sequences of style, between the arts of different periods and peoples? Such questions were often asked by scientists and scholars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

They were answered in very different ways: for example, by the theory of recurrent cycles, which held that art returns to a similar startingpoint in various civilizations. Another theory held that art evolves or develops as part of one vast process of cosmic, organic, and cultural evolution. The theory of evolution promised much in the way of unified understanding. It claimed to link the arts with all other realms of thought by one great, all-inclusive formula.

To discuss these questions again is to venture out upon a much-traveled road--or, at least, on one much traveled in the nineteenth century but recently neglected. It may seem at first sight a rash, unnecessary venture, leading only to the same old pitfalls that have ruined many ambitious attempts at a philosophy of history. Hasty critics may assume at the start, without further reading, that this is merely one more naïve attempt at a grandiose, rigid system, one more oversimplified formula for cultural change. Further reading will soon show that this is not the case. The errors of nineteenth-century evolutionism, which led to its rejection in the early twentieth century, are shown in detail and avoided thereafter. The tremendous diversities and irregularities of cultural change, especially in the arts, are emphasized throughout. The analogy between biological and cultural phenomena is not exaggerated.

At the same time, however, it is argued that the recent reaction against all theories of cultural evolution has been carried too far, with consequent ignoring of some true and valuable insights. So much new information has been accumulating about the history of the various arts in relation to other cultural factors that a fresh reappraisal of the controversy is long overdue. In attempting it, this book will take account of many recent developments in the philosophy of history, in the history of art, in anthropology, cultural psychology, biology and other fields.

The concept of evolution is widely recognized by historians of thought as the most important concept developed in the nineteenth century. It has been called the "key-idea" of that epoch. Outstanding as a focus of interest and heated argument among scholars and the educated public, it was applied in every science and branch of scholarship. There it gave rise to a host of theories about the details and varieties of evolution. It was applied not only to the development of organic life in plants, the lower animals, and man, but also to that of galaxies and solar systems, the human mind, society, culture, the sciences and arts. In all . . .

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