A tricky question; Progress in art - or, is Klee as good as Michelangelo?

A reader asks if there is progress in art. And if there is, why was so much of the world's greatest art produced centuries ago, and why is so little of it produced today?

The answer depends on our definition of progress and greatness as they relate to art. If we insist that great art must be monumental, representational, humanistic, traditional, and technically brilliant, then recent art could be seen as representing a decline from that of the Old Masters. And we could safely assume that progress is not intrinsic to art.

If, on the other hand, art is seen as exclusively representative of the culture that produced it, then it would no more make sense to compare the art of different cultures than to compare apples and oranges.

Viewed this way, Rubens and Pollock would be merely painterly representatives of widely dissimilar social systems, and in no way critically competitive. Progress, thus, could not exist.

Both positions are too simplistic. Art is much more than grandeur and brilliance, and art does occasionally rise above cultural limitations. The fact that Michelangelo was more grand and technically brilliant than Klee doesn't prove that Klee and his period show a decline from the days of the Renaissance.

Michelangelo, after all, represented the flowering of a long and great tradition, Klee a tentative step toward a new beginning. Michelangelo's art embodied the best ideas and forms of a thousand years, Klee's probed nuances of feeling never before explored through art. Michelangelo stands like a giant oak atop a mountain peak, Klee like a tiny seedling sending its roots into virgin territory.

Both artists reflect different periods in the life cycles of their cultures, and can no more be compared critically than a grown man and a child, or a flower and its seed. We can compare men and artists on the basis of strictly defined qualities such as strength and brilliance. And can then declare a man or artist stronger and more important than others on the basis of his strength and brilliance.

But that's about as far as we can go. We cannot declare one person greater than another merely because he makes us feel good, or decide that a painting is not great merely because it doesn't resemble the great art in our museums. If I place Michelangelo and Rembrandt above all other artists, it's because they rate highest for me in certain important and clearly defined areas, not because they are the best in everything.

The same is true of the other artists on my list of the 10 greatest. Every one would score lower in certain areas than our modern masters. And yet that is beside the point. I judge the greatness of an artist on his overall achievements , on what he does with what he has, rather than on special talents or sensibilities. Picasso had 10 times more natural ability than Cezanne, yet as far as greatness is concerned he was considerably outclassed by Cezanne.

Consideration should also be given to a great living tradition. With it, an artist is like a captain at the controls of a huge ocean liner. Without it, he is forced to build his own tiny boat, or make do with a rickety raft. A tradition-evolved artist such as Vermeer cannot be judged by the same standards that apply to Mondrian, an artist who ''invented'' his art from scratch. We may prefer Vermeer and think him the greater, but it's still too soon to tell.

It all depends on where art is going, and on what role it will play in the future. We can be sure of only one thing - that art will be with us for a long time. It will change, but it will be part of our lives. We need it to embody our values and give form to our dreams, exorcise our dreads - and to entertain us.

Art is does not exist apart from man, but is deeply integral to his most crucial realities. It will always adapt itself to the needs of its human creators. That is its primary function.

Twentieth-century modernism is a good case in point. It was an abrupt departure from what art had ever been before, and as revolutionary and dynamic an approach to art as has ever been. It cannot in any way be seen as a decline. If there was a decline in art, it occurred in the academic painting and sculpture of the latter half of the 19th century. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism cleared the air of that, however, and with the advent of Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, and Constructivism, a new era in art had begun.

Modernism has been extraordinarily fertile and has produced some excellent art. And yet it's quite likely that future generations will perceive it primarily as a huge experimental laboratory designed to probe the nature and the future of art.

Unfortunately, some of these ''experiments'' were directed more toward the creation of a perfect product than toward the discovery of the full, rich nature of art, and often resulted in work that was too purely formal. Even so, modernism has been one of the great art periods of all time. Art will never again be the same because of it - no matter what happens next. It has been responsible for the opening of dozens of doors through which art had never before ventured, and modernism helped establish at least as many new creative premises.

That in itself should answer the question of progress in relation to contemporary art. Wherever there is creative fertility and dynamic new growth, there you will find progress - even if the ''landscape'' of this new growth doesn't include towering redwoods and magnificent stands of oak.

It's more important that art keep up with, or even advance beyond, the cutting edge of its culture than that it end up beautifully framed in a museum. To accomplish this, it must commit itself to methods for which there often are no precedents, and be willing to risk ridicule and censure.

This, of course, has been true of the art of all periods. Never before modernism, however, has an art made such an issue of originality and creative courage and practically defined itself in terms of the dramatically new. In this it has been unique, and has served an extremely valuable function.

If, in the process, it hasn't produced as many towering masterworks as some might wish, I'm sorry. It has done its best. Mistakes and all, I wouldn't give it up for anything - except possibly the art of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and a handful of the other very greatest Old Masters.

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