In response to one comment on a recent blog, I noted that vocal music had changed over the last forty years, and another commenter made the point that languages evolve… both of which raised in my mind the question of the role art plays in societal evolution. Put bluntly, does art lead such transformations, or does it merely reflect them? Or is it the usual mix of a little leading, and a great deal of reflection?
While I’m no art historian, it does appear to me that changes in the predominant or critically acclaimed styles of painting do not follow a pattern of gradual change, but occur irregularly, and at times, at least, preceded significant societal changes, as in the case of the rise of the impressionists, or the modern art movement of the 1950s. Such changes also do not appear to be primarily gradualistic.
Music historians have placed classical music into periods, but how does one analyze the changes from one period to the next? Were giants such as Bach and Mozart so dominant in their mastery that they forced the composers who followed them to innovate? Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony, which is unlike any other of its time and, for that matter, unlike any of quality any time soon thereafter, was composed at a time when the “old order” had been restored. Was he reacting to the currents of past revolution, or anticipating the changes to come? It’s easy enough to say that such questions were irrelevant to Beethoven, except that it’s unlikely that any creative soul is impervious to the environment, especially in Beethoven’s case, since the currents of politics swirled around Vienna during the period, especially after 1800, when his most daring works were composed.
Popular music, especially in the United States, underwent radical changes in the 1960s, and significant societal changes also occurred. Did they occur in tandem, or did the music reinforce the impetus for change? Can anyone truly say?
Science fiction aficionados often like to claim that SF leads the way into the future, but does it? Isaac Asimov did foresee the pocket calculator, but the success record of the genre is pretty weak, either in predicting or inspiring social and technological changes. Almost 40 years ago, in my very first story, I predicted computer analysis and economic modeling, somewhat accurately, as it turned out, and cybercrime as well, and while cybercrime has indeed become a feature of current society, I never predicted the most predominant type. I did predict institutional cybercrime of the general type that caused the last economic meltdown, and, so far as I can tell, that story was one of the first, if not the first, to suggest that type of crime, but… somehow… I don’t think my little story inspired it. I just saw where technology and trends might lead.
But, of course, that leaves open the question… how much do the arts influence the future?