Referring to Lubow’s assertion that “even the Museum of Modern Art’s curators no longer believe that art progresses like science,” you ask: “Has science far surpassed art, or vice versa?” I find both Lubow’s assertion and your question a bit surprising: science seeks to understand nature in order to master it. This, it turns out, is an infinite task. But we know what it means to speak here of progress and possess criteria that measure such progress. Can something analogous be said of art?
If one were to understand the task of art to be that of faithfully representing the appearance of nature, one could make such a claim. Some such view allowed Vasari to speak of the progress painting had made. But even Vasari recognized that when taken too seriously such an understanding of painting becomes an obstacle to the creation of great art.
It is possible to formulate other narratives that would allow us to speak of the progress of art. We can thus tell the story of modern art as the progressive realization of an understanding of the aesthetic object as an absorbing presence that ideally should no longer mean, but just be. But if so, that progress had run its course by the mid-sixties. And so understood, the goal of art is in no way comparable to that of science.
Today’s art world is marked by an extraordinary openness: artists are able to do pretty much whatever they want. The other side of such freedom is uncertainty about where art should be going. Such uncertainty makes it impossible to speak of progress.
The question “Has science far surpassed art, or vice versa?” makes sense only if both pursue the same end. Can such an end be specified? One might try to apply an external measure, e.g., the resources that a given community is prepared to devote to both. By that measure art would seem to matter far less today than it did in the past, and certainly far less than science. There is a sense in which the progress of objectifying reason that is continuing to shape our modern world has left art behind, tending to reduce all art to mere, even if in some cases very elevated and esoteric entertainment. Does or should art today possess more than a peripheral significance?
But here it is important to recognize that the objectifying reason that is a presupposition of the progress of our science and technology cannot in principle know anything of persons as such; nor can it know anything of values. Thus it is precisely the indubitable progress of science and technology that presents art today with its most important challenge: to open windows in the world-building raised by objectifying reason, windows to a reality that cannot be captured in the conceptual nets of science. There is thus a sense in which art should surpass science.
— Karsten Harries, Professor of Philosophy, Yale University, and author of
The Meaning of Modern Art (Evanston, Northwestern, 1968)