Clerestory

Does art evolve?

June 18, 2020

Part of a series on culture.

Let’s start with the oldest book on my bookshelf that talks about origins of cultural-type things.

Aristotle (384–322 BC) argues in his Poetics that poetry derived from human inclinations towards representation and improvisation. He thought that representation comes naturally to children, as does their pleasure in it, and that “this marks off humans from other animals: man is prone to representation beyond all others, and learns his earliest lessons through representation.”

Wow, earliest? Interesting. But let’s continue.

Aristotle argues that melody and rhythm, also natural, led to metre, which, when combined with representation, resulted in poetry. Furthermore, “those with the greatest natural gift for such things by a gradual process of improvement developed poetry out of improvisation.”

So: representation is natural, rhythm is natural, together these lead to poetry, and skilled individuals refine the art gradually. It raises questions, but so far I have no strong objections.

When he discusses the specific types of poetry, though, it becomes clear he thinks that though art forms change, they also have an endpoint. He begins his discussion of tragedy rather testily:

This is not the place to inquire whether even now tragedy is all that it should be in respect of its constituent elements, whether in itself or in relation to its audiences…1 Certainly it originally took shape out of improvisations. Then it developed gradually as people exploited new possibilities as they came to light. After undergoing many changes tragedy ceased to evolve, having achieved its natural condition.

Because Aristotle uses the term “evolve” (no idea what it is in Greek), at this point I’m going to start using the term evolution, because it seems that we agree that art evolves, even though he thinks it eventually stops. There’s also tension between the fact that people seem to be debating whether tragedy is yet “all that it should be” and the fact that he concludes with the idea that tragedy has “achieved its natural condition.”

After this, he enumerates some of the evolutionary changes (increasing numbers of actors, etc.). But from his point of view, after that, it stopped developing. He views the art form as having matured much as a person does, i.e., to adulthood, after which she stops growing.

This is important. He does two quite natural things:

  1. He assumes that evolution has produced a functional object and stopped, rather than being a potentially infinite process, whose constituents are not objects at all but subprocesses.
  2. He assumes evolution is teleological, i.e., that it had to yield something approximating what it did in fact yield, which is a form of survivorship bias.

Let’s consider these in turn.

Has tragedy continued to innovate?

The first point might seem obviously false. Surely tragedy has developed in the past 2,400 years.

Or has it?

Wikipedia notes that the primary divergence from Aristotle’s definition is that we now generally reject his dictum that “true tragedy can only depict those with power and high status.” Steiner argues that Shakespearean tragedies are not tragedies at all, because they do not possess the traditional “tragic spirit” (which consists in “the image of man as unwanted in life” whom “the gods kill for their sport as wanton boys do flies”) and because Shakespeare mixes in comic elements. But this seems to me something of a quibble. It’s not that Steiner wasn’t pointing to something important in how culture has changed; it’s that his definition of tragedy doesn’t seem drastically different from Aristotle’s.

So from these I would say: Tragedy has changed, though (perhaps surprisingly) not all that much. You could say its development has had a very long tail with minor innovations.

Still, I think it’s important to realise that when a process (here the evolution of tragedy) looks “finished” to a human observer, it’s often ongoing, just very slow. Many things that are actually processes look like objects, for example books.

Does evolution have a goal?

The second point is that Aristotle observed cultural development, but believed it to be teleological, and believed that it had a “natural condition” or terminus.

I think it is wrong to think that this is the case for tragedy, but that this is not because anything is possible, nor for any relativistic reasons. What persisted in drama is what worked, and it continues to be preserved because it continues to do so.

If we still read Aeschylus, that innovator whom Aristotle noted increased tragedy’s cast from one member to two,2 then it is because Aeschylus’ writing, as a set of works which persists to this day, is an ongoing process that has been actively maintained since then. This would not have happened if his art hadn’t “worked” on some level. Here it is important to remember that for most of history, in all but the driest places on earth, paper disintegrates after a few generations, so works had to be continually copied out by hand.

On the other hand, it is not as we could have foretold that any particular art work or art form would work. There is no “tragedy area of the brain.” There must have been experimentation (Aristotle’s “improvisation”) accompanied by a selection filter for this to have happened. This would of course have been bounded by what humans are interested in (tragedies then and now still always involve human stories). And it would have been bounded by what had been observed to work before, through a process of imitation. But outside of those loose limits, the experimentation process was probably more-or-less random, with lots of failures.

Value judgements

In what amounts to my introduction, I promised to sensitively navigate the question of whether culture evolves, and I seem already to have fallen into betraying my belief that yes, culture evolves. In that sense I have perhaps already failed.

If it’s any defence, what I’m writing now represents new thinking. I would be happy to discuss anything I’ve gotten wrong and to publicly reflect on dissenting views. I plan to look at later writers who are opposed to the idea of cultural evolution.

I should say that I very much do not believe culture improves. I don’t think that there’s any sense in which we can say that Arthur Miller is better (or worse) than Aeschylus because he writes working class tragic heroes rather than kings as the gods’ playthings. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t think there is any meaningful sense in which genres (or cultures) can be compared to one another, so comedies are neither superior nor inferior to tragedies except perhaps in terms of personal preference. Nor is the fact that art has persisted any evidence of goodness, moral or otherwise. Persistence of any process (here, “tragedy”) is as dependent on the vagaries of that process’ environment as it is on anything inherent to the process; and at any point at which a tragedy is performed, it is inseparable from the culture which produces it.

But I do think that art can succeed or fail on its own terms, in its own time, within its own rules and context. A play may wind up working in contexts far outside the one in which it was written. That cannot be by any design of the original author. An author neither knows of nor can control the conditions of any future environment. And again, persistence is not exhaustive when it comes to the quality of the play (just think of Alexandria), and I’m not even sure it makes sense to talk about quality, however much we might be tempted to do so.

Maybe this seems like equivocation, but I do think there’s a difference between assessing what’s effective without reference to what is good. And I do think that selection is at play, I just don’t think that there’s much point in saying anything about fitness.

The Birthplace of Tragedy

Finally, as a teaser for later thinking about cultural technologies, I think it’s worth noting that Aristotle thought of whole genres of art in terms of their regional origins:

This too is why the Dorians claim ownership of both tragedy and comedy, offering the names as evidence. Comedy is claimed by the Megarians—both those on the mainland who date it to the time of their democracy, and those in Sicily which was the birthplace of the poet Epicharmus, who lived long before Chionides and Magnes. Tragedy is claimed by some inhabitants of the Pelopponese.

This reminds us that the invention of certain genres must have happened in certain places. It is obvious, now, that they later spread, to the point that it seems odd even to think “tragedy” as once having had a locus, a birthplace, though perhaps this should not be so surprising, as at least one person has famously thought about its birth. For now, it mainly seems salient to think of the birthplace of tragedy.

For a bit more on Aristotle see the next post about paper disintegrating.


  1. Here Aristotle writes: “This is true of tragedy as well as of comedy: the former began with the leaders of the dithyramb, and the latter from the leaders of the phallic singing that is a tradition that still survives in many cities.” I leave it as an exercise for the reader to research “phallic singing.”

  2. I nearly sarcastically wrote mind-blown, but then I reflected on how genuinely mind-blowing it must have been.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.