Change, Evolution, Progress

Been reading Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, finally, after long postponement. Well worth the time and effort. One point he makes, which can never bear too much repetition, is that evolution does not mean progress or development. We commonly use the term that way, but science does not support the vernacular meaning. I’m reminded of Richard Shiff’s discussion of de Kooning, in his recent book. Secondly, it seems that life stays much the same for long, long periods, and then diversifies rapidly. On Picasso, Frank Stella says:

Two things stand out. Picasso knew what every father preaches: the fundamentals will never let you down. The other is that innovation must remain a mirage. Picasso taught himself the difference between progress and change; he saw that in the aftermath of necessary change, progress was slow.

Whether we call what we want to do progress or not, the point remains—important changes happen rapidly, and afterwards there must be a period of relative stability. This relatively flat, unchanging situation is what enables artistic careers today. The rest of Stella’s comment points toward something else specific to him, namely that he is more interested in the old masters than in classic modernism, a surprising thought. But maybe that’s the right stance in the aftermath of momentous and necessary change.

Frank Stella, The Sermon (C-31 maquette) 1991

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