What Does It Mean to be Progressive?

That’s a somewhat rhetorical question. I’m asking, but you don’t have to reply, because I’m not really looking for answers. Of course, I’m about to share my answer with you, but if you have a different answer — or if you just want to share your thoughts — you’re welcome to respond.

Yep, folks, I’m off on another of my little tangents, browsing around the web, putting a few mixed-up thoughts together, and having a bit of fun here. For reasons that have nothing to do with visual art or this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot lately of classical progressive rock music, specifically Van der Graaff Generator, an English group whose 1971 album “Pawn Hearts” is a classic in the genre. If you’re familiar with or perhaps even a fan of the band, you might recognize the Pawn Hearts album cover I’ve used as the featured illustration for this post.

220px-Pawn_Hearts_(Van_der_Graaf_Generator_album_-_cover_art)The full album (all 45 minutes of it) is available at You Tube, so just for purposes of understanding what progressivism is all about — at least in rock music — go ahead and click the link. I double dog dare you!

Pawn Hearts – Van der Graaff Generator

Had enough? It doesn’t take much for me, although I am a fan of other classical progressive rock bands. Gentle Giant was probably my personal favorite, along with Yes, and Jethro Tull. These groups took rock music to different dimensions by combining it with other genres: classical, jazz, soul, blues, avant-garde, and anything else they felt belonged in the mix.

So, what does it mean to be progressive? When I went off searching for the answer to that question, I was greeted, of course, by Jamie and Flo and lots of information about car insurance. Nope, that’s not the kind of progress I’m looking for.

Finally I found this definition: Progressivism is the support for or advocacy of social reform. As a philosophy, it is based on the idea of progress, which asserts that advancements in science, technology, economic development and social organization are vital to the improvement of the human condition.

Fine. I understand the idea of progress, and I think I can agree with it for the most part. Personally I think progress sometimes takes us a little too farespecially where music is concerned.

But what about progressive art? That’s what I was curious about. And when I went off in search of answers to that question I was quickly greeted by the Progressive Art Collection, created by none other than the same Progressive Insurance Company who wants to sell car insurance to us all. It’s a strong collection, and it’s shared throughout their offices nationwide. The company also encourages art among their employees and holds an employee art show each year. I like that. To me, that in itself is a bit of art progress.

Here’s one painting from the collection:

Progressive Art Collection
Beatriz Milhazes – Acrylic on Canvas — from The Progressive Art Collection

Progressive — the company — speaks of the concept of change in their collection, and yes, being progressive definitely does involve change. Life is filled with change, and the world of art, as part of life, is filled with change, as well.

I don’t intend to go over a complete history of art movements, or even to present a concise, abbreviated look at art through the ages. I’m going to look at the idea of progress only as it applies to a single element of art.

We’re back to rhythm again, visiting it now through the idea of progressive rhythm in art. So, let’s re-visit that initial question again, too. What does it mean to be progressive when we’re talking about rhythm in works of art?

Progressive rhythm describes an artwork that contains repeating elements in a pattern that changes either in size or color. Indeed, change is an essential element of progress.

The famous work Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) by Marcel Duchamp is an interesting example of progressive rhythm.

Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) by Marcel Duchamp

Like many progressive things, this work was ridiculed by people who thought maybe Duchamp had gone a bit too far. The painting has quite an interesting story behind it, so be sure to click on the link and read a bit about it. I like it. How about you?

Progressive rhythm doesn’t always have to be weird, “far-out”, or incomprehensible. It can be comforting and familiar, even as it presents the idea of change. Take a look at Grant Wood’s Fall Plowing:

Fall Plowing by Grant Wood

For me this is restful, peaceful, and while progressive in nature, still orderly, and I tend to find comfort in order. Yet the painting does use elements that change in size as we progress from front to back.

I guess that’s what progress really relates to in art — how the artist uses elements to lead us through the picture, the way in which our view moves through the scene, whether’s it a scene of disjointed body parts moving down a stairway or a gentle image of a farmer’s field stretching out before us.

Another area involving progress is that of practice. While folks once used to tout the idea that practice makes perfect, we’ve come to understand it in a more realistic way these days. Practice makes progress. Practice leads to change. We learn to do things in ways that produce the results we want. Practice helps us grow as artists and improve our abilities.

So, all in all, what does it really mean to be progressive? It means we’re alive, change is all about us, and we can’t really be still. Progressive rhythms are difficult to understand at times, but they lead us to places we’ve never been before.

When all is said and done, yes, I think I am of fan of progress.


  1. I consider myself a fan as well…I mean if we are not progressive then we are either stagnant or regressive, neither one of those two is a good thing to me…enjoyed the post and the mentions of music, including two of my faves, like Jethro Tull and Yes, I would also add King Crimson, Ten Years After and Moody Blues. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, yes. King Crimson, Ten Years After, and Moody Blues are all awesome. There is so much good music! You’re right, too, that we have to move forward. Change is a constant. Life is all about adapting to change and seeing where it can lead us. Thanks for your comments 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the information. I have been exposed to progressive metal, and the concept was interesting. I haven’t realized that there is also a similar movement in visual arts. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love learning more about how art and music go hand in hand. As a music student, I always loved the “impressionists” like Debussy, Ravel, Delius, Satie and the others. It probably shouldn’t have been surprising to see that in art, I was also drawn to the “impressionists” like Monet, Degas, Cezanne, and Renoir. We need both in our lives! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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