Presuming that there is such a thing as “progress” when it comes to music, and that music is “better” now than it used to be is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t “improve.”
I came across this bold assertion in the first chapter of David Byrne’s new book How Music Works. I agree that creativity likely remains constant and rather a person’s toolset–such as access to efficient technology–dictates the speed of innovation. But isn’t it odd how those who live in the present hold themselves in such high regard and simultaneously wish they were born in a “Belle Époque” à la Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”
Byrne pushes his “context is everything” claim to the point that we (sub)consciously write music that sounds best in each era’s performance spaces. Despite his simplification of one thousand years of classical music, it’s an interesting theory.
However, I see the question as a “chicken or the egg” feedback loop. Do composers write music for specific venues or do large architectural and cultural forces influencing these spaces affect how they write? Perhaps a prophetic adage from media polymath Marshall McLuhan’s will sort things out: “First we build our tools, and then they build us.” As with most big rhetorical questions, the answer is unsatisfying: a little of both.
I think the cult of the artist is detrimental to all art forms. It puts unreasonable expectations on creators and deters anyone who isn’t “touched” from expressing themselves artistically. Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame gave a poignant TedTalk on this topic, interspersing history, autobiography and self-help into an enthralling twenty minutes. This perspective doesn’t devalue what artists create in a misguided populist attempt to call everything art; it humanizes them. Then everyone wins.