WHAT THE QUESTION OF ART AND TIME IS NOT ABOUT
In my attempts to encourage philosophers of art to consider the vital question of the relationship between art and the passing of time, I sometimes meet reactions that suggest an inability to understand what the question is about. Having reflected on the problem, I've begun to wonder if the cause might be this: the philosophy of art (especially the "analytic" variety) has ignored the question for so long that people have simply forgotten what’s involved – they have become “de-sensitized” to it, so to speak.
I’ve explained my own thinking in my books and some of my articles, but I’ve also decided to keep a little log of some of the comments I’ve encountered as examples of the misunderstandings. I’m hoping this might help people come to grips with the issue. I confess I’m surprised that this is necessary but as the following points illustrate, even the obvious can be misunderstood in quite basic ways.
1. When I’ve claimed that “time is the forgotten dimension of art”, I've sometimes been told that I’m overlooking the fact that many people have written about the different ways in which the passing of time is represented in film, the novel, music, dance, and so on. On what grounds then, can one claim that time been forgotten?
This is a basic misunderstanding. The various ways time is represented in particular works concerns the function of time within individual works (or perhaps within different art forms: film vs. the novel for instance). This is a perfectly valid topic, of course, but quite different from the question about the general, external relationship between art and time. In the latter case we are looking at how the passing of time – history in a general sense – affects art, and specifically how art transcends time.
To illustrate the difference: someone might ask how the passing of time is dealt with in, say, King Lear or Tom Jones – which is a perfectly valid topic in literary criticism. But that's quite different from reflecting on the fact that certain works (such as King Lear and Tom Jones but also many from centuries or millennia earlier) endure, while many others do not, and then examining how this occurs. This second question – a question in art theory not criticism – has certainly been forgotten in modern aesthetics. One can search high and low in books and articles on aesthetics without finding any discussion of it.
2. Quite frequently when I raise the question of the relationship between art and time, people assume I’m talking about the so-called “test of time” – the attempt to judge the value of a work on the basis of how long it lasts. This is emphatically not the issue I'm raising. My question concerns the nature of the capacity of art to endure – how it endures and why; i.e. what intrinsic capacity certain works possess that enables them to live on and, above all, how that capacity operates. The dubious notion of a test of time does not address these questions. In fact, as I explain in my book Art and Time, it serves only to muddy the waters.
3. One comment I received from an academic working in aesthetics was this: The question of why art endures is very simple, isn’t it? Certain works deal with profound subject matter, offer deep insights, are very innovative, skilfully executed, and so on. Works that don’t have characteristics of this kind don’t last. Those that do, do. Where’s the problem?
Again, this misses the point. Even if we accepted the criteria listed (and ignored their vagueness and subjective nature) they do not tell us specifically why art endures. They could equally well be answers to questions like: Why is one work of art good/great, and another not? Or: why does one work give us “aesthetic pleasure” (assuming one accepted that questionable notion) and another doesn’t? In other words, these criteria don't help us understand, specifically, why a work transcends time – i.e. has a special power to live on across the centuries. Still less do they throw light on the crucial question of the manner of the “living on”, which, as I explain in my books, might in principle occur in a number of different ways.
4. One philosopher of art asked me why art that endures should be considered more admirable, effective, etc than art that doesn’t.
confusion between art theory and art
criticism. Whether or not
we find a particular work admirable is ultimately a judgment
we make for
ourselves (whether we appeal to supposed “criteria” or not).
about art’s transcendence concerns the general nature
of art. For
example, we might like or loath Mozart and if someone tells
us that Mozart
has endured, that alone will not (or should not) change our
minds. But it
is nonetheless a simple, observable fact that certain works (much of
for instance) have
endured while large numbers have not, and the question
art theorist/philosopher is: why does
this happen (i.e. what
particular power do certain works of art possess that
to happen) and how does it happen
(i.e. in what way do
they endure)? Reflecting on the temporal nature of art – why and how it
transcends time – has nothing to do with handing out plaudits to this
work. It is a question about the general nature of
No art is immortal, and no sensible person could believe it was. Neither the human race, nor the planet we inhabit, nor the solar system to which it belongs, will last forever. From the viewpoint of geological time, the afterlife of any artwork is an eyeblink. (John Carey, "What Good are the Arts?" London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2005, 148.)
Carey (an Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Oxford!) apparently thinks that the question of art's capacity to endure is about whether it endures physically. If that were the case, art would, of course, fail miserably. The fragility of many works has probably made them more vulnerable than other objects to the ravages of time. Heaven knows how many great works have perished over the millennia! The question at stake has nothing to do with physical survival; it concerns meaning and significance: the capacity of certain works – Macbeth, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine, for instance – not only to impress their contemporaries but also to exert a fascination on subsequent ages, while so many other works from the same periods have ceased to arouse interest and faded into oblivion.
6. A comment from an “analytic” philosopher on the idea that (great) art transcends time:
analytic philosophers would say that it is impossible to transcend time, literally speaking, except with time machines for example.
One can only hope that this is not, in fact, the general view of analytic philosophers because, if so, it suggests how little serious thought they have given to art. (A propos, it’s interesting how susceptible philosophers of this persuasion can be to the fantasies of science fiction like time machines. Food for thought there...)
7. This is a recent comment from a contemporary philosopher (of the “analytic” persuasion, I suspect) in response to something I wrote:
When I post a letter it usually arrives at the address to which it is posted a few days later. Now should I think there is a significant philosophical question here: What is it that allows the postal service to transcend time and deliver a letter on Tuesday that was written on Monday? Why do some of my letters arrive and others not? It’s a wonder! Why is there anything more of a philosophical problem with the continued effectiveness of works of art?
I found this comment dispiriting because, despite the writer’s obvious attempt to be clever, it indicates just how little thought is being given to the notion of transcending time in the sense relevant to art. To transcend time in the relevant sense refers to the capacity of certain works to remain vital and alive despite the passage of long periods of time – to "live on", in less formal terminology – like Macbeth or Hamlet, for example, as distinct from a play by one of Shakespeares contemporaries that no longer holds our interest. A letter in the post does not “transcend time” when it goes from one place to another (a decidedly silly thought); it perhaps “transcends” distance in some vague sense of the word, but it merely takes time. I was genuinely surprised that an academic philosopher – of some standing I gathered – could make a comment as gormless as this.
8. Here’s a question someone asked after a paper I gave about Malraux’s explanation of the temporal nature of art: So is Malraux saying that any object can be a work of art?
I confess I groaned inwardly at the irrelevance of the question to the paper I had given. But that aside, let me try again.
An explanation of the relationship between art and time – and Malraux’s explanation in particular – is in no sense an attempt to propose a priori principles about what is or is not art (assuming such principles could be formulated which is very doubtful**). It is an attempt to explain, specifically, how works of art from the past that we continue to admire have endured – the manner of their temporal transcendence (taking into account inter alia that many of them were not originally viewed as “works of art”). The traditional solution to this problem is that works of art are “timeless”, impervious to time, but as I've argued in my books and articles, this is no longer a viable explanation. So, assuming we don’t simply ignore the problem (as modern aesthetics does) how do we solve it? My answer, as readers of my books and articles will know, is that art endures through a process of metamorphosis, as explained by Malraux. But even if one rejects this solution, the problem itself does not go away. One is still confronted with the unanswered questions: What is the nature of art's power of transcendence? How does it work and why?
9. It dawned on me during question time after a recent paper I gave that part of the problem people have in coming to grips with the problem of the relationship between art and time is that they have given very little thought to the significance of the power of art to transcend time. It is as if they feel that, at best, we're just dealing with another aspect of art, perhaps even something rather humdrum. This is far from the case. What other human creation defies time – i.e. resists the tide of forgetfulness that sweeps over everything else, from the latest fad to social customs to religious beliefs? Philosophy? Perhaps. But even that's doubtful. Is there a “perennial” philosophy, a set of philosophical tenets common to all ages? Greek philosophy had a hard time of it during the Middle Ages, and even now do we endorse everything that Plato and Aristotle thought, or even most of it? The special power of art to transcend time strikes us particularly forcefully if we think about ancient civilizations such as Egypt. Egyptian customs and beliefs are quite dead to us now. We can, of course, read books about Egyptian mythology but even that is like looking at museum specimens: we may learn what Anubis or Seth etc stood for but we don’t believe in Anubis or Seth and we never shall – and could not even if we tried. They belong to what Malraux calls the “charnel house of dead values”: we find their bones but that’s all. But Egyptian sculpture and wall painting is another matter. As in all cultures, some Egyptian art is mediocre, but the best of it – the most powerful heads of pharaohs and the most impressive wall paintings, for example – comes alive for us: it shares the same mysterious power to move us as (say) the Victory of Samothrace, or a Shakespearean play or Mozart. So even though Egyptian beliefs are a dead letter to us, their art – the best of it – is anything but dead. It has defied time – survived as something that still seems vital and alive despite the thousands of years that separate it from us. In my book Art and Time, I call this a power bordering on the miraculous and it clearly is. I’m not suggesting that it is literally a miracle. But it is nonetheless truly astonishing. Art in Malraux’s words is “the presence in life of what should belong to death”.
10. When I gave a seminar paper to ANU Philosophy on Analytic Aesthetics and the Dilemma of Timelessness, I was genuinely surprised to discover that a number of those present seemed to be struggling with the term “timeless”, which is vital to the argument. What did I mean by it? Did I just mean lasting a long time? I confess I was taken aback. I assumed the meaning of the word was well known, especially to people in the humanities.
Timeless, I explained, means exactly what it says: time-less, outside time; exempt from time and change; impervious to change; eternal. But there were still some puzzled looks. "Well," I said (grasping for something that might help, and remembering I was talking to a group of philosophers), "Think of Plato's 'forms'; they are supposed to be unchanging, eternal – unlike objects of sense that are subject to change. Same idea here." That seemed to help a little.
I’ve since had an inquiry by email about the meaning of the term. So let me try again because the idea is essential to the traditional understanding of the relationship between art and time (among other things).
God – the Christian God anyway – is said to be eternal. Indeed, the word is sometimes used as a synonym for God. It means the same as timeless (or immortal). It doesn't mean that God ages more slowly than the rest of us and will probably live for an unusually long time. It means that he has always been, and always will be, because unlike mere mortals, he is not affected by the passing of time: he is exempt from change. This is not an empirical issue (as my email inquirer seemed to think): it is not an observation about the apparent longevity of God; it is an attribute ascribed to the deity as deity, as a basic aspect of his nature. And, as I understand Christian doctrine, those who are saved will also live eternally; they will change in nature.
All this applies to other gods as well of course – the Greek gods, for example, such as Zeus etc. Hence the well-known phrase "the immortal gods".
How does this relate to art? Very simply. As I say in the paper, the explanation the Renaissance gave of the fact that the art of antiquity still seemed vital and alive after a gap of so many centuries was that it had a divine quality – specifically, it was, like God (or the gods), timeless, eternal, immortal. The proposition, again, was not that art would last a long time. It was that art, like divine things, was impervious to change (not in the physical sense, of course: it could be destroyed like anything else). The idea has had a huge influence on Western thought, as I point out in the paper, and still lingers on, albeit mostly as a cliché (we still hear talk about "an immortal melody", a "timeless classic" etc). I argue in the paper that the notion is no longer viable as an explanation of how art endures and that we need a replacement. Nevertheless, we cannot hope to fully understand large stretches of our cultural heritage unless we understand the role of this powerful idea. It is a factor of major importance in figures as various as Shakespeare, Pope, Hume, Kant, Joshua Reynolds (in his Discourses), many of the Romantics, and countless others – including, bizarrely enough, many writers in contemporary analytic aesthetics who seem blissfully unaware that they themselves are relying on it, this being part of the "dilemma" I refer to in the title of my paper.
I hope all this helps a little.
Questions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
"A work of art is an object, but it is also an encounter with time."
André Malraux, 1935
Biblical figure, Chartres
Horses, Chauvet, 30,000 BC
Goya, Old people
Giotto. The Kiss of Judas
Pre-Columbian. 15th century AD. Mask of Quetzalcoatl
Pharaoh Djoser. c. 2630 BC