Art and Time

Each art form has a distinct relationship to time, both intrinsically and as experienced by the viewer (or hearer). Much of this discussion may seem obvious, but a few interesting perspectives emerged when I considered the question systematically.

Static visual arts, such as painting, drawing, photography and sculpture, also architecture, are intrinsically timeless, even though they are subject, like everything, to sudden damage and gradual decay. One’s experience of a static work nevertheless takes time. As one examines a work one may perceive deeper meanings and resonances. One can focus on a detail, or step back to view the work as a whole. This is especially true of three-dimensional works such as sculpture and architecture, where the viewer has to move around or through the work to appreciate it properly. Only after viewing it from many perspectives and vantage points can one claim to have fully experienced it. One’s ideas and feelings about a work can also develop through memory, comparison with other works, or repeated viewings over a lifetime.

The dissonance between a static depiction and a moving subject underlies this lyric from All the Rowboats by Regina Spektor:

First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up
Masterpieces serving maximum sentences
It’s their own fault for being timeless
There’s a price to pay and a consequence
All the galleries, the museums
They will stay there forever and a day

All the rowboats in oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away

Installations can create an immersive experience as the viewer explores an imagined space.

Some static works are designed to create a specific aesthetic experience when the viewer moves in a particular way. This can be jokey, but also profound.

Op art can create the impression of movement through clever stimulation of our optical processes (although in this case the work actually moves as well).

Mobile works of visual art are intended to change through time. In addition to all the ways in which a static work can affect us over time, a mobile work calls for viewing over time as it changes form. The work may have a regular cycle that can be fully appreciated, or it may change kaleidoscopically in apparently unlimited variety, in which case one watches long enough to appreciate the work while never being sure one has seen everything it has to offer.

This work appears at first glance to be static but rewards the patient viewer with a surprising change.

The moving finger in this work creates a wavy line, which the remorseless level destroys.

In sharp contrast with static art forms, the performing arts — music, dance and theater — can only be experienced through time. Cinema, including a recorded performance, is by definition preserved in a static medium, but likewise is only experienced over time. In both cases the creators control what the viewer or hearer perceives, from what perspective, when and how long. This is unlike the experience of a static work, which a viewer can move around or through. A live performance is unique, and takes place in “real time,” while a movie or recorded performance reproduces a frozen interval of time. You can replay something recorded but you can never return to the actual experience of a live performance.

Literature, like cinema, is preserved in static form, but is experienced through time. Unlike cinema a reader decides how to interact with the work: how fast to read, whether to go back over a difficult or interesting passage, whether to skip ahead.

Art can please and thrill without necessarily telling a story. This is often the case with the static arts of painting and sculpture, and the performance arts of music and dance. Poetry, similarly, may simply capture an idea or momentary perception. This can also be true of experimental theater or cinema, but more often a play or movie, like a novel or short story, does tell a story that itself moves through time. Opera always tells a story, and so can any other art form.

A story can proceed linearly, moment by moment. It can employ flashbacks. It can jump around in time, or even go backward (like the movie Memento and the Pinter play Betrayal). Each scene of a story, however, proceeds moment by moment, as we experience time ourselves. A suspenseful story grips us through the unfolding of time’s mystery.

The impetus for this post, in fact, was The Sparsholt Affair, the latest novel by Alan Hollinghurst. Like his previous book, The Stranger’s Child, this novel is composed of several parts, each of which jumps forward years or decades from the previous one. This format enables Hollinghurst to tell epic stories, covering generations and lifetimes, without epic length. By skipping great periods of time he leaves us to puzzle out, from clues in each part, what has happened in the meantime. These great books are imbued not only with the mystery and ultimate unknowability of the future, but also with the mystery and ultimate unknowability of the past.