Friday, July 27, 2007

Timeliness and Timelessness in Art

Anthropologist and cultural theorist Robert Philen has a recent piece on his always fascinating blog on "Great Art, Timeliness, and Timelessness".

Here are a couple of quotes from this insightful essay.

"Great art always has two qualities with relation to temporality. It is of its moment – any art cannot help but be shaped by the realities of the era, but great art also reflects and shapes its moment, and does so in a different manner than equally great art of an earlier era. It is timely. Simultaneously, great art transcends its moment, it communicates powerfully well after its creation. It is timeless.

"It is possible to have the first quality without the second, that is, to be timely without being timeless."

"While timely art without timelessness is a clear possibility, I’m not convinced that the second quality of great art, timelessness, is possible without the first, timeliness. Part of what allows for transcendence is the artist’s tapping into a universal human experience, that of grappling with reality, attempting to understand one’s surroundings and reality and attempting to shape that reality, and presenting this in artistic form requires a grappling with and groundedness in contemporary reality. In great art, we see a union of the concrete and timely and the universal and timeless."

I urge all interested parties to read the entire piece. Philen promises a follow-up piece in which he will apply these ideas to the work of the jazz and classical trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.


Unknown said...

Per timeliness--there are numerous iterations of this, right? or are there; I mean, it seems to me that there are almost limitless ways to be 'of the moment' from the subject matter to the language. I realize that this is a pretty useless contribution--I really ask to be able to come a little bit 'closer' to the idea of timeliness....

timeless-ness though is something else. I mean I agree that both are? have to be? present in a great work of art--but certainly the less-great are full of timliness without timelessness: topical trash, polemical stuff, all manner of other works that, as vv nabokov said, dress up as something else but are really just topical trash in disguise....

but right, so anyway, sorry to be interruptive and annoying (among other things!)--but i was thinking of these things as I read...I'd also like to read the entire piece when i get a minute.

Andrew Aulino

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Andrew,

Thanks for your comments. I'm so glad that you are reading my blog and that it prompted a response from you.

The rest of Robert's piece makes clear that most art is at best timely (some not even that), with no element of timelessness. And of course to make timelessness one's main aim is almost to guarantee failure, since that usually leads to stiff, lifeless art that connects neither with its own time or with later times.

Take good care. Again, I'm so pleased that you are reading this blog.

all best,


Jonathan said...

That's a good post (the one you iiinked to [thanks for that]) but i think the idea of "timelessness" might be refined even further. A work of art has a multiple temporal existence, reaching back into the past, being the product of the present, and being "timeless," that is, available to other future times not yet envisioned at the moment of creation. When I read a poem written by Frank O'Hara in the 50s, it seems dated, of its time, yet still fresh (of my own time.) Yet those two perceptions aren't in conflict with each other. I feel that he is fresh to me now because of his "timeliness" at the time he wrote the poem. The only way to be ahead of your time is to be of your time in the first place. I don't see it as a transcendence of all time, but as a very particular relation between the time of the poet and the time of the reader. Not timelesssness as absolute transcendence, but as temporal relation between two or three moments in time.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Jonathan,

Thanks for your insightful comment. I agree and I know Robert does too that while a work can be timely without being timeless, it can't be timeless without also being timely, of its time, that timelessness is, as you put it, a continuing relationship among several temporal moments. In Robert's words, "In great art, we see a union of the concrete and timely and the universal and timeless."

Take good care, and thanks for reading and writing.

all best,


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