Thursday, November 02, 2006

Some thoughts on artistic time and real time

Some kinds of artistic creation, like painting, are experienced across space - we understand them by organising all their elements visually at the same time. Others, like music or film or written narrative, unfold in a linear fashion and are experienced across time. Further, the pleasure we derive from them has its source not just in their subject matter, their content, but in how they unfold over time - how they speed up and slow down, the particular direction they take and the sequence in which their parts are presented.

If we reflect upon our aesthetic experience we realise that time as we experience it in artworks is far more intense, more "rich" with sensory detail and with feeling, than time as we know it in real life. In the best works of art not a moment is wasted: every word, every note, or every shot seems essential. By comparison with artistic time, real time is almost unbearably tedious in its aimlessness, vacancy and sheer sprawl. When we say we opened a book or put on a CD to "pass the time", we are actually saying something quite significant. One of the reasons why we need art is because it allows us not just to forget our own selves (as I argue here, here and here) but also to transcend the quotidian experience and slow time to which we are irrevocably yoked.

Of course, human beings possess the resources to fill time up, to infuse it with urgency and meaning, even without art. Those resources are the memory and the imagination, and they allow us to prepare our own homemade version of artistic time. Each one of us has a private corpus of memories of the most significant events of our lives, memories we are always reexamining and reinterpreting. What has transpired once in our lives is replayed hundreds of times in the private theatre of our minds, with the inessential details sifted out as they would have been in a work of art. And on the other hand there is the imagination, which takes unrelated elements or inchoate yearnings and, by shaping them into a sequence or a whole, creates the same satisfying richness that we derive from art.

It might be said that our memories and our fantasies are our private works of art, only occasionally sensed or glimpsed by others but constantly in our own sights. They are our way of overcoming the tyranny of the present moment, of substituting the inessential with the essential. Even more than in behaviour and in speech, they are where we are most fully ourselves. In fact, art forms like the novel are premised upon this idea, that the dredging up of a person's interior life reveals what is most essential about him or her.

Even so artistic time, itself a product of the human imagination, has a special glow. Putting down a book, or leaving a movie hall, we cross the border from one kind of time to another, and wonder if somehow our lives could not be freighted with the same richness and intensity. Of course, this is a chimerical wish: reality will never support it. But on the rare instances that we do manage to live for extended periods in a state of elevated feeling, we often find the only parallel for that experience in the intensity of artistic time. "I felt suddenly as if I could hear life's music", we say, or "It was like I was a character in a novel".


Space Bar said...

You called it the 'tyranny of the present moment'; isn't it strange that the present only sloughs off its tyranny when it becomes the past and takes on some kind of sheen or lost glamour? Or that in our fantasies we anticipate what is yet to come, so that only the before and the after are rich. Never the now.

Good to see you back!

Anonymous said...

a great and very evocative post...

these lines of yours remind me of Nabokov's Speak, Memory.

What has transpired once in our lives is replayed hundreds of times in the private theatre of our minds, with the inessential details sifted out as they would have been in a work of art. And on the other hand there is the imagination, which takes unrelated elements or inchoate yearnings and, by shaping them into a sequence or a whole, creates the same satisfying richness that we derive from art.

The book is littered with similar thoughts about memory and imagination. I don't have the book with me right now and I don't remember the paragraphs exactly.

And of course Proust was the greatest philosopher and analyst of this subjective experience of time that you talk of.

km said...

Wonderful post.

Someone said (and I'm not sure who) "a screenplay is life with all the boring bits left out".

(But you said it better: "aimlessness, vacancy and sheer sprawl" :))

Cheshire Cat said...

Good post. I would add that what we create with our own imaginations is kitsch, the most vulgar and contemptible art possible. The reason we feel redeemed by art is not that slow time is substituted with artistic time, but rather that by opening our minds we are saved from our own shopworn fantasies.

Anonymous said...

an extremely "moving" post!

i am still struggling with the following though:

"By comparison with artistic time, real time is almost unbearably tedious in its aimlessness, vacancy and sheer sprawl."

for me a lot of great art is infused with what you call real time - unbearably tedious, aimless, vacancy and sheer sprawl. i am thinking of Coetzee mostly but also Camus, mostly his non-fiction on Algeria.

Anonymous said...

Reading your post triggered my synapses to unearth unconsciously repressed literature knowledge and I was reminded of one of my favorite essays by Walter Benamin "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and I hope some of what you have written is what Benjamin speaks of, as well.

For eg. "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership."


"If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye."

Good job CC, and you also made me look up three new words in the dictionary. (Bring it on Reader's Digest Word Power!)

Chandrahas said...

Space Bar - Those are some good thoughts. But I would not suggest that the present is absolutely and continuously tyrannous. In good company, with a drink in hand, or while playing cricket, or at certain other most pleasant moments, I would not exchange the reality of the present for anything else, even if I know that I am so preoccupied with negotiating it that I may really "experience" it properly only later. The now is often very fulfilling, but unreliably so - it comes and goes whimsically.

Good to see you back here too!

Chandrahas said...

Alok and Km - Thanks very much. I'm glad you liked the post.

Cheshire Cat - Those are some intiguing if depressing suggestions. I for one feel a great fascination with that "vulgar and contemptible" art you speak of. But I see your point, and think it strongly made.

Ashish - You are quite correct. Of course the artwork's own speed of time depends on what sensations it is trying to project in the first place. If its subject is the tediousness and vacancy of real life, it would not do for it to work speedily and economically.

Rusty Wheelchair - Now that I know how to trigger your synapses, I would like to figure out how to stop your brain from directing your fingers so speedily across your PlayStation controls. That defeat at soccer on Sunday was most painful.

Next time I visit we must compare notes on whether the three words you looked up in the dictionary were the very same as the ones I looked up while writing my post.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment. What do you think of the relation between art and history? It just struck me reading your comment that actually there is a great relation between teh way that we attempt to perceive time through empathy ie history and the way that we attempt to imagine time through empathy ie art. In both senses we are taking time as conceived rather than time as experienced. Sorry I haven't quite worked this thought out but there is a difference perhaps between imagining how someone else experiences time and experiencing time in all its mundanity.

Chandrahas said...

"What do you think of the relation between art and history?"

Gracchi, my dear friend, how do you expect me to answer questions like that off the top of my head? As soon as I saw it something like an explosion went off in my head, and I felt a few walls crumbling and beams crashing to the ground. Also, it's lunchtime now, and I'm very very hungry after my morning's work. Let me think for a while about the relation between a good lunch and happiness, and then I may be able to think about the question you've asked.

By the by, I'd never even thought of the issue in the intriguing way you've laid it out. You're in a different time zone...have you had breakfast yet?

Space Bar said...


With regard to your comparison between art (time imagined) and history (time perceived):

Wouldn't you say that once an experience is imagined into art -- that is, time percived is converted into time imagined -- it stops being a perception and becomes only art?

In other words, once an experience has been made into art, how can anyone tell what it had been 'perceived' as, except through how it has been imagined?

I'm not being very coherent here! But then, I haven't thought it through either! Thanks for an interesting trigger.

Chandrahas: Gracchi's post here:

Chandrahas said...

Space Bar and Gracchi - Good work! I realise I'm onto something big here, but as you well know, in today's world nothing can be held to be of earthshaking importance unless a conference or a symposium is held on it.

Therefore I'm thinking of organising a single-day conference in January 2008 (it can't be earlier than that, because no good conference is planned on short deadlines) called Art, Time, History and the Human Subject: Linearities, Angularities, Polarities and Causalities. I tried to find something to put in brackets or with a question mark within the title, as is the current fashion, but I couldn't think of anything - we'll need help here.

The day will begin with nalli nahari and a kabab or two for breakfast at Noor Mohammadi, followed by an early beer or two at Brabourne restaurant, but after that nobody's allowed to smile or crack silly jokes, and we'll get down to serious work. All the people who've left comments here will receive a free invite, and those who've left more than one comment will be allowed to bring along one person of their choice. What do you say to this idea?

Now I'm off to lunch again - how quickly the days are passing...

Unknown said...

chanced upon ur blog!!...
awesome post!!!...every bit of word makes so much sense...
"If time flies when you're having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don't think you're having enough."--Jef Mallett,
keep posting!!!
Be Happy :-)