The Shape of Time – Summary and Notes

Book Summary, Books & reading, Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Project 1: The Shape of Time, Research & Reflection


Art is usually defined as a symbolic language which leads to a basis of culture being anchored upon art as a symbolic expression.

Chapter 1 – The History of Things

We seem to prefer to catalogue from history certain types of art and objects. This means our archive is limited.

The systematic study of things is less than five hundred years old.

The history of art treats the least useful and most expressive.

The oldest surviving things made by men are stone tools. A continuous series runs from them to the things of today. The series has branched many times, and it has often run out into dead ends.

Everything made now is a replica or variant

Historians can cut time wherever they want to aid their own categories.

Artistic biography is very incomplete too and only really started in the 1300s

We also decide who is talented and worth remembering. Times and opportunities differ more than the degree of talent.

We tend to use biological metaphors for time and historical styles, however, it is often not the most appropriate. Biological time is continuous. Historical time of more intermittent and variable.

Although both the history of art and the history of science have the same recent origins in the eighteenth-century learning of the European Enlightenment, our inherited habit of separating art from science goes back to the ancient division between liberal and mechanical arts. The separation has had the most regrettable consequences. We miss opportunities to work together.

Science and art both deal with needs satisfied by the mind and the hands in the manufacture of things.

It wasn’t always the case that they were separated. In the past, particularly in the Renaissance, they were very much together.

The historian’s special contribution is the discovery of the manifold shapes of time. The aim of the historian, regardless of his speciality in erudition, is to portray time. He is committed to the detection and description of the shape of time.

Unless he is an annalist or a chronicler the historian communicates a pattern that was invisible to his subjects when they lived it, and unknown to his contemporaries before he detected it.

Time, like mind, is not knowable as such. We know time only indirectly by what happens in it: by observing change and permanence; by marking the succession of events among stable settings; and by noting the contrast of varying rates of change. Written documents give us a thin recent record for only a few parts of the world. In the main, our knowledge of older times is based upon visual evidence of physical and biological duration. Technological seriations of all sorts and sequences of works of art in every grade of distinction yield a finer time scale overlapping with the written record. Now that absolute confirmations by tree-rings and earth-clocks are at hand, it is astonishing in retrospect to discover how very accurate were the older guesses of relative age based upon seriations and their comparisons. The cultural clock preceded all the physical methods. It is nearly as exact, and it is a more searching method of measurement than the new absolute clocks, which often still require confirmation by cultural means, especially when the evidence itself is of mixed sorts. The cultural clock, however, runs mainly upon ruined fragments of matter recovered from refuse heaps and graveyards, from abandoned cities and buried villages. Only the arts of material nature have survived: of music and dance, of talk and ritual, of all the arts of temporal expression practically nothing is known elsewhere than in the Mediterranean world, save through traditional survivals among remote groups. Hence our working proof of the existence of nearly all older peoples is in the visual order, and it exists in matter and space rather than in time and sound. We depend for our extended knowledge of the human past mainly upon the visible products of man’s industry.

The difference between craft and art is discussed in great depth.

The nature of actuality – Actuality is when the lighthouse is dark between flashes: it is the instant between the ticks of the watch: it is a void interval slipping forever through time: the rupture between past and future: the gap at the poles of the revolving magnetic field, infinitesimally small but ultimately real. It is the inter-chronic pause when nothing is happening. It is the void between events. – It is all we ever really know.

To other animals who live more by instinct than do humans, the instant of actuality must seem far less brief.

What we sense now really happened in the past due to the speed of light. Astronomers only ever look at old light.

There is a signal to us which we interpret.

Celebrated events get to us by an unbroken alternating sequence of event, signal, recreated event, renewed signal.

In the relay, things like myths can get regenerated.

Chapter 2 – The Classing of Things

We seem to have a desire to categorise everything.

Time doesn’t always fit into our granular durations. We opt to try and categorise style instead.

T. S. Eliot was perhaps the first to note this relationship when he observed that every major work of art forces upon us a reassessment of all previous works.

Sequencing may serve as a useful scaffold to divide portions of history and styles.

When does one part of the sequence start and end?

Fashions in dress are often the shortest durations.

Tools are often the longest in duration.

Inside these are prime objects and replications.

This idea of collecting only happens in the European, Chinese and Japanese people.

Artists are obsessive types of people.

Usually, the entire range and bearing of such a career can be brought into focus only long after death, when we can place it in relation to preceding and subsequent events. But by then the shock of the innovation has faded. We may tell ourselves that these pictures or buildings once broke with the tradition. But in our present, they have entered the tradition as if by simple chronological distance.

Chapter 3 – The Propagation of Things

Our attitudes are in constant change.

Our whole cultural tradition favours the values of permanence, yet the conditions of present existence require an acceptance of continual change.

When we imagine the transposition of the men of one age into the material setting of another, we betray the nature of our ideas about historical change.

Aesthetic inventions are focused upon individual awareness: they have no therapeutic or explanatory purpose;

events. Since no two things or events can occupy the same coordinates of space and time, every act differs from its predecessors and its successors. No two things or acts can be accepted as identical. Every act is an invention.

This age dedicated to change for its own sake has also discovered the simple hierarchy of the replicas that fill the world.

Our actual perception of time depends upon regularly recurrent events, unlike our awareness of history, which depends upon unforeseeable change and variety. Without change there is no history; without regularity, there is no time. Time and history are related as rule and variation: time is the regular setting for the vagaries of history. The replica and the invention are related in the same way: a series of true inventions excluding all intervening replicas would approach chaos, and an all-embracing infinity of replicas without variation would approach formlessness. The replica relates to regularity and to time; the invention relates to variation and to history.

No act ever is completely novel, and no action can ever be quite accomplished without variation.

The usual view in our age is that obsolescence is merely an economic phenomenon occasioned by technical advances and by pricing. The cost of the maintenance of old equipment outruns the cost of its replacement with new and more efficient items. The incompleteness of this view is apparent when we consider the decision not to discard.

The retention of old things has always been a central ritual in human societies. Its contemporary expression in the public museums of the world rises from extremely deep roots, although the museums themselves are only young institutions going back to the royal collections and the cathedral treasuries of earlier ages. In a wider perspective, the ancestor cults of primitive tribes have a similar purpose, to keep present some record of the power and knowledge of vanished peoples.

The point of these distinctions is that merely useful things disappear more completely than meaningful and pleasurable things.

We often invent new variations due to boredom and a desire for something new.

Chapter 4 – Some Kinds of Duration

It is calendrical time, which permits us to arrange events one after another. But that is all. The domain of the historical sciences remains impervious to other numbers.

Calendrical time indicates nothing about the changing pace of events. The rate of change in history is not yet a matter for precise determinations: we will have advanced if only we arrive at a few ideas about the different kinds of duration.

More readily available for observation are the lives of famous artists. The pace and tone of an artist’s life can tell us much about his historical situation, although most artists’ lives are uninteresting.

These only occurred in Europe and the Far East. Africa American and India we know nothing about.

There are slow-paced, patient painters, such as Claude Lorrain and Paul Cézanne,

today. In the Middle Ages, the individual artist remains invisible behind the corporate façades of church and guild.

The number of ways for things to occupy time is probably no more unlimited than the number of ways in which matter occupies space.

History has no periodic table of elements and no classification of types or species; it has only solar time and a few old ways of grouping events, but no theory of temporal structure.

Because no work of art exists outside the linked sequences that connect every man-made object since the remotest antiquity, everything has a unique position in that system. This position is marked by coordinates of place, age, and sequence. The age of an object has not only the customary absolute value in years elapsed since it was made: age also has a systematic value in terms of the position of a thing in the pertinent sequence.

We also have a very colonial centric record as native records were often destroyed.

Our ideas about Middle Minoan time are clearer than our ideas about Europe between the World Wars, partly because less is known, partly because the ancient world was less complex, and partly because old history comes into a long perspective more easily than the close view of a recent happening.

The older the events are, the more are we likely to disregard differences of systematic age.

Self-determining sequences are much rarer, and they are harder to detect. Early Christian art was a deliberate rejection of pagan traditions. The survivals of pagan antiquity were either strategic or unconscious in early Christianity. The Christian sequence, however, rapidly became model-bound, as when the close array of these revivals of Early Christian architectural types finally constituted the Early Christian tradition.

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