Oath of the Horatii is a neoclassical oil painting by Jacques-Loui David (1784). It is currently on display in the Louvre, Paris. It is an example of the history genre which was considered to be at the top of the hierarchy of genres.
History paintings are a form of narrative or ‘istoria’ that go back as far as the Renaissance. Acts of human virtue and intellect by moral heroes, including those in Christian stories (the dominant religion in Europe), were placed at the top of what would become the hierarchy of genres. History paintings were usually large-scale works depicting a subject based on classical history, literature or mythology from ancient Greece and Rome, a scene from the Bible, or real historical events.
History paintings were ideally suited to public spaces and large canvases. The scenes depicted were usually heroic or noble, the aim of these works being to elevate viewers’ morals. It was important that they provided the opportunity to depict the human figure – often nude or partially nude – since this subject was believed to require the greatest artistic skill. From the fifteenth until the nineteenth century, these enactments of human virtue were placed at the top of what would become the hierarchy of genres, and as a result, many artists aspired to be history painters.
The Renaissance values had a hierarchy on what they considered to be the “best” types of art. ‘History’ painting was considered to be the grande genre because, unlike the lower-ranked genres, it provided the artist with the opportunity to demonstrate (and the viewer to experience) moral force and imagination.
David’s Oath of the Horatii
Materials and techniques
Oil painting on canvas.
Monumental scale – each figure is life-size.
Required great skill, especially to depict the human body with anatomical accuracy.
Disguised brushwork (difficult to tell from a reproduction).
David’s technique was time-consuming and challenging. He had a palette of only six pigments – black, white, vermilion (red), Prussian blue, yellow ochre and burnt umber/sienna. He applied his paint meticulously with small brushes, so no strokes are visible on the finished work. This highly finished technique is typical of the Neoclassical style, which in turn is highly appropriate for the ancient Roman subject. The figures look like painted sculptures.
A form of narrative painting known as history painting.
History painting is top of the hierarchy of subject matter known as genres.
Based on classical history from ancient pagan Rome.
Focus on noble male heroes and acts of virtue, both moral and intellectual.
Inspired by the writing of Livy (59 BCE–17 CE) which was designed to establish the Emperor Augustus’ validity after the fall of the republic.
Also inspired by French dramatist Corneille’s play Horace of 1640 which David saw performed.
The three Horatii brothers are preparing to do battle with three brothers from the Curiatii family in Alba to settle the dispute between their cities. The scene depicts them swearing on their swords, held aloft by their father, to defend the city of Rome to the death.
Scene of stoic bravery and masculinity.
The apparent subject matter is Roman heroism, the real content is a comment on the French state.
Formal elements of style
David wanted a serious, academic style.
Geometric precise composition organised around groups of three – three arches, three figure groups, three brothers, three women, three swords.
Linear perspective (emphaised by chequerboard floor) to suggest an accurate illusion of three-dimensional space (a mathematical system).
Strong outline to each figure.
Single light source from left (which casts long strong shadows on the ground showing it is early morning).
Figures look solid and three-dimensional.
Figures show mass and volume and look sculptural. The muscularity of the men is heightened by the angle at which the light (which enters from upper left) rakes across the surface of their bodies, sharply delineating mass and volume.
Highlights and shadows – chiaroscuro.
Influenced by ancient classical sculpture – the plain classical Doric order of architecture (considered ‘masculine’).
The Human Form
The depiction of the human figure lies at the heart of the European art tradition. How the human figure is represented is a key to understanding any style.
The classical ideal of head : body ratio, as used for the Horatii, is 1:7.
The active heroic salute of the Horatii brothers; the limp arms of the women.
The Horatii stand strong and upright and take up space; the women are seated, in contained poses.
The stern, serious Horatii actively looking towards their father are based on the classical ideal of male beauty.
The Road is a 2006 post-apocalyptic novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy. The book details the gruelling journey of a father and his young son over a period of several months across a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed industrial civilization and almost all life.
“He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things in case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the little valley the still grey serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you okay? He said. The boy nodded. They set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
McCarthy (2006) p.4.
Why do we read texts that may leave us feeling wrung out or upset?
I think that this is a huge question that searches deep within the human psyche and is the same reason why people watch soaps like Eastenders with its daily dose of depression. Emotions of all kinds, positive and negative are what make us human. No other species seems to have the same extent and intensity of emotions as what we do. Feeling wrung out and upset connects us to other humans. I think there also could be a deal of it reminding us what the positives are in our own lives that we are to be grateful for.
The Road (McCarthy, 2006) uses a detached narrator, also called an omniscient narrator which is one that sees it all. The narrator builds the intrigue in the story by not giving us all the details at once, although they see everything, they make the story have suspense by not telling us it all.
‘He’, the man, and ‘the boy’ are nameless. Why? Does their anonymity change the way we feel about the characters? Can we still care about them without names? Do they still have an identity without a name?
Names are such an important part of personal identity that it is difficult to identify them as actual people without one. However, this adds impact to the story here as these characters could be anyone, including people we know and love, or even ourselves. It gives an open-ended yet inviting nature to them and helps to include us in the story. In everyday events that we see, we don’t always know peoples’ names, but we can still relate to them as humans.
How can we tell they’re in danger? Are they fleeing danger or do they expect to encounter it along the way? What sort of danger? Human? Animal? Elemental?
There are clues in the narrative that they are in danger without it explicitly saying so. The fact they have essential items with them in an easy to move vessel, they aren’t just out for a stroll, they anticipate needing some equipment and they may need to run with it. They are also using the mirror to watch the road in what seems a nervous way. The dialogue between them seems nervous too, with the only question being “are you okay”, there is no room for small talk. We know from the description of the surroundings that there is ash, implying a disaster, maybe a volcano eruption? The country is described as “wasted” and “empty” implying some kind of event has taken place leaving the world in ruins. We are left to guess the cause of this.
The chrome motorcycle mirror tells us the time is roughly contemporary. So what’s happened to the rest of the recognisable contemporary world? Or is the story set in the future? Post-apocalypse maybe?
We are left to our own imaginations as to what has happened. All we know is at least two people survive, the rest of the world seems empty and desolate. We know roads and chrome mirrors exist so the world had had some technology but we know nothing else of the date. This adds to the suspense and relatability as it could be a world we live in.
They are alone: ‘The road was empty.’ Where is everyone? Why are they scared if no one is around? Because no one is around? Because someone might be around?
Being alone is scary. Quietness is unsettling and your imagination can run il about what is out there. Maybe they have already encountered something? At this point, we don’t even know if they are related or not.
There’s been some sort of disaster: ‘wasted country… dead reeds … shuffling through the ash …What sort of disaster might it be?
Ash implies destruction. Maybe a volcano eruption, maybe a nuclear war, maybe wildfires. We are left to guess at this stage.
They’re on a journey with everything they own. Where are they going? Where have they come from?
All we know is that they are travelling down a road. We don’t know where they have come from, other than a place where they could gather some essentials and a cart. We don’t know where the road goes or if they even know where it goes.
The road is mentioned two times in these few lines. It is also the title of the book. What does it symbolise?
The road symbolises hope and a way out. As long as there is a road to still travel down there is a chance they can find relief at the end of the road. It symbolises their journey to find an exit to the situation they have found themselves in.
Can you spot any poetic devices in this short passage? What effect do they have?
Cormac uses metaphor throughout the piece. The man pushing the cart could be an extended metaphor for the man trying to push through this devastating situation he has found himself in. This gets repeated in the use of “shuffling through” as if movement isn’t easy, there is a sense of struggle. There is also some great use of imagery and personification with the river being described as “serpentine” we can immediately picture what it looks like. The light too is “gunmetal” which evokes far more imagery and description than if was called grey.
What other stylistic language choices does McCarthy make and why? Why might he not punctuate speech?
The language There is also a lot of the “sh” sound, giving the passage this quiet feel to it in “pushed”, “shoulders”, “shore”, “shuffling” which adds to the eerie sombre mood. There is no punctuation in the speech to make it almost seem quiet and blended into the background too. The dialogue is not the main focus, it gives the impression the characters don’t speak much to each other. They are just focused on the road and land around them.
What features give us a sense of where we are? How does McCarthy create a post-apocalyptic world? Would the impact be the same if he were to remove the man and the boy? Look carefully at the imagery, for example, the grey ‘serpentine of the river’ and ‘the gunmetal light’. What is it about the choice of metaphor that creates a sense of danger? What does the serpentine symbolise? Think biblical perhaps. What effect will biblical and religious imagery, themes and symbols have in this genre of writing?
The man and boy are the focus despite being mentioned so little. If they were removed from this scene you wouldn’t get the same sense of emptiness and isolation as it could be a world where people aren’t important at all. Including them in the scene highlights that people have a role in this situation, perhaps they were the cause of it.
By using serpentine we get a very specific image of what the river looks like, it also gives it a dangerous feel that it is a place to avoid. Snakes represent danger but more specifically hidden danger like something that is about to sneak up and attack you. Biblical themes add to the apocalyptic feel with images from the Book of Revelation and a final judgement.
What’s the prose style like? Are the sentences long or short? Are they rhythmic or choppy or stark? What impact does this have? Is the language complex or simple? Often the more dramatic or dark a piece is, the more simple and stripped back the prose. Why might this be? What would be the effect of more flowing, colourful and detailed prose?
The prose is direct and to the point, it represents a world where colour and detail have been lost. There is no time to spend on flowery descriptions, no luxury or grandeur, this is a world that is bleak and you need instinct to survive. The sentences are short with more questions than answers as there would be living in a world like this. It adds to the atmosphere and drama and makes us want to read on to find out the answers.
Cormac Mccarthy (2006). The road. London: Pan Macmillan.
I picked up Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery (Perry, 2014) recently from my local library and feel it is an excellent example of many of the points covered in Gilda Williams’ book How to Write About Contemporary Art.
Grayson Perry writes in an extremely engaging way about the roles of galleries and contemporary art and the book is also filled with some of his cartoon drawings which bring the content alive. It is a fairly short book of 134 pages but there are snippets of things to reflect on.
You can’t expect to understand conteporary art without effort. This reinforces the point in How to Write About Contemporay Art (Williams, 2014) that it is a practise that should ideally be daily. The deeper you get involved, the more enjoyment there is.
What we “like” is thought to be subjective but there is a lot of manipulation by critics, dealers and gallery owners. The art we get to ee is determined from above and curated for us. It pays to have an open mind and start to reflect on what we actually like rather than what we think we should like.
The philosophy of what art actually is fascinates me and this book dicusses a lot. Perry discuses what he calls his “boundaries” of what art is. This is an idea I want to come back to in relation to time.
Being an artist should not be about “being an artist”, all great artists do it because they want to make art. There is a balance between making what is going to please people and potentially make you an income but this childlike joy of just making art should never be lost.
Perry, G. (2014). Playing to the Gallery : Exploring the modern relationship between society and art. London, Uk: Penguin Books Australia.
Williams, G. (2014). How to write about contemporary art. Thames & Hudson.
How to Write About Contemporary Art (Williams, 2014) is one of those books I will keep returning to throughout my course. I have skimmed through the book a few times already and will use this page as a record and summary of the points I want to reflect on.
There is no one way to write about art – I think this is important to me, as I have been trying to focus on the “right” way to write and it is more about finding my own personal style.
Good art-writers read a lot from other people and look at a lot of art – this is something I need to always consider, there is no substitute for seeing lots of other people’s work and reading about it.
Writing about art is difficult – you are taking a visual medium and trying to put it into words. I can’t expect to be perfect immediately and it is okay that things will need redrafting.
Write in a clear, well structured and carefully worded way.
Describe art, its meaning and its connection to the world.
Using imaginative vocabulary that is original.
Love art, enjoy it and that will come across when writing
Practice (daily if possible)
Writing helps you understand art
Edit a lot!
Section 1 – The Job – Why Write About Contemporary Art?
Writing about art should improve the experience of it. Make the work more enjoyable.
There are two different aims of text: to explain or to evaluate.
Explaining – contextualises and describes
Evaluating – judges and interprets
It is important to remember that all texts are opinionated and subjective.
Contemporary art lead to more than just descriptions using the standards of measure (shape, colour, size etc).
New words: readymade, abstract art, minimalism (see glossary) were needed to talk about contemporary art.
I found the section on the history of art-criticism fascinating. “In pre-Revolutionary times an artwork needed chiefly to please king and clergy to acquire validation; artists mostly (but not always) catered to the tastes of these and a few other powerful patrons, whose opinions were the only ones that mattered.“ (Williams, 2014:37). How different this is to today’ society where everyone is a critic!
Linking to other schools of thought such as structuralism, post-colonialism, feminism, queer theory, gender theory, Marxist theory, psychoanalysis, literary theory.
The importance of contextualisation:
what the artwork is made of
how it fits in the artist’s lifetime
what has already been said?
events when work was created
Section 2 – The Practice: How to Write About Contemporary Art
Write only about what you know. Trust yourself, become informed and your texts will improve.
Write about artists you actually like to begin with so that it feels authentic to any reader.
There are three main questions to ask yourself:
Q1. What is it? Keep the description brief and specific. Look for meaningful details Q2. What might this mean? Explain where the meaning is in the artwork. Q3. Why does this matter to the world? Explain where this piece of art fits in world events and how it might change understanding or opinions.
Substantiation explains where your ideas come from.
This can be from factual or historical evidence or on the basis of visual evidence.
Don’t waffle as it is weak and raises more questions than answers.
Pay cloe attention to works, what makes them different. How are they similar to other pieces?
Provide readers with the steps in your thinking.
Be specific. Add titles and dates, write in the active tense, drop messy adverbs (sort of, kind of).
Flesh out descriptions.
When writing, keep the photo in front of you.
Also conider the gaps where nothing is happening.
Less is more when it comes to adjectives – one precise adjective has more power than lots of vague ones
Use interesting verbs.
Expand your vocabulary.
Revise at least two drafts.
Read your text out loud
Section 3 – The Ropes How to Write Contemporary Art Formats
I will return to this section at a later date as it contains very useful information on writing academic pieces.
Williams, G. (2014). How to write about contemporary art. Thames & Hudson.
What is time? Linear time is wrong. As you go further, time loses its structure. Quantum gravity is at the bottom of what we know and things get complicated! Time is a sequence of moments that is ordered. We intuitively assume it has a direction. The past is known as we can remember it – history. There are traces to evidence it happened. We have memories. The future has nothing, we can measure it with clocks, we have no concrete evidence it will happen. Time is a good concept for our daily lives but it stops working when we look ahead. When we look ahead, the properties don’t work. Time is layered.
How do we measure time? Clocks measure time, but they don’t all measure the same. If one goes higher, it measures different. Atomic clocks with precision can measure this error. Your head is older than your feet!
General Relativity Einstein predicted and showed that mass slows down time. This means closer to masses like the Earth, time is slower. Hence why our feet age slower than our heads. In our experience, the difference is not noticeable but we can measure it and on an astronomical scale it becomes more important. There is no single time in the universe.
What does now mean? We always see things in the past, there is no meaning of now outside small distances because of the speed of light. It takes light time to travel so when we look at an object we are seeing how it looked in the past. Again, significant for astronomical distances. There is no meaning of now outside of the bubble. We are told what is real is now, but how can it be?
Thermodynamics and Entropy The past is different from the future. Only one equation in the whole of physics shows this. The 2nd law of thermodynamics with the concept of Entropy (S). Entropy fundamentally is a statistical measure of disorder. Entropy always flows from ordered to less ordered. So it distinguishes past from future. The order is in the eye of who is looking; the order depends on what you are categorising e.g. colour, size. The past looks ordered only because of how we observe it. So, why was the universe ordered in the past? It looks ordered to us as we are the ones categorising it. To someone else with a different set of organised criteria, it may not look it. So, does it really relate to time?
Models of Time On the quantum level, it is probability only. Time is the counting of change. We can see this back in Aristotle. Newton introduced the idea of time passing but we now go back to a more Aristotelian model.
The brain and time The brain works by anticipating the future and remembering the past. It is a time machine. Does this make time a truly human construct? St Augustine wrote on this back in his Confessions. For example, we only ever hear one musical note at a time but our brain acts as a memory store for the ones we have just heard to piece it together in a phrase. We cannot think without time. In Search of Lost Time – Proust covers some of these themes. Time is always emotionally charged. The Buddhists describe this as the sense of suffering due to impermanence. Time is the root of our suffering as we never beat it.
Perhaps Time is the Greatest Mystery
Perhaps Time is the Greatest Mystery. The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time.
In those same books, I also discovered that we still don’t know how time actually works. The nature of time is perhaps the greatest remaining mystery.
Why do we remember the past and not the future? Do we exist in time, or does time exist in us? What does it really mean to say that time ‘ passes ’? What ties time to our nature as persons, to our subjectivity? What am I listening to when I listen to the passing of time?
What we call ‘ time ’ is a complex collection of structures, of two layers
Because the mystery of time is ultimately, perhaps, more about ourselves than about the cosmos.
I believe our knowledge of time has reached: up to the brink of that vast nocturnal and star-studded ocean of all that we still don’t know.
Let’s begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.
Time passes more slowly in some places, more rapidly in others
This modification of the structure of time influences, in turn, the movement of bodies, causing them to ‘ fall ’ towards each other
The Earth is a large mass and slows downtime in its vicinity
If things fall, it is due to this slowing down of time. Where time passes uniformly, in interplanetary space, things do not fall. They float, without falling
time passes more slowly for your feet than it does for your head.
Things are transformed one into another according to necessity and render justice to one another according to the order of time
the whole of our physics, and science in general, is about how things develop ‘ according to the order of time ’.
The equations tell us how things change as the time measured by a clock passes.
times that change relative to each other. Neither is truer than the other.
Times are legion: a different one for every point in space.
Einstein has given us the equations that describe how proper times develop relative to each other.
Time has lost its first aspect or layer: its unity.
If the world is upheld by the dancing Shiva, there must be ten thousand such dancing Shivas, like the dancing figures painted by Matisse …H
Past and future are different from each other. Cause precedes effect. Pain comes after a wound, not before it.
We cannot change the past; we can have regrets, remorse, memories. The future instead is uncertainty, desire, anxiety, open space, destiny
Time is not a line with two equal directions: it is an arrow with different extremities.
Rebellion is perhaps among the deepest roots of science: the refusal to accept the present order of things.
All of the sons of Adam are part of one single body, They are of the same essence. When time afflicts us with pain In one part of that body All the other parts feel it too. If you fail to feel the pain of others You do not deserve the name of man.
poetry is another of science’s deepest roots: the capacity to see beyond the visible.
Rudolf Clausius. It is he who grasps the fundamental issue at stake, formulating a law that was destined to become famous: if nothing else around it changes
heat cannot pass from a cold body to a hot one.
This is the only basic law of physics that distinguishes the past from the future.
one of these equations distinguishes the past from the future.
In the elementary equations of the world, 5 the arrow of time appears only where there is heat.fn1 The link between time and heat is therefore fundamental: every time a difference is manifested between the past and the future, heat is involved. In every sequence of events that becomes absurd if projected backwards, there is something that is heating up
Only where there is heat is there a distinction between past and future.
‘ the second principle of thermodynamics ’
heat passes only from hot bodies to cold, never the other way round.
heat passes from hot to cold, and not vice versa: by shuffling, by the natural disordering of everything. The growth of entropy is nothing other than the ubiquitous and familiar natural increase of disorder.
If we think about it carefully, every configuration is particular, every configuration is singular, if we look at all of its details, since every configuration always has something about it that characterizes it uniquely. Just as, for its mother, every child is particular and unique
Yes. If I observe the microscopic state of things, then the difference between past and future vanishes.
In a microscopic description, there can be no sense in which the past is different from the future.
the difference between the past and the future refers only to our own blurred vision of the world.
there is nothing intrinsic about the flowing of time. That it is only the blurred reflection of a mysterious improbability of the universe at a point in the past.
The consequence of this discovery for our basic intuitive perception of time is the most devastating of all.
Time passes more slowly for the one who keeps moving
For everything that moves, time passes more slowly.
Nobody had imagined previously that time could be different for a stationary watch and one that was being moved.
Not only is there no single time for different places – there is not even a single time for any particular place
‘ Now ’ Means Nothing
The light takes time to reach you, let’s say a few nanoseconds – a tiny fraction of a second – therefore, you are not quite seeing what she is doing now but what she was doing a few nanoseconds ago.
The truth of the matter is that we need to give up asking the question
The notion of ‘ the present ’ refers to things that are close to us, not to anything that is far away
Our ‘ present ’ does not extend throughout the universe. It is like a bubble around us
As humans, we distinguish tenths of a second only with great difficulty; we can easily consider our entire planet to be like a single bubble where we can speak of the present as if it were an instant shared by us all.
The idea that a well-defined now exists throughout the universe is an illusion, an illegitimate extrapolation of our own experience
there is no such thing as “ the same moment ” definable in the universe
A partial order establishes a relation of before and after between certain elements, but not between any two of them.
The temporal structure of the universe is very similar to this one. It is also made of cones.
defines an order between the events of the universe that is partial, not complete.
The expanded present is the set of events that are neither past nor future
Every event has its past, its future and a part of the universe that is neither past nor future, just as every person has forebears, descendants and others who are neither forebears nor descendants.
Light travels along the oblique lines that delimit these cones. This is why we call them ‘ light cones
This is the structure of spacetime that Einstein understood when he was twenty-five years old
When a gravitational wave passes, for example, the small light cones oscillate together from right to left, like ears of wheat blown by the wind.
In this way, a continuous trajectory towards the future returns to the originating event, to where it began.
This is because the mass of the black hole slows time to such a degree that, at its border ( called the ‘ horizon ’ ), time stands still
So, to exit from a black hole, you would need to move ( like the trajectory marked in black in the following diagram ) towards the present rather than towards the future!
More than a hundred years have passed since we learned that the ‘ present of the universe ’ does not exist. And yet this continues to confound us and still seems difficult to conceptualize
If the present has no meaning, then what ‘ exists ’ in the universe? Is not what ‘ exists ’ precisely what is here ‘ in the present ’?
‘ How long is forever ? ’ asks Alice. ‘ Sometimes, just one second, ’ replies the White Rabbit.
Time is elastic in our personal experience of it.
On the one hand, time is structured by the liturgical calendar
For centuries, we have divided time into days. The word ‘ time ’ derives from an Indo – European root – di or dai – meaning ‘ to divide ’.
Sundials, hourglasses and water clocks already existed in the ancient world
It is only in the fourteenth century in Europe that people’s lives start to be regulated by mechanical clocks.
Gradually, time slips from the hands of the angels and into those of the mathematicians
For centuries, as long as travel was on horseback, on foot or in carriages, there was no reason to synchronize clocks between one place and another.
It is in the United States that the first attempt is made to standardize time.
In 1883 a compromise is reached with the idea of dividing the world into time zones
Einstein worked in the Swiss Patent Office, dealing specifically with patents relating to the synchronization of clocks at railway stations.
The rhythm of the day followed by night also regulates the lives of plants and animals.
Diurnal rhythms are ubiquitous in the natural world. They are essential to life,
Living organisms are full of clocks of various kinds – molecular, neuronal, chemical, hormonal – each of them more or less in tune with the others
The diurnal rhythm is an elementary source of our idea of time
In the ancient consciousness of humanity, time is, above all, this counting of days.
counting how things change.
Aristotle is the first we are aware of to have asked himself the question ‘ What is time? ’
time is the measurement of change.
Time is the measure of change: 8 if nothing changes, there is no time.
the existence of a time that is uniform, independent of things and of their movement which today seems so natural to us is not an ancient intuition that is natural to humanity itself. It’s an idea of Newton’s.
Legend has it that Leibniz, whose name is still occasionally spelt with a ‘ t ’ ( Leibnitz ), had deliberately dropped the letter from his name following his belief in the nonexistence of the absolute Newtonian time t.
Don’t take your intuitions and ideas to be ‘ natural ’: they are often the products of the ideas of audacious thinkers who came before us.
That which seems intuitive to us now is the result of scientific and philosophical elaborations in the past.
Remember the clocks in Chapter 1 that slow down in the vicinity of a mass? They slow down because there is, in a precise sense, ‘ less ’ gravitational field there. There is less time there.
Time thus becomes part of a complicated geometry woven together with the geometry of space.
the residual temporal scaffolding of general relativity, illustrated in the previous chapter, also falls away if we take quanta into account.
The time measured by a clock is ‘ quantified ’, that is to say, it acquires only certain values and not others. It is as if time were granular rather than continuous.
A minimum interval of time exists. Below this, the notion of time does not exist – even in its most basic meaning.
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.
Peter Kalb is an associate professor of contemporary art at Brandeis University. The book Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary “charts the story of art in contemporary global culture while holding up a mirror to our society.” “The political and cultural transformations of the early 1980s developed a new era of accord between communist states and western-style economics. The art world has since been reconceived and today we see record-breaking sales of contemporary art and a dramatic rise in the number of students taking courses in the visual and performing arts. Kalb approaches art from multiple angles, addressing issues of artistic production, display, critical reception and social content. Alongside his analysis of specific works of art, he also builds a framework for readers to increase their knowledge and enhance critical and theoretical thinking.”
My immediate thought when finding out about the author and then skimming through the artists mentioned is that the whole chapter is a very white western male perspective.
The excerpt we were given is from Chapter 11: The Art of Contemporary Experience. It is difficult to find a copy of the whole book to understand how this chapter fits in the rest of the book.
My overall summary of the chapter is that it is a reflection on how we experience creative art, both how the artist intends the experience and how a participator actually experiences it. There are many interesting points to consider throughout the chapter. I think one of the things that stands out to me is this idea of subjectivity and objectivity. Is there really any experience that is truly objective? So much of what we experience is based on our own perceptions. Even though on a biological level, the mechanism behind the senses may be the same from person to person, there is such a range of how that is actually interpreted. Light with the same wavelength may trigger the exact same response in the retina but how that is processed by the visual cortex is so different. At what point does that difference occur? Taking the colour example, the colour can seem different when it is next to other colours, it can evoke different memories in different people, there are people even who have certain smells associated with different colours. There may also be people who have colour blindness who see a completely different colour. Maybe some don’t see colour at all. We have different colour preferences too. Why do we all interpret something that has a very physical property such a wavelength, so differently? Is there a true and real colour? Culture and society also have a huge impact, we associate different colours with themes. Green for example is the environment but then may differ in different cultures. As stated in the opening paragraph, they are in perpetual flux too. Time constantly changes our perspective and like mentioned later in the chapter, there is a reminder that we can never experience a first again. Once we have seen something the memory of that will always have an impact on how we view it the second time. Perhaps this is what time is, a hard line that is drawn where we can’t go back to experience something again. This makes me think about people who have memory loss, are they experiencing something new again? Or is there always some residual memory there that impacts their experience, even if it isn’t conscious?
The chapter looks at different ways that different artists have tried to consider this experience and how they have tried to test the ability to measure experiences accurately. They “demand viewers layer their sensual apprehension of form with an intellectual analysis of content”.
The chapter (and book) focuses on the post-1980s as it is felt this is when we as a society became more self-conscious. What was it about the 80s and 90s? Post-modernism : “Postmodern art drew on the philosophy of the mid to late twentieth century, and advocated that individual experience and interpretation of our experience was more concrete than abstract principles”.
This idea of examining what we see isn’t new. 18th-century Baroque art challenged the idea of the present with the ethereal realm of the divine.
The 1960s – Light and Space art aimed to allow people to view just the abstract effects of lights, colour and space and be free from specific cultural references. Is this truly possible? Or are we always influenced by culture and history – unconscious bias?
James Turrell is someone who creates art where shadows, reflections and solid objects are all equally real. It isn’t about fooling the eye in an optical illusion way, it is about letting people view something and reach their own conclusions.
We know our senses aren’t always accurate and there are people who suffer from memory loss. In these situations, how do we regain our bearings? This is something Eliasson tries to play with. Your strange certainty deliberately confuses. Water stops mid-air, fake electric storms are created. You know when you see it that it isn’t a real storm but the sense of wonder is no less powerful.
“Light and Space artists heighten our awareness of the human being as a sensing body”. We rely on our senses more than we realise – when they are taken away we often notice what is missing. For example, how different food tastes when you lose a sense of smell.
Your colour memory by Eliasson is a curved wall that changes colour. Due to the way the retina deals with light colours, as the colour of the wall changes, there is an afterimage. Each viewer’s experience is dependent on when he or she entered the piece, and the combinations of colour and afterimage will be different for everyone. This reminds me of the music piece where it is up to the composer and no piece is the same. John Cage’s Piano Concert (1957) there the order and inclusion of parts is at the performer’s discretion. So each performance will be different.
Ernesto Neto challenges the duality of body and mind. “body-minds that we connect the things in this world, in life- the way we touch, the way we feel, the way we think and the way we deal.”
Neto’s understanding of the mind-body, his perception of the world we encounter, either in the artwork or outside it, is as a “cultural-physical” entity. That art should be about trying to create experiences.
Roni Horn’s Things that happen again is one of the most interesting pieces mentioned in the chapter. It is two identical copper cones that are placed in two different rooms that are next to each other. The piece needs time and memory
You go into a space and see a simple disc. It doesn’t look like much: it isn’t until you walk in and see that it is a three-dimensional cone-shaped object which is familiar but has certain subtle formal qualities which make it different, which take away from it being familiar. It becomes memorable. Then you go into the next room and enact exactly the same experience, but of course, it’s unexpected and it’s so many minutes later; it’s a slightly younger experience in your life. Whereas when you walked into the first room, you had the experience of sometl1ing unique, you can’t have that a second time.
It is a very insightful way of highlighting that everything we see we are influenced by past experience. This idea of things being identical is a paradox, you always have one that is here and one that is there. Time and place have such an important role in something’s identity.
Another artist mentioned in the chapter I am fascinated by is Mark Dion and his work On Tropical Nature. Perhaps it is because I resonate with him mixing biology and art and his idea of interdisciplinarity between the two. It is early environmental art. I also am intrigued by his references to the way we want to classify and categorise everything. It seems a very human need. Like the historians who want to categorise time into distinct periods. Dion gathered different curiosities from his trips and placed them together, leaving the viewer puzzled as to why they were together. It makes us think about why museums choose the collections they do. Who gets to decide what is valuable enough to put on show. If you look at children and the way they treasure the strangest of things at times, it can often seem illogical too. But isn’t every categorising illogical and influenced by someone? It reminds me of a scene early in Stalker where the three men are talking in the bar before they set off to the zone. One tells the tale of an artefact in a museum that was found to be fake to trick archaeologists. Before this was discovered everyone viewed the item with “oohs and ahhs”. After the discovery of its deception, it was deemed worthless. Why do we place value on some items and not others? Is art really the influence of galleries, is this the same thing the Land Artists were running from? Some things also lose their value when placed in a gallery or museum. Like the hemlock tree in Dion’s Vivarium. It can no longer contribute to the greater environment even though it can be grown inside for decades
I am hugely passionate about reading about subjects. Reading gives you an insight into the mind of other people in a very intimate way. It is the way we share ideas, collaborate, challenge our own ideas and knowledge, develop our understanding and find new ways of working.
When I looked into the Spiral Jetty and reflected on why I was drawn to it, part of that intrigue is from it being a spiral itself. Spirals to me are fascinating on all sorts of levels. Give a young child a pencil and one of the first things he or she is likely to draw is a spiral. They are simple shapes, and perhaps one of the first we learn to draw, but they often have much deeper meanings. I am very interested in the ancient Celts, and a lot of their art and symbols are based on spirals, but also they appear across the ancient world. This to me, gives them an even more symbolic and mythological status. Artists through time have been drawn to the spiral too and I want to explore more of the meaning behind this and look at more examples of where they have been used.
What is a Spiral?
In simple mathematical terms, a spiral is a curve that moves further away from the centre point as it revolves. Spirals can be 2D or 3D and there are many types.
Archimedean Spiral: The distance between the spiral arms remains constant, it is like a curve of parallel lines. These are important in geometry as they are what Archimedes used in 225 BC to square the circle and Archimedes wrote a whole treatise on these called ‘On Spirals’ showing their significance to ancient knowledge.
Fermat’s Spiral: Fermat’s spirals are interesting. They are similar to Archimedean spirals, but the distance between the arms does not remain constant. Instead, it is the area between neighbouring arcs that is constant which effectively makes the spiral come closer together as it expands outwards.
In mature flower discs (phyllotaxis) such as in sunflowers and daisies, the shape of the spirals is that of a Fermat spiral. This is a concept explored by John Edmark who makes some incredible pieces of art using spirals.
The Logarithmic spiral: This is a spiral that often appears in nature. It differs from the archimedean spiral by the fact that the distances between the arms increase each time. These spirals are throughout nature. Hawks use them to approach their prey, the arms of spiral galaxies are often this shape, shells follow this pattern, hurricanes, nerves of the cornea also follow this shape.
A special case of the logarithmic spiral is the Fibonacci Spiral: Fibonacci spirals are also called the Golden spiral as it is one where the growth factor of the spiral is exactly equal to the golden ratio.
Triskeles are ancient motifs consisting of a triple spiral. These are found across neolithic artefacts and continue into the iron age and the beginning of the classical period.
Spirals are ubiquitous throughout periods of history. They have been found as decorative motifs as far back as 10,000 BCE. We have more examples of them as Neolithic symbols throughout Europe.
One of the most famous examples is a prehistoric monument with a grand passage tomb built around 3200 BC at Newgrange in Ireland. We don’t know for sure what the site was used for, but it is believed to have huge religious significance and keeping time was important to the people as many of the tombs are aligned with solstices and equinoxes. Various archaeologists have speculated as to the meaning of the spiral designs, some think them to be purely decorative, whereas some hypothesise due to the placement of them, think they are much more symbolic. Many of the spirals are placed where they wouldn’t be visible which negates some of the theory that they are purely for decoration.
When you look into the Irish myths, there are other explanations for the meaning behind the symbols at Newgrange. Newgrange is described as a portal to the Otherworld, which is the ancient Irish underworld dwelling of the divine.
I find this an interesting link to the Spiral Jetty which also has roots in local mythology as a place of being a portal to another world.
In the Irish case, the link to time is even more apparent. One of the Irish Gods, the Dagda, has the ability to make time stand still by stopping the Sun. It has been suggested that the tale represents the Winter Solstice illumination of Newgrange. (Hensey, Robert. Re-discovering the winter solstice alignment at Newgrange, in The Oxford Handbook of Light in Archaeology. Oxford University Press, 2017. pp.11-13)
As well as in Ireland, spirals are found throughout the world. They are throughout pre-Columbian art in Latin and Central America, in rock carvings in Mexico, Peru as universal petroglyphs. Across Asia too where they are often interpreted as solar symbols.
The spiral has inspired artists for generations. Robert Smithson is one example but there are dozens of other examples too. In modern animation and anime, spirals are often present, one example is in the anime Gurren Lagann where the spiral represents a philosophy of life.
Spiral – Art Collective
When I was researching spirals in art, I came across it being used as a name of a New York-based African American collective that was formed in 1963 with the aim of addressing how African American artists should respond to America’s changing political and cultural landscape.
What I find interesting about this, is that it is from a similar era to Smithson and many of the artists with the group were abstract expressionists, like Smithson started as. The Land Art movement in which Smithson was part of was motivated by the political climate and a desire to get away from the gallery centred art. The Spiral group of artists were also “ignored by many of the proponents of abstract expressionism, like the critic Clement Greenberg; who said their art was too autobiographical to be considered.”
Spirals: the whirled image in twentieth-century literature and art – Nico Israel
As part of my research into Spirals, I read this book.
I hadn’t considered the role of Spirals in literature as much as those in visual art. This book made me contemplate many more examples.
“Spirals have a curious centrality in some of the best-known and most significant twentieth-century literature and visual art. Consider the writings of W. B. Yeats, whose Vision was entranced by a system of widening and narrowing gyres; Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, whose poetry traced Dantesque helical journeys into and out of the modern urban inferno; and James Joyce, whose Ulysses navigated between the Scylla of Aristotelianism and the Charybdis of Platonism, ultimately casting both into the Wake of a thunderous Viconian “gyrotundo.” Or think, later in the century, of Samuel Beckett’s obsessive circuitry and abortive spiral journeys or of W. G. Sebald, for whom spiral rings signaled the vertiginous emanations of historical trauma.”
In the introduction to this book, we find the author Nico Israel was inspired to write the whole book after visiting the Spiral Jetty in Utah. When he returned to New York, he read more about Smithson’s project and found how inspired Smithson was by literature and not other pieces of visual art. Smithson had handwritten, under the title “A Metamorphoses of Spirals,” a series of quotations of short passages from some twenty-one texts.
I am going to write up this book in a different post to collate the notes together.