This is an English translation of a brief introduction to my book Art and Time prepared for a conference on Malraux in Paris in May 2013.
Version française en dessous.
André Malraux wrote in 1935 that “as well as being an object a work of art is also an encounter with time”. An anodyne comment at first sight, perhaps, but in reality one of crucial importance. What exactly does Malraux mean?
is not referring to the function
of time within works of art – for
example, the ways in which the passing of time might be represented in
the novel. His subject is something quite different – the external relation between art and time,
that is, the
capacity of works of art to defy the passage of time, their capacity to
across the centuries and millennia – their specific and unique capacity
to transcend time.
Examples are abundant. The tragedies of Racine and Corneille are still alive and immediate for us while hundreds of other plays written in the seventeenth century are dead and forgotten. Mozart’s music speaks to us as if it were composed yesterday while Salieri's seems covered in a thick layer of eighteenth-century dust. And while we are very happy to welcome the Victory of Samothrace into our world of art, a simple potsherd of the same epoch would surely be out of place there.
So we find ourselves confronted with a mysterious state of affairs. There seem to be certain human creations capable of defying the passage of time – of resisting the unremitting waves of change and forgetfulness that engulf all other products of human activity. It is in this sense precisely that Malraux says that a work of art is not only an object but also “an encounter with time,” because in the work of art we encounter an object that possesses a unique power to overcome time – a power to resist the ineluctable forces that lead to indifference and oblivion.
Now in one sense nothing I’m saying here is new. We are not the first to realize that art possesses a unique power to defy time. The Renaissance was intensely conscious of this power, and poets, in particular, celebrated it again and again (Shakespeare’s sonnets are an obvious example). Moreover, Renaissance thinkers went one step further: they also proposed an explanation of the way in which art defies time. Art, the Renaissance said, (and the theme is prominent in the poetry of the period) vanquishes time because it is “eternal”, “immortal” – entirely unaffected by the consequences of the passing of time. Art, in other words, inhabits a world untroubled by the passing of time – a world proof against the ephemerality characteristic of our weak and vulnerable human lives. Seen in this light, art vanquishes time because it is “timeless” – literally outside time.
This idea was extremely influential over the centuries that followed. It underpinned the new discipline of aesthetics that emerged in the eighteenth century and still plays a large, if seldom recognised, role in the contemporary philosophy of art which, as we know, derives its key ideas from Enlightenment thought. And even today it's not hard to detect the same idea in our everyday thinking – for example, when someone describes an appealing melody as “immortal”, or the publicity blurb for a novel tells us that it addresses “eternal themes”.
But there’s the rub. Do we today honestly still believe that art defies time because it is eternal or immortal? As I argued a moment ago, we can hardly deny that art does possess a unique capacity to defy time; but are we still convinced that it does so because it is invulnerable to the consequences of the passing of time – that it is timeless or eternal? The proposition strikes us as outdated, does it not – like a remnant from a previous era? The poets of the Renaissance and the thinkers of the Enlightenment seem to have had no difficulty in accepting the idea, but the world – and especially the world of art – has changed enormously since then, and if we are searching for ideas to explain the world as we now know it, can we continue to accept the claim that art is eternal or immortal?
Malraux, for his part, does not accept it at all. He willingly accepts that art possesses a unique power to defy time – and indeed this is a key theme in the theory of art expounded in The Voices of Silence and The Metamorphosis of the Gods – but he unambiguously rejects the traditional idea that art transcends time because it is eternal – that is to say, unaffected by the passage of time. Art defies time, Malraux argues, through a process of metamorphosis – a process in which time plays an essential role, a process in which works such as the sculptures on Chartres Cathedral, created at a time in history when the idea of art did not exist, can become "works of art" in a culture such as our own in which the religious beliefs of the Chartres sculptors have ceased to be comprehensible.
I do not want, today, to offer a more detailed explanation of Malraux’s idea of metamorphosis. I’ve said almost all I want to say in my two books – especially in Art and Time. I would, however, like to finish with a brief comment on the importance of the idea.
There are certain commentators who tend to read Malraux a little too quickly and claim that his idea of metamorphosis is in large measure borrowed from other writers and is not really original. Nothing could be further from the truth. The word “metamorphosis” has, of course, been used by many other writers; Malraux has no monopoly on it, or on the general notion of transformation that it usually signifies. But in Malraux’s case the idea of metamorphosis takes on a wholly new dimension. One is no longer dealing simply with the notion of transformation. One is dealing with an entirely new explanation of the relationship between art and time – a recognition that the process by which art defies time is a process of metamorphosis. This proposition Malraux borrows from no one, and one will search in vain to find other authors who use the word or the idea in this sense.
difficult to exaggerate the importance of Malraux’s proposition – or
rather his discovery. In an English academic journal I
it as “an
intellectual revolution” and I chose those words very deliberately.
revolution, I’m well aware, is far from being fully recognised and
understood because contemporary philosophers of art in Anglophone
as in France, pay very little attention to the temporal dimension of
borrow Malraux’s words, contemporary philosophers of art seem to
forgotten that as well as being an object, art is also an encounter
with time. But this
is to forget one of art's fundamental features, indeed, perhaps
most extraordinary – one might even say miraculous – features. Malraux
us of the crucial the importance of this aspect of art. Art, he
stresses, has a
unique capacity to transcend time. It is, in his words, “the presence in
life of what should belong to death”. But it overcomes time not because it is
– timeless – but through an endless process of
On m’a aimablement invité à vous dire quelques mots au sujet de mon livre sorti récemment et portant le titre Art and Time, littéralement « L’Art et le temps ». Mais plutôt que de parler de mon livre lui-même, j’aimerais évoquer très brièvement la question centrale que j’essaie d’examiner dans ces pages – la question trop souvent oubliée de la relation entre l’œuvre d’art et le temps.
Il y a quelques critiques qui ont une tendance à lire Malraux un peu trop vite, et qui concluent que son idée de la métamorphose est largement empruntée à d’autres penseurs et qu’elle n’est guère originale. Erreur capitale ! Le mot métamorphose a, bien sûr, été utilisé assez souvent par d’autres auteurs. Malraux n’a pas de monopole du vocable, ni de l’idée générale de transformation qu’il signifie. Mais chez Malraux l’idée de la métamorphose prend une dimension tout à fait neuve : l’enjeu n’est plus simplement l’idée d’une transformation ; c’est bel et bien une nouvelle explication de la relation entre l’art et le temps – une reconnaissance que le processus par lequel l’art défie le temps est précisément un processus de métamorphose. Cela Malraux ne l’emprunte nulle part, et on chercherait en vain d’autres auteurs qui auraient utilisé le mot ou l’idée dans ce sens-là.
Il est difficile d’exagérer l’importance de cette proposition – ou plutôt de cette découverte. Dans un article d’une revue anglaise, je l’ai appelé « une révolution intellectuelle » et j’ai choisi ces mots très délibérément. La révolution en question, j’en suis très conscient, n’a pas encore été pleinement reconnue parce que la philosophie contemporaine de l’art dans les pays anglo-saxons, comme en France, prête très peu d’attention à la dimension temporelle de l’art. Pour reprendre les mots de Malraux, la philosophie contemporaine de l’art semble avoir oublié que l’art n’est pas uniquement un objet mais aussi une rencontre avec le temps. Mais c’est oublier une des caractéristiques fondamentales de l’art – voire sa caractéristique la plus extraordinaire, pour ne pas dire miraculeuse. Malraux souligne l’importance capitale de cet aspect de l’art. L’art, maintient-il, possède une capacité unique de transcender le temps. C’est, écrit-il « la présence, dans la vie, de ce qui devrait appartenir à la mort ». Mais l’art ne vainc pas le temps parce qu’il est éternel - « timeless » - mais par un processus, sans fin, de métamorphose.
(Some images from the book)