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Art And Time

Few things represent a greater intersection of the objective and subjective than time itself. On the one hand, five minutes are five minutes no matter who you are or where (or when) you live. On the other hand, how you feel about those five minutes can vary drastically. Maybe they pass without you even thinking about them, or maybe they’re agonizingly slow as you wait for something important.

But all of that pales to the way in which art can make you rethink time.

Reimagining the Past

As Orwell famously wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Our conceptions of the past are shaped in large part by what those in power today and in the past have said the past was like, which in turn has led to massively skewed understandings of it.

For example, with men having greater economic and political power than women, too often they are accorded an outsized role in history compared to women, including leaders and artists. We teach a greater ratio of male authors, artists, and leaders than we do their female counterparts. Seventeenth and 18th century portraiture of these figures reinforced these stereotypes – men were often depicted “in action,” with weapons or books, while women were often made to pose more passively or according to Neoclassical ideals of “beauty.”

As the saying goes, “the personal is political,” and how we choose to depict the former in portraiture speaks volumes about how we commend the latter to time.

Re-envisioning the Future

As we look toward the future of our planet, we increasingly understand the need to take action on climate change. For example, landscapes have long been a way of demonstrating pastoral beauty, but by showing the effects of the ongoing climate crisis and massive, they reinforce the timeliness of action.

Art can also change how we view subjects such as race. Marginalized communities, too long denied a triumphant past in paintings over the centuries, can be depicted in new, more active and dynamic roles, inspiring whole communities to act for a better tomorrow.

Great art can be timely as well as timeless.

Great artists can, as Longfellow put it, “leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time.”

But make no mistake – great or small, all art is viewed one way or another through the prison of time.