“Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time.” – Plato, Timaeus
Art, understood as a sort of ‘artiface’ – the etymology is important – is uniquely positioned to reveal meaning. Not because it is a source of meaning in itself, but because it does not claim to be real; it is only ever an ‘image’. This limitation is definitional, after all art wouldn’t be art if it was ‘real’, it would be something else, like an actual sunset, rather than a painting of one, or the actual experience of spring, rather than the first movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or even an actual urinal in an actual restroom, rather than the signed and sideways urinal Duchamp submitted to the Salon.
Art’s status as mere ‘image’ is also instructional. Art is lowest in the hierarchy of ‘realness’, a concept that has it’s roots in Classical philosophy. Plato began with the experience of reality (which he called the realm of shadows) and used our understanding of it as a stepping stone to understanding something higher. Thus this tangible world is less real than the world of ‘ideals’. And as art is an image of the tangible world, it is even less real than the ‘realm of shadows’.
This concept is a way of understanding how we, as creatures subject to the limits of time and space, can apprehend meaning that exceeds or transcends those limits. Seeing the world of sensory perception as merely an image does not empty it of meaning. On the contrary, it fills it with meaning because it points beyond itself.
But what does it all mean? Here is St Augustine in his Easter sermon c.411 A.D., “Their beauty is their confession.”
“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun making the day glorious with its bright beams, question the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its shining rays, question the animals that move in the waters, that amble about on dry land, that fly in the air; their souls hidden, their bodies evident; the visible bodies needing to be controlled, the invisible souls controlling them; question all these things. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look ; we’re beautiful.'”
This is what art discovers and reveals about the tangible world. Beauty understood in this way is less a quality, or attribute, than it is revelation, clarity, truth. Seeing beauty reveals the truth of a thing as much as, perhaps more than, any other enquiry. It situates this time-bound world somewhere in eternity.
Which is why I like time in my Art. It takes time to ask a question. And you have to wait to get an answer. This is a theme that I see clearly in many of my favourite artworks of the past and present. Still, observational, contemplative paintings are it’s hallmark. A stark beauty is there. And despite the apparent absence of narrative and intellectual purpose, meaning is there, because time is the catalyst in the formula, and time is there.
T.S. Eliot had this to say about the moment of creation in Genesis: “for without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave the meaning.”
There is a type of art that trades in beauty but withholds truth. That would be kitsch. Kitsch displays a remarkable lack of attention to the subject it claims to depict. For fear of this stealthy assassin of meaning whole generations of artists have abandoned beauty, and looked for meaning in it’s absence. But art that takes its time, that questions its subject with integrity, finds truth and beauty together, in the same place.