Friday, May 24, 2019

Outside of Time

I am continuing to labor through a bunch of John Berger's collected essays, but I am very close to the end so you probably won't be inflicted with much more of this. I like him, because he seems to find the same central problems in Art as I do. What is "good" art? What is the difference between a "good" artist and a "bad" one? What is "genius" anyways?

In That Which is Held Berger notes that in the 19th century european culture developed the scientific fact of entropy, and with it an idea of Time as a process moving linearly forward, inevitably dissolving everything, eventually. Gone are earlier ideas of cyclical time, gone is the hope of even a steady state let alone some notion of, ultimately, growth and order. Entropy is all, the end of all things is nothingness. This is scientifically proven, in whatever sense that ought to be taken.

And yet, Art, we hope, speaks to things eternal.

The essay is, well, it might make concrete and literal sense to someone else, but as near as I can approach it it's somewhat mystical, metaphorical. I spent some time with it, and this is the result of my ruminations.

Supposing that I drop my pencil on the floor. The pencil, the floor, and I, will all end. There will, in the fullness of time, be no trace left of the event. Yet, the fact of that event exists outside of time. The truth that, once, my pencil landed on the floor with a sound like tic is eternal. Not, I think, very interesting, but anyways it does not require the passage of time for its existence.

Berger has a lot to say at this point about love and sex. One gets the sense that he was a bit of a randy old goat. What I took away from his remarks, though, is that love is one of those self-same facts which exist outside of time, which have no particular attachment to the onward flow of time toward the ultimate heat death of the universe. Love, my love for my children and my wife, is much the same sort of fact as the sound my pencil made, but it is much more interesting. At any rate, it is interesting to me.

Setting aside Berger now, let us suppose that there are these kinds of things that exist outside of time. These ideas, these facts, these notions. You could get all philosophical and argue that without an existing brain to hold them they do not exist, but the door is over there and you may let yourself out, I'll be over here with all the hash and the hot girls. Some of these facts and notions are more interesting, others are less so. Some are more universal, in the sense that they are of interest to many people, in particular more than to me.

It seems to me that Art, Good Art, is about these things. In times past, art spent a lot of effort groping at religious themes, the relationship of God to Man and so on. In those days, our understanding of time did not include entropy. Most religions included (and still include, if you want to be picky) some strong notion of cyclical time, some notion of resurrection, of rebirth, of reincarnation, so their notion of things outside of time was stronger. But still, the art spoke to those things which are in this sense timeless. Not timeless in the usual sense of I think people in the future might understand this but in the more literal sense of unconnected to time.

Nowadays, when most art is secular, we no longer attach things to the essentially timeless constructs of God, Heaven, Hell, Resurrection. But still, we grope for those things that, like the love I have for my wife, here and now in this moment, exist outside of time. My fondness for my little town of Bellingham in all its aspects is my constant theme. It's not exactly God creating Adam in the Sistine chapel, but it is in the same way outside of time, and it is of some little interest to me and some other people.

I am not certain that Berger is right that only love turns up here, but it does seem to arise a fair bit.

This is, I think, a way to understand why I dislike so much contemporary photography. There is no love. There is no timelessness, no tinge of the eternal. It's all exercises in form, exercises in local politics, scantily clad women, or some combination of those.


  1. I think your conclusion, your last paragraph, comes as close to this thing as I can figure out. As I have gotten older, I mean really older, and photography went from the wet darkroom to digital, I have been wrestling with what it is that makes it impossible for me to find contemporary photography interesting, for the most part anyhow. I used to devour photo books, magazine photo essays, and yes, advertising photography in slick women’s magazines. The old W got me excited with each new issue, now I can hardly stand to look at it. My wife mistakenly believed I was still interested in it and renewed my subscription.
    It absolutely has nothing to do with film vs digital. I actually love digital, and it seems I am very much in the minority in that respect, certainly among old farts like me.
    The question I have been asking myself is whether or not my interest in contemporary photographs [not in photography] has waned because of my age, or because of the current state of photography.
    Now there are loads of contemporary photographers I still love and admire, from Masao Yamamoto to Sally Mann and Peter Lindbergh, but I don’t think these are really the ‘contemporaries’ we have in mind here.

  2. For once, I have difficulty in following you. I understand that you're not enamoured of contemporary photography, and are trying to find out why. But there is so much in what you write that is unclear to me (and I don't want to read the Berger essay). What is this timeless love made of? What if it dies? Is it Eros or Agape or one of the other types the Greeks had words for? How can you show that modern stuff doesn't have it? Because you don't like it? I sense a hint of circularity here.

    Also, I know you are a self-professed American prude, but why drag those poor scantily-dressed women into the argument again? Because of the output of a billion GWCs? Bit unfair on the good stuff. Might as well mention street or landscape as categories also replete with rubbish.

    1. I can't promise that it's not circular, or that I understand it myself!

      The love itself isn't eternal, it is the fact that there once was love that is, in some sense. Which is sort of stupid, the fact that "my pencil once was" is equally eternal. Just not as humanly interesting.

      I'm no prude! I love nudity, also nudity in photographs!

      But nudity IS one of the lazy tropes a GWC reaches for. Street and landscape are almost invariably empty exercises in form. Sometimes nudes are as well, to be sure, but you can get Likes even if they're not. Hence my partition of the various empty shapes that photographs can assume.

      Of course, any and all of these general shapes can contain something eternal, or at least something interesting, as well. It's just that most photographers have no idea, and don't care.

  3. I thought I'd re-read that essay before commenting (oddly, it was originally published in the Village Voice in 1982) and, like you, I found his point hard to grasp. As a meditation on a painting (Giorgione's La Tempesta)it does veer off the subject pretty quickly.

    The opening Mandelstam quote reminds me of the excellent dictum that "time is what prevents everything happening at once, and space is what prevents it all happening to me"... Than which there is no greater truth. However, I *think* Bergr's point is simply that, from a progressive human point of view, scientism is not and never will be enough. Its truth is not a fully human truth.

    A famous quote of modernism is Cyril Connolly: "It is closing time in the gardens of the west and from now on an artist will be judged only by the quality of his despair". I think it's against that aesthetic of despair (in the face of, ultimately, entropy) that Berger wants art to stand.

    So why not just say so, John, FFS? There are better ways of spending a day in Venice...


    1. Science is a human construct, one way of describing some of what our senses apprehend. Scientists are forever learning what their predecessors didn't quite get right, and that's a good thing. What's not a good thing is trying to turn it into a religion.

      This is also true of art, except for the forever learning part, alas.

      What we are all just now learning is that there is no guaranteed 'eternal'; humanity's greatest achievements count for nothing without a humanity to tout them. That ought to focus our minds, probably won't.