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.