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Narrative

Narrative

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Published by: nighb on Sep 05, 2010
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07/08/2014

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 Note to readers: This is an unfinished essay on the depiction of time in visual art. It was originally posted on
 
http://www.jameselkins.com/html/upcoming.html.The essay is in two parts: the first is a survey of representations of time in art; it issimilar to the first part of the essay on space and form posted on the same website.The second part of the essay surveys the current possibilities of narrative in visual art; it is similar to the second part of the essay on space and form. Note to students in
Issues in Visual and Critical Studies:
skip the first part of thistext; we will go over it with slides in class. Begin reading at the heading: “ThePlace of Narrative in Contemporary Art.”Send comments, criticism, etc., to jelkins@artic.edu.
Time and Narrative
James Elkins
In art schools and universities, there is often a distinction between art works thatinvolve time, such as performance, sound and music, film, animation, and video,and those that do not, including drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpting.The former are sometimes called 4–D to distinguish them from media that are2–D and 3–D. For that reason, the study of time gets pushed out of the
 
Chapter 5
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mainstream, and students virtually always begin with 2–D and work their waytoward 4–D.But it is not possible to claim that the theme of time is absent from picturesand sculptures. All visual art changes through time: it fades, yellows, chips,decays, becomes scratched, cracked, or dusty, and eventually—over the passage ocenturies—it is mutilated, crushed, burned, or lost. But even if we choose to think only of the present, there are the questions of how long it took to make the work,how long it takes to see it, how long we will remember it. In addition many 2–Dand 3–D works have to do with time: they are about the passage of time, or theyshow things in motion—seasons, clocks, people growing older.
1
It may seem as if visual art is different from novels or music because it is all seen at once, in aninstant: but we do not see things in an instant, and we do not stop seeing themafter an instant. It takes time to see a painting, and that time is part of what thepainting means.For these reasons and others, all visual art has to do with time, and it can beargued that it is not sensible to talk about objects without talking about time. Anobject, Heidegger says, is a thing that exists at a certain place and a certain time.If I take two apparently identical pine needles, I can tell them apart because theycannot be in the same place at the same time. Each one has a place and a time, 
1P. Souriau, “Time and the Plastic Arts,
 Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
vii (1949):294-307, Souriau,
The Aesthetics of Movement 
(Amherst, 1983), C. Gottlieb, “Movement inPainting,”
 Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
xvii (1958): [], [] Lamblin,
Peinture et temps
(Paris, 1983).
 
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even if it doesn’t have a form that is different from other pine needles.
2
Time isthere at the basis of our way of thinking about objects.
3
W
AYS OF REPRESENTING TIME
Time can become part of art works in many ways. The subject is toocomplicated to be classified any one way; here is a list of examples what we willexplore in the course of this chapter.(1) Art works can represent
 
motion by showing walking and runningpeople, waterfalls, moving cars, and shooting stars. We might say that suchpictures try to represent gesture or movement. Abstract paintings often do justthat, by recording sweeping gestures complete with paint splatters and “mistakes.”Representations of motion might be thought of as narratives that take place over just a few moments, but I put them in a separate category since visual narrativeshave traditionally been composed of separate, static scenes. (Comic books are anexception, where superheroes might be shown in motion in a single cell, and alsoin a narrative sequence composed of several cells.) 
2Martin Heidegger,
What is a Thing?
translated by W. B. Burton, Jr., and Vera Deutsch(Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1967), 15-16.3See further M. Capek, “Time,”
 Dictionary of the History of Ideas,
edited by []
 
(New York,1973), vol. 4, 389a ff.

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