Keith Moxey, Visual Time: The Image in History
Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 2013; 217 pages, $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.
“Where and when is the time in the history of art?” So begins Keith Moxey’s long-awaited theoretical treatise, Visual Time: The Image in History. In this seemingly innocuous sentence, “where” and “when,” two words fundamentally related to our sense of existence, invite us to situate the concept of time in the usually space-based medium of art. What in the world, one might ask, is this question getting at?
In fact, the query has a long and complex history. G.E. Lessing’s influential book Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766) dubbed literary and visual expressions the “arts of time” and the “arts of space.” Narrative and visual modes thereafter enjoyed their respective parallel universes (in theory if not always in practice), occasionally punctuated by such conceptual wormholes as academic history painting and Wagner’s ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk. However, with the invention of cinema in the late 19th century, the boundaries of these categories dissolved, opening new discussions about time and its relationships to art, space and the human mind. This debate swept through the larger intellectual landscape of the early 20th century, as evidenced by the works of Proust, Bergson, Heidegger and, of course, Einstein, to name only a few.
Ernst Gombrich was one of the first modern art historians to directly question Lessing’s neat taxonomy. In his 1964 essay “Moment and Movement in Art,” he systematically challenged the notion that a picture represents a punctum temporis, or a veritable “instant,” which he characterized as a “logical and psychological absurdity.” In fact, Gombrich’s art-historical forefathers, such as Franz Wickhoff, had already dealt extensively with continuous narrative in Roman art. And Eadweard Muybridge, with his photographic motion studies, had demonstrated that what we consciously understand as an instant stands at odds with what we physically perceive. Yet, belated as it may seem, Gombrich’s explicit formulation spurred an increased interest in exploring temporality in art, which begat the field of visual narratology and an ancillary, but growing, interest in modern cognitive studies of how time is apprehended.
But if you are expecting a 700-page exegesis of the various conceptual roles time has played in art throughout history-as David Summers’s daunting equivalent book on space once courageously attempted (Real Spaces, 2003)-you will find yourself deeply frustrated. Despite its deceptively encompassing title, Visual Time is in fact a collection of seven essays, many of them already published as stand-alone pieces, cumulatively clarifying two specific relationships between time and art history. Moxey, who teaches at Barnard College and Columbia University in New York, is not concerned here with how artworks themselves are sometimes made to suggest the passage of time or to represent temporal concepts, what we might call the time in art; rather, he is concerned with the time of art-the ways a viewer’s (especially a historian’s) take on what is now past, present or future leads to certain judgments about an artwork’s meaning or aesthetic worth. These two prime temporal relationships, which follow two “crisscrossing axes,” Moxey labels “heterochrony” (multiple contrasting experiences of time, explored in the three essays of the book’s Part I) and “anachrony” (disruptions of linear time, discussed in the four essays of Part II).
This overtly academic-sounding terminology should not be a cause for alarm. Appropriated from biology, like several other cultural neologisms (e.g.,”hybridization” by the postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha), heterochrony is simply based on something that we, as global citizens, already sense: different places operate on different times. As Bergson and Einstein argued in their own ways, temporality is multiple and asynchronic, rather than absolute and Newtonian. But so what if we know that in a small town in rural Sicily the pace of life is set by long passeggiati (regular strolls through town) and lazy afternoon sessions of grappa-sipping? So what if, by contrast, in midtown Manhattan, people dash in and out of a dozen meetings while gulping power-juices or downing double espressos in 30 seconds? What does this knowledge have to do with the history of art?
Moxey examines this question with a sensitivity derived from his long engagement with today’s many cross-disciplinary exchanges. He starts with the awareness that modernity, or artistic modernism, is a “progressive” construct tied to the dominant narrative of the West, a link vigorously criticized in postcolonial studies. His case in point is the South African artist Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993), whose work can be correctly understood, according to the canonical Euro-American timeline, only as a belated provincial adoption of the Post-Impressionist style. Moxey calls into question, and rightly so, the fatal imprint of Hegelian teleology in the practice of art history throughout the last century, a model that peaked with Clement Greenberg and was declared at its end by Arthur Danto. What, he asks, are we to make of the argument, offered by the Nigerian-born scholar and curator Olu Oguibe and others, that Sekoto’s work was not quaint or obsolete in its own context but in fact bracingly defiant-a rejection of the primitivism and ethnic “authenticity” to which whites long consigned black South African artists, in part by denying them admission to Western-style art schools? What happens after the end of art? Are we to revise the dominant narrative of art history in order to correct its trajectory? How do we even begin to weave into this narrative the surge of global art-the undeniable heterogeneity brought about by non-Western centers of power in the contemporary art scene? And how does all of this relate to historicizing our own period, the contemporary?
Seeking to avoid the trap of extreme relativism, Moxey explores these issues in Part II without offering a clear solution. But in the process, he foregrounds another important theoretical development of the past two decades: the “iconic turn.” This “pictorial” or “iconic” approach, currently fashionable in the field of visual studies, seeks to replace the idea that experience is always mediated by language (the “linguistic turn” of the previous generation) with the idea that we can more directly engage the world by “encountering” the image. This shift has given rise to the notion that artworks are not representations but, rather, presentations. In other words, artworks are not to be read and interpreted with a historical distance between subject (interpreter in the present, a living mind) and object (artwork from the past, a thing already made). Instead, once ontological primacy is given to the artwork’s presence, the artwork itself gains as much agency as the viewer. Such a collapse of subject/object is nothing new for those familiar with the phenomenological school of philosophy. In the realm of history, however, it disturbingly undermines any idea of alterity (since there is no longer a gap between consciousness and its object, the “other”), thus resulting in a problematic anachrony, or chronological displacement. Unlike historic events, which are no longer “present,” artworks-as very specific expressions of culture and personality that solidly exist through long periods of time-carry this anachrony within them. At whatever moment the viewer encounters the artwork, a matrix of new meanings is generated across space and time.
Moxey draws explicitly from recent developments in the philosophy of history, especially the works by Eelco Runia and Frank Ankersmit. These thinkers have respectively advanced the notion of “presence” and of “sublime historical experience,” concepts that update the century-old madeleine of Proust and the “flashes” of Benjamin. Past and present coalesce. Exactly how-well, that depends on the particular theory. Moxey liberally cites art-historical writings that employ such frameworks, especially works by Georges Didi-Huberman, Hans Belting, James Elkins and W.J.T. Mitchell. And more often than not, when Moxey offers his own case studies of artists such as Brueghel, Dürer and Grünewald, he modestly gives a great deal of credit to his slightly younger contemporaries. As a result, Visual Time occasionally reads more like a historiographic study than a theoretical treatise in its own right.
Moxey’s important achievement, however, lies in treating art discourse as a leading methodology within the broader discipline of history. And he does this with an explicit awareness of the idiosyncratic nature of artworks as historical objects, which many previous historians chose either to ignore or misuse. Moreover, every page is graced with an erudite yet refreshingly accessible writing style-a rare feat these days-which makes the reader feel excessively smart. So whether or not Moxey has sufficiently answered the question “when and where is the time in art history?” I will leave to the audience. But if you are not afraid to come away with more questions than you started with, this book definitely belongs within easy reach on your shelf. It is a boon to anyone interested in the philosophy of time, the nature of art, and the ever-growing contemporary discourses of history and art history.
SEUNGJUNG KIM, formerly an astrophysicist, is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Toronto. See Contributors page.