Great art always has two qualities with relation to temporality. It is of its moment – any art cannot help but be shaped by the realities of the era, but great art also reflects and shapes its moment, and does so in a different manner than equally great art of an earlier era. It is timely. Simultaneously, great art transcends its moment, it communicates powerfully well after its creation. It is timeless.
It is possible to have the first quality without the second, that is, to be timely without being timeless. This is, in fact, common. Most art quickly appears “dated,” occasionally literally, e.g. Gold Diggers of 1935; Airport 1975; Dracula 2000. (This quality of most art to become dated might not appear so from a view of any standard history of art, but that’s because the works that tend to be included for consideration are not the numerically more common works that do appear dated from any cultural and historical context. I think one great service of cable movie channels like Turner Classic Movies or American Movie classics, in their need to find 24 hours per day of programming, is to remind us that, contrary to nostalgic sentiment, not all movies of the 1930s or 1940s lived up to the standards of Casablanca or Citizen Kane. Despite its intriguing title, Earthworm Tractors is not great art.)
This is also a good point to clarify further what I mean in this instance by great art. I am here focusing on aesthetic greatness. (Contrary to claims that this is strictly a modernist fetish, I’ve argued elsewhere (see The Purposes of Art and Troy and the Purposes of Art) that a focus on the aesthetic qualities of a work can be discerned in a wide variety of cultural and historical contexts. “Art for art’s sake alone” might be a primarily modernist aim (which doesn’t make it bad, necessarily), but a concern with aesthetic timeliness and timelessness is much broader if not universal.) Art can have other functions than the production of aesthetic pleasure and wonder. With much art that appears dated, there is simply a failure to transcend the moment, but some art trades off timelessness for greater timeliness for non-aesthetic purposes. I have in mind especially comedy (in the contemporary, not the Shakespearean or Classical sense) or political art.
Most film/video comedies aim first and foremost to be popular entertainments. They are money makers for corporate studios. Many of the yucks are topical references that quickly lose their humor. Many of the movies I remember finding hilarious in the 1980s seem dull and hollow when I spot clips of them on TV now. Part of this is that I was a teenager in the ‘80s, and I’m (hopefully) more mature now, but much of it is that the humor is simply dated and not particularly funny now that’s it’s lost its timeliness. Timeless humor is notoriously difficult to create. Shakespeare succeeded, e.g. with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (with whom Tom Stoppard later succeeded brilliantly again). So did Charlie Chaplin, but few others have. (Comedy is not the only genre that emphasizes timeliness at the cost of timelessness. The action and horror film genres tend to do the same. For example, the current and sick horror sub-genre of “torture porn” is a clear, and timely, reflection of video tortures and beheadings from news headlines.)
Like mass market entertainments, most political art quickly appears dated, though for a somewhat different reason. Political art, by its nature, is motivated largely to change social reality first and foremost. As a result, political art is so invested in communicating about the specifics of one context that there’s very little chance of the work communicating powerfully in other contexts, except as a historical document. Occasionally, political art achieves aesthetic greatness and transcendence as well, though this is the exception. (To the extent that some of Goya’s paintings, e.g. The Colossus or Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, 3rd May, 1808, can be considered “political” art, they are also great art aesthetically, though in all honesty, they’re not very good at being “political art” – they give no clear message, or sense of what is to be done, etc.)
While timely art without timelessness is a clear possibility, I’m not convinced that the second quality of great art, timelessness, is possible without the first, timeliness. Part of what allows for transcendence is the artist’s tapping into a universal human experience, that of grappling with reality, attempting to understand one’s surroundings and reality and attempting to shape that reality, and presenting this in artistic form requires a grappling with and groundedness in contemporary reality. In great art, we see a union of the concrete and timely and the universal and timeless.
In a follow-up post, I will address these issues of art, timeliness, and timelessness through an examination of some of the music of contemporary jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.