What does it mean to create art that is "true to its times?"
May 27, 2014 1:16 PM   Subscribe

I read a recent review in The Economist about a Whistler show in Washington D.C. This first part of this sentence set me thinking: "Whistler was keen to create works that were true to the times, but he also wanted to make art that was beautiful and enduring." My question is, how would you define "works that were true to their times?" I don't know if this is an academic idea or not. I'm thinking it's work that answers contemporary questions, be they in Whistler's era or 2014. I just don't know what those questions might be or how to go about finding them. And I don't know the causal relationship between the work and its times: does the work frame the questions or do the questions frame the work? I hope I've expressed this clearly. Thank you.
posted by holdenjordahl to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
My first guess is that this is referring to work that is part of the "zeitgeist" or the creative consensus of the times. So, for example, if you're a poet in the 1950s, you want to be doing Beat type stuff, and probably not sonnets. There were plenty of poets writing sonnets in the 50s, but that wasn't where the zeitgeist was. Those weren't the poets being talked about, or the poets we still remember today.

Whistler was painting during a pretty specific moment within art history, where more academic and formal styles were giving way to Impressionism and what would ultimately become modernism. So, to me, that sentence says that Whistler was aware of those avant-garde movements in the art world and wanted to be a part of that conversation while he was also painting with a more "classic" approach that was still more in line with what was considered beautiful* to the public of the day. His work has a modern edge to it, but it's not the kind of thing that was getting people kicked out of the Academie des Beaux-Arts.

*People were HORRIFIED by early Impressionism, despite the fact that today it seems very pretty to us.
posted by Sara C. at 1:46 PM on May 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

nice explanation, Sara C., thanks.
posted by holdenjordahl at 1:49 PM on May 27, 2014

I encountered an interesting line about this in the writing of Theodore Adorno, which I'll try to paraphrase. Art can be relevant to its times in either form or in content. The notion of relevance in content is, like you say, answering contemporary questions. The same questions that are asked in the realms of politics and society, whatever they are. Art can address them by showing pictures that make us think about them, telling stories that work through their implications, etc. But there is a deeper level of relevance which has to do with the formal structure of the art. Sara C. mentions sonnets, a conventional formal scheme for poems, and formal features permeate every artwork at whatever level.

Adorno was of the opinion that it is the formal shape of a work that creates the most complete mirror of the spirit of the times: of our patterns of thought and life, and of the way these fail to harmoniously accomplish what we want or need from them. It is the shape of the piece that is a picture of this spirit, not whatever content the piece is presenting. He also felt that the deepest artists were those engaged directly with the implicit laws of their material -- clay sculpture, polyphonic sound, etc. -- without much reflection on the social and political issues of the day. Each genre of art has a certain internal tradition and formal problematic which practicing artists enter into and struggle with. Too much worrying about content and message would weaken an artist's engagement at this more fundamental level, where the potential for truth, and true reflection of the times exists.

So an artist would have to look away from the issues of their time to most thoroughly and accurately depict 'em.

(I'd note, too, that in the 20th century, the idea that there was unitary progress in all things combined with disdain for tradition -- Western and otherwise -- to lead to the conviction that the only valid art was one which was cutting edge, the newest thing, pushing the envelope, the avant-garde, just ahead of the present and forever conquering new territory.

But this is much less so today. So the idea that artistic validity is tied to fidelity to the present -- the time in which the work is being done -- is much less accepted as a matter of course.)
posted by bertran at 3:47 PM on May 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Current technology has a formative effect on art as well. Imagine the different feeling Rembrandt might have with today's range of easily available media and supports, while still being organically Rembrandt. Much different than hand ground pigments and hand woven canvas, or just as enduring in acrylics on cast plastics?
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:03 PM on May 27, 2014

He wanted sales now and reputation in the future. As which artists does not?

alternatively - a lot of criticism is often just noise. I wouldn't over-think this.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:05 PM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Definitely an academic idea. Teachers often cite T.S. Eliot's What is a Classic? to introduce a discussion of the relationship between a work and its times. The more I look at that essay, though, the more I see an after-dinner speech where the priority he gives to Vergil is not entirely serious. But I think one thing that is important in that talk is the artist's consciousness of a place in history and engaging in, as Sara C. so aptly puts it, a conversation.
posted by BibiRose at 3:26 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

thanks, folks, this was all useful. i like IndigoJones' perfectly sensible response. i thank BibiRose for her reference to T.S. Eliot's piece, which i've now read; and bertran's reference to Adorno, which i will read. and i appreciate Sarah C. for putting zeitgeist into context.
posted by holdenjordahl at 7:41 PM on June 3, 2014

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