Art & Matter: The Politics of Time

By Julia Secklehner (PhD candidate, The Courtauld)

Questioning the values of art historical writing, Professor Keith Moxey (Columbia) addressed the value and understanding of time at a lecture at the Courtauld Institute on Tuesday 17 May 2016. Tracing the time of material objects, from petrified wood over Maya relief sculpture to Albrecht Altdorfer’s Dead Pyramus (1510), Picasso’s Collage with Violin (1912) and Spencer Finch’s Sunlight in an Empty Room (2010), Moxey highlighted the different times objects relate to, and can be understood within. For example, the Maya sculpture, Stele I, depicted King Chaan Muan (776 CE) and in Mayan belief, images of the king were an extension of himself, allowing him to exist throughout different times. Simultaneously, the object itself is made from limestone, derived from the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. In relation to these two particular histories alone, the object has a variety of significances and meanings, depending on what time we focus on: it can be an anthropological artefact, a sacred sculpture, or a geological example, all at the same time. Each of these interpretations is also dependent on the beholders, of course, who, again, live in their own time, which they transpose onto the object. As such, depending on where we are, and which aspect of the object in question we look at, multiple interpretations arise considering time alone, though there are undoubtedly many other aspects that would lead us to different conclusions – gender perspectives for example.

Chalice-cover. Aztec-feather work, Hidalgo-Mexico, ca.-1540.

Chalice-cover. Aztec-feather work, Hidalgo-Mexico, ca.-1540.


The structure of the lecture itself, however, was chronological, showing that any given time brings certain ‘conventions of storytelling’ with it. These are put in place even when we question them: in order to interrogate the heterochrony of objects in the lecture, we followed a chronological interpretation, exemplifying that heterochrony exists ‘through time’. Concurrently, all the stories connected to the stones and shells and prints and sculptures assessed show that the very act of ‘storytelling’ is crucial to an understanding of time itself. The best example for this is Moxey’s mentioning of the ‘invention’ of regulated time itself, when the Industrial Revolution made standardization necessary, and led to the time we live ‘after’ now.

While thinking about time and its relation to objects is an intriguing exercise in thought, the question is what the wider implications of these ideas are. We will hardly ever have the time, means or understanding to approach material objects from all the different temporal parallels that are tied to it: we are inevitably caught up in our own time, which is an amalgamation of our subjectivity and us as a product of the society we live in. Therefore, we have to choose one time over another and, in so doing, deny other interpretations that have no place in our ‘current’ understanding of the object. A vicious circle, is it?


Quite on the contrary: the impossibility to escape our own time (as much as some of us may try to), means that we are forced to make conscious decisions about what to focus on, and why to choose that particular angle over another. In the process, our awareness of all the different times and interpretations we exclude can shape what it is we want to say. In other words, we need to consciously choose our own standpoints on art, society and politics as a consequence of the fact that, we will unavoidably overwrite other interpretations of the materials we look at. Moxey’s argument about ‘Material Time’ thus becomes much more than a theoretical exercise in (art historical) thought: it is an appeal to use art history more consciously, and to show awareness for the fact that the passing of time denies the possibility of objectivity. Rather than trying to remain detached therefore, we must emphasise the subjectivity of our own art history.