PRINT March 1986


Will it last: does it matter?

THE QUESTION WILL IT LAST? is being asked about art a lot lately. After a period when it was not heard so much, it has been revived as a consequence of the resurgence of the medium for which claims of eternal value have traditionally been made—the painting on canvas.

A painting on canvas is said to have a life expectancy of only about 500 years. This is a fact we don’t think about much: in attributing an eternal or quasi-eternal validity to a painting we are obviously not saying something concrete about the future of the work as a physical object but something about our feelings toward it at the present moment. The idea of posterity, mingling confusedly with the idea of eternity, opens into realms of religious feeling that take on different forms—sometimes historical, sometimes metaphysical—not clearly distinguishable from one another.

The metaphysical formulation suggests that great art happens not just at its moment but forever, since it expresses eternal values that overleap both history and tradition. In ancient Egypt, where the idea that art is for eternity first becomes visible, it had very practical ramifications: the survival of the soul of the deceased was linked to the survival of certain icons placed in the tomb. Thus, in this case, the metaphysical formulation was rooted in the physical survival of the work in a literal sense; sculpting in granite was a direct means of ensuring the image’s longevity.

A more philosophical explanation was proposed by Plotinus, who said that art portrays not merely the changes of perishable matter but the changeless metaphysical entities that underlie the false appearances of change. In Renaissance Florence this view was revived in the Platonic academy of Marsilio Ficino, who asserted that “Beauty is the splendour of god’s visage.” The thought was easy to go along with if you were an artist, because it was so flattering; perhaps it was in just this spirit that Leon Battista Alberti called the artist an “alter deus”—“another god.” This Plotinian idea became the hidden meaning of posterity. But there was a contradiction involved. How could the physical artwork perish if it were an embodiment of eternal truth. Did it somehow continue to embody this truth even after its physical demise? In that case, the artwork itself—the locus of formal qualities—was unnecessary, although it was supposedly these very qualities that had demonstrated its eternal validity to begin with.

The historical formulation is similarly flawed. It holds that works in a tradition accumulate, and that as long as the tradition endures the works that have been formative on it remain, in a sense, alive. Yet it is true of all the great monuments of our art history—even those for which eternal or transhistorical validity has been most vociferously alleged—that the claim to posterity is based ultimately on the work’s fitness to a certain moment, through which it may position itself in an art-historical sequence. In a changing world such momentary aptness cannot validate a work for centuries or millennia. If a work is valid because of a particular set of conditions—art historical, political, or whatever—then its validity is dependent upon these conditions and, therefore, cannot outlive them. Marcel Duchamp may have had something like this in mind when he remarked that an artwork has a life of about 50 years. After that period, the conditioning necessary to relate to the work as itself is no longer available; one is then relating to an icon, a quasi-religious hypostasis of art history, and not to the work as it was in its moment. Once enshrined in the history books it has the same longevity as they, and its posterity no longer depends on its own physical survival but on the vicissitudes of the transmissions of texts and photographic images.

In an age like ours, which has been formed by two explosive mental events—the recognition of historical relativity (for example, the fact that judgments of artistic quality change with times and tastes) and the deconstruction of metaphysics (for example, the demise of concepts of ideal realms and objective truths)—the practice of weighing artworks by their claims on or qualifications for posterity is not only irrational but anachronistic. Yet the comfort and grand validity offered by the idea of posterity is still appealing because the linkage between the eternal life of the artwork and the eternal life of the human soul is still operative in several disguised forms. For the art beholder, to love something supposedly eternal is to be sure of the validity of one’s love. For the artist, to make something supposedly eternal is, indeed, to be “another god.” And for the museum or collector to possess something eternal is to possess an investment that won’t depreciate. These are all ways of feeling that one is avoiding death: the soul-portfolio will survive the loss of self and the death of the body. The formalist idea of objective esthetic criteria served the same end: if value can be seen as objective, it doesn’t have to change—it is not subject to death.

The desire to create an impression of stable, blue-chip posterity is dramatically countered today by the opposing demands of consumerism, which promotes built-in obsolescence and a continuous deluge of new products. In recent decades art styles and movements have replaced one another every six months to five years, thus increasing concern about the longevity of the value of any one of them. The oppositions that arise among the needs of consumerism, investment, and art are, at one level, at the root of the tension behind the question. Will it last? In such confusing times, when the wheels of fashion are ferociously spinning, the problem is indeed complex; in the midst of legitimate concern about the relation between art and fashion the idea of posterity becomes an especially powerful rhetorical tool, masking resistance to the new as well as the insecurity of the already established. Denials of posterity (“It won’t last") are used to reject and withhold attention from certain work, and attributions of lasting value to other artworks are an oblique way of saying that one’s party should always be in power.

Though we think of posterity as a kind of spiritual reality, in its raw simplicity it is ultimately based on the premise of the physical survival of the work. And the sobering fact is that survival is determined not by transcendental quality but by chance: by the outcomes of wars, by natural disasters, by the question of how able and how eager a culture is to preserve its objects, by the arbitrary and uncomprehending selections of subsequent cultures, and so on. From the thousand-year-long tradition of Greco-Roman painting only the inferior, provincial frescoes of Pompeii and Herculaneum have survived, protected from history—war, and reconstruction—by a bed of volcanic ash. The paintings of Apelles, on the other hand, despite the fact that they were evidently of transcendent quality, have all leaked through the sieve of time and disappeared; vague memories of them may remain, but these works areas lost as those that have left no trace what so ever, not even the names of their makers. Such is posterity.

Even the survival of literary or photographic texts, despite their ability to be copied, is unfortunately ruled not by a grace arising from greatness but by the most random or perverse conditions. Among the thousands of cuneiform tablets excavated from ancient Sumer, only about three percent were literary texts, the rest eternalized tax receipts and such. Several fragments of Sappho’s poems have survived only because the papyrus on which they were written was torn into strips and used as stuffing inside mummified crocodiles. The vagaries of time and survival are at once hilarious and terrifying. In the burial chamber of one of the Egyptian pyramids, modern excavators found only a single human foot.

The randomness of posterity and the evanescence of art should fix our attention on the art of the present. It is from and for its own time—our time that art performs its magnificent dances up on the void that lies all about.

Thomas McEvilley is a writer who lives in New York. He is a reviewer for and contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston. He writes the “Marginalia” column for Artforum.