Speaker: Dr Derek Allan, Visiting Fellow, School of Cultural Inquiry.
How does art – visual art, literature, or music – endure over time? What special capacity does it possess that enables it to 'live on' when so much else is overtaken by time?
The Renaissance responded by claiming that great art is eternal, timeless, immortal – impervious to time – and this idea became a cornerstone of European thinking about art, exerting a decisive influence on Enlightenment aesthetics, and still lingering on in various forms today. But this claim was challenged in a fundamental way by thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, and Taine who stressed the historical embeddedness of art. For these three figures, as for a series of more recent theorists such as Sartre, Benjamin, Adorno and others, art is inseparable from processes of historical change. Locating its essential qualities in an “eternal” realm removed from the flow of history would be an idealist illusion.
The conflict between these two views has resulted in an impasse: today we appear to lack any acceptable explanation of one of art’s key features – its capacity to transcend time. In the course of the twentieth century, however, the French theorist André Malraux proposed an entirely new explanation of this capacity – the theory of metamorphosis.
For Malraux, art is neither exempt from history (eternal) nor wholly embedded in it. It survives – transcends time – through a process of transformation (metamorphosis) in which history plays an essential part. As Malraux writes, 'the great work of art belongs to history, but it does not belong to history alone'.
This paper examines the dilemma currently facing the philosophy of art and explains why Malraux’s revolutionary theory of metamorphosis provides a solution. It argues that the concept of metamorphosis, unlike the notion of timelessness, fits the facts of art history as we know them, especially the fact that our modern world of art includes so many works from the distant past that have re-emerged after long periods of oblivion, their revivals accompanied by a transformation in significance.
'Metamorphosis,' writes Malraux, 'is the very life of the work of art in time, one of its specific characteristics.'
Dr Derek Allan
Derek Allan, a Visiting Fellow in the School of Cultural Inquiry, has published widely on aspects of the theory of art and literature. He holds a Ph. D in Philosophy and a Masters in French Language and Literature and is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University. His book Art and the Human Adventure: André Malraux’s Theory of Art was published in 2009. His second book Art and Time, which examines the neglected question of the capacity of art to transcend time, was published in February this year.