In a culture that swings between tedium and hysteria, art is a democratic necessity…
Einstein: the length of time is relative when looking at art. If we become absorbed in a play or a piece of music, if we stand before a great painting, if we get lost in a book, we feel our sense of time shifting…
In crazy political times, it is easy to think of art as a sideshow. But it matters – and not just for what it says. It matters for what it does and especially what it does to our sense of time.
In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, after the two tramps have concocted another bit of business to keep themselves going, Vladimir exclaims: “That passed the time.” The gloomier Estragon counters: “It would have passed in any case.”
“Yes,” rejoins Vladimir, “but not so rapidly.”
The exchange is typically laconic but it captures something about the nature of art. It passes the time – but it also changes our experience of time itself. Estragon is an old Newtonian – he imagines time as something outside human experience, an absolute that does its own thing regardless of our perceptions. Vladimir is an Einsteinian relativist: he knows that time can speed up or slow down depending on our point of view.
In a sense, art always told us that the world is as Einstein described it. If we become absorbed in a play or a piece of music, if we stand before a great painting, if we get lost in a book, we feel our sense of time shifting. Time can seem to speed up or stand still. A moment can be imbued with the sense of eternity. Conversely, with bad art – an awful play, for example – time can seem to slow down to an excruciating crawl. We all know the experience of checking our watches and being horrified that only five minutes have passed in what seemed like five hours. Even bad art plays tricks with time.