how art shapes time

In 1962, the American art historian George Kubler published The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, a deceptively slim and mostly forgotten volume of philosophical reflection on his field of study. In it, Kubler expressed the idea that art shapes time. Specifically, he argued that the history of art is made up of many simultaneous, unsynchronized historical sequences. Although the title would seem to indicate that art-historical time has a single shape, Kubler spoke of “the manifold shapes of time” (12), and the book culminates in a long section entitled “The Shapes of Time” (96-122). Kubler, whose area of specialty was Pre-Columbian American material culture, draws examples from across European and American art traditions, as well as human-made objects not normally categorized as art, such as tools, recipes, and buttons.

Kubler’s book cut against the grain of an academic field that was, and still is, organized by time period. Periodization, the splitting up of history into discrete chunks—a characteristic organizational feature of several humanities disciplines—originated in art history, in which words like baroque, gothic,and renaissance acquired technical meanings, and so became proper nouns, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whereas periodization conveys that cultural products share a decade- or century-specific sameness, a period style, Kubler stressed difference. And whereas periodization signals discontinuity over the long term, self-enclosed worlds replacing one another in a mysterious exchange, Kubler stressed continuity. For example, he countenanced art-historical series that stretched back to prehistory. As against the monologic view of culture that he conceptualized as a lens with a center radiating outward, Kubler urged the metaphor of a cross-section. He perceived (switching metaphors) “a mosaic of pieces of different developmental states, and of different ages” (28) in any given moment in the continuous history of human culture.

The Shape of Time spoke for a place and moment in intellectual history. Kubler, a Yale B.A. and Ph.D., was a professor at Yale at the time of its publication. Yale University Press brought out the book, which numbers a modest 136 pages. The striking orange-red cover depicts a grid-like array of pottery figurine fragments from ancient Teotihuacán, near present-day Mexico City. Kubler was in college and graduate school during the heyday of the Annales school of history, named after a journal founded by the French medievalist Marc Bloch. Kubler was contemporary with the second generation of French historians associated with the Annales school, including the medievalists Georges Duby and Jacques Le Goff. The Annales historians emphasized the long-term continuity of economic, political, and social history. Instead of a litany of the deeds of important men, European history was now to be written in the form of a vast, tensile assemblage, too massive to be comprehended within the frame of a human lifetime, or even a century.

Kubler’s ideas about art-historical time have a comparable vastness to them, inspired in his case not by the stability of European political institutions but by the vertiginous scale of American antiquity. “The universe,” he wrote in The Shape of Time, “has a finite velocity which limits not only the spread of its events, but also the speed of our perceptions. The moment of actuality slips too fast by the slow, coarse net of our senses” (18). Kubler’s prize-winning book The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya and Andean Peoples appeared in the same year as The Shape of Time. Also published in 1962 was Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, like The Shape of Time a work of philosophy that sets out to articulate a theory of change adequate to the history of actually existing human culture, and its possible futures. Further toward the background of Kubler’s thinking lie Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, two distinctively early twentieth-century formulations of embodied time.

The thesis of The Shape of Time was not always welcome to its academic readers, particularly in its own discipline. The book could not be called field-defining, though its ambition to be that is apparent. In this respect, The Shape of Time strikes a contrast with one of its principal influences, medievalist Focillon’s celebrated Vie des formes, which Kubler had translated as The Life of Forms in Art in 1942. Focillon was Kubler’s teacher at Yale. The Shape of Time could find a less enthusiastic reception. In a retrospective essay published in 1982, Kubler reported “a division into two groups” among readers of the book. “One group is eager to say that they don’t understand a word of it. . . Those of the other group declare that they understand it all on first reading, without difficulty” (“Shape of Time Reconsidered” 112). “Of course,” he continued with the urbane self-assurance of a Sterling Professor, a distinguished post he had by then held for seven years, “I believe them both.”

The reasons that The Shape of Time did not spawn a school of thought are not far to seek. It is a short book with sparse footnotes, always a risk when it comes to satisfying scholarly audiences. It develops an idiosyncratic terminology that hovers, sometimes uncomfortably, between shorthand and system. (The book can be interpreted as a conflicted response to the then-new methodology called structuralism.) It draws inspiration from the sciences. It is partly about art and partly about culture in general; informed by expertise in American and European art, the book nonetheless speaks in universals. Kubler is unafraid to mix philosophizing with curiously specific pronouncements, as when he discloses that “certain classes of technical developments in the history of art require about 60 years for their formulation” (102). It is in the nature of such pronouncements that one will either find them useful, or not. The Shape of Time belongs to the traditions of American pragmatism and minimalism (among its admirers: Donald Judd, Ad Reinhardt, and Robert Smithson); but it issued in a field dominated by European positivist historiography, which places a premium on the accumulation of evidence and the documentation of sources. In his retrospective essay, first delivered as a lecture in 1981, Kubler took the opportunity to blast art historians’ “dangerously desiccated procedures” (121).

Yet Kubler’s arguments about how art shapes time remain compelling. In fact, we are now better prepared to hear them. Since 1962, periodization has become more perfectly the sole governing principle of disciplinary study in art history, English, music, and, to a lesser extent, history and the Romance languages. Therefore, Kubler’s un-periodized theory of time is all the more challenging. (Classics, the oldest humanities department, effectively functions as one giant period, while philosophy and religious studies are not organized historically, for better or worse.) Beyond addressing the structural limitations of academia, Kubler teaches us how to be alive to a world saturated with the products of human hands. He was ahead of the so-called cultural turn in counting everyday items among those products: not art, but things were the proper objects of interest for the cultural historian.

Rather than cataloguing objective details of style, Kubler theorized historical action. His account of time is exhilaratingly dynamic. An art-historical sequence was “a linked succession of prime works with replications, all being distributed in time as recognizably early and late versions of the same kind of action” (130). And Kubler attended to the effects of space and distance, anticipating the sociological theory of “the field of cultural production” advanced by Bourdieu in the 1980s and 1990s. Just as Bourdieu was to identify the city as the locus of literary experimentation, Kubler explored the art-historical “fast happening” (84-96) that was likeliest to occur, he said, in medieval courts and modern cities. Today, global interchange facilitated by air travel and the internet masks the regionalism that still shapes the development of art, politics, and intellectual life. Kubler’s remarks on placement and geography are an important corrective to our sense of the irretrievability of that which is local.

Is spacetime one, or many—singular, or fragmentary? Joining an intellectual lineage that connects St. Augustine and Margaret Cavendish to Husserl and Einstein, Kubler declared for multiplicity. In rejecting the familiar arc of the “growth,” “maturity,” and “decay” of aesthetic styles, Kubler instructs us in a certain mode of attunement to the complexity of the world. Because the “action” that is the work of art is iterative and enmeshed in the process of living, art leaves its imprint on time itself. George Kubler’s work reminds us that time has no shape at all until there are human beings, with their minds and in their generations, to create it.

further reading

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Randal Johnson, ed. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Focillon, Henri. Vie des formes. Paris: Leroux, 1934.

Kubler, George. The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya and Andean Peoples. New York: Penguin, 1962.

Kubler, George. The Shape of Time. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962.

Kubler, George. “The Shape of Time Reconsidered.” The Shape of Time Reconsidered.” Perspecta 19 (1982): 112-21.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

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