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.

history doesn’t bargain

“Do you know what happened after the Black Plague ended?” sci-fi writer Wesley Chu tweeted yesterday (then deleted). “The Renaissance!”

I won’t get into the issues with this tweet as history. I don’t need to, because Eleanor Janega has it covered (1; 2; 3). In a way, historical accuracy is beside the point. Chu’s tweet irritated me more for its rhetoric. It suggests that history bargains. Debit: one plague. Credit: one renaissance. It is comforting to construct a redemptive moral framework to absorb a catastrophe.

The alternative perspective is terrifying but, I think, important to try to conceive: history doesn’t bargain. No one is keeping a ledger. There are no IOUs. The violence of today isn’t redeemed by great expectations for the future. (Corollary: the violence of the past wasn’t redeemed by anything that followed.) History does not unfold according to a moral logic–or any knowable logic. A better metaphor than the interval-and-rebirth metaphor built into the terms medieval and renaissance is the metaphor of drift. History drifts. It enacts “a movement toward a future that is ultimately inapprehensible” (Davis 127). That’s Kathleen Davis summarizing Bede’s conception of history. Her point, in context, is that this is not an attitude we were led to expect from a European monk writing deep in ‘medieval’ time, when faith in God supposedly precluded a sense of expansive possibility for human action. But there it is anyway, latent in Bede’s writings. An enigmatic (or apophatic) conception of history is compatible with faith. And, conversely, believers aren’t the only ones who moralize history today.

Do you know what happened after the COVID-19 pandemic ended? No, you do not.

further reading

Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

tyrannical curriculum

The more and more I teach at the college level, the more and more I appreciate how intertwined teaching and research are for professional academics. This is not immediately obvious when reading through scholarship on the page. Periodization ensures that fields don’t connect, because courses within those fields don’t connect.

The same dynamic plays out within the fields of literary study. Features of the intellectual landscape in my own field that puzzled me as an undergraduate and PhD candidate are readily explained with reference to the need to teach in a curriculum. The overwhelming centrality of Chaucer in late medieval English studies corresponds to the provision of Chaucer courses at nearly every college and university. We offer “Chaucer” ostensibly because Chaucer is uniquely important, and because undergraduates most want to take these courses. I have grown skeptical of both of these implicit rationales, the first about Chaucer’s intrinsic worth and the second about students’ preferences. I now think it’s the other way around: Chaucer remains canonical and well-known because every English-department medievalist shares an experience of taking and/or teaching a class on his work. It’s just easier to have something to say about texts that you regularly discuss with students. And the Chaucerian texts that get the most attention in scholarship, in turn, are those that are easiest to teach and most commonly taught to undergraduates: the Wife of Bath’s Tale, less so Troilus, still less the Boece or most of the lyrics. It’s understandable.

There are more subtle examples. The first part or visio of Langland’s Piers Plowman (A.Prologue-8 / B.Prologue-7 / C.Prologue-9) receives far more scholarly attention than the rest of the poem, which makes up about two-thirds of Piers Plowman by volume. That is because the visio is a blueprint for the whole poem, but it is also because it’s typically not possible to read beyond the visio in the undergraduate (or often even the graduate) classroom. The visio is all we have time for when we teach Piers Plowman in a course on alliterative poetry, or political poetry, or religious literature, or multilingualism, etc.

This is true for Old English, too. Beowulf dominates this field for many reasons, and a major reason is that it is nearly always the spring semester text, after a fall introduction to the language. It’s the right size to get through in one semester at a fast clip, but there’s no room to read other texts in that semester. For the same reason, a handful of short texts (the ones in Eight Old English Poems, ed. R. D. Fulk) also get a lot of play: they are bite-sized and easy to work through in a non-Beowulf spring Old English seminar.

Texts that, on paper, ought to be central to our assessment of medieval English literary culture are often relegated to the status of specialized topics because they are difficult to squeeze into a semester: the Paris Psalter (the longest poem in Old English), Lawman’s Brut (the longest poem in Early Middle English), the Prick of Conscience (the most-copied poem in Middle English), the so-called Wycliffite Bible. Not to mention the many important medieval English texts not composed in English, which must be taught in translation, if at all, in the US: Richard Rolle’s Latin writings, Gower’s Vox clamantis, Froissart’s dits amoureux. Medievalists whose training is in a different language tradition are always on about the single-minded prioritization of the English language in English departments, and they have a point. It’s a point less about the individual moral rectitude of researchers in this field than it is about the pragmatism of keeping a research career spinning while teaching a full courseload.

(Now, it’s always possible to do research on texts that you never teach, but it is much harder to maintain that split-brain for long.)


Here is an opposite framing of all this. I have the incredible privilege of learning with my students about texts that I then analyze in scholarship. The feedback loop between teaching and research is both professionally convenient and intellectually fulfilling. Just this semester, rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with my students generated two small new ideas about the poem, which are now under consideration as two scholarly notes. One must, after all, teach something, and, unbelievably, I get paid to read and think about the literature that I already want to read and think about. If that has to include Chaucer, well, fine, I’ll think of something to say about him, too.

The problem arises, I think, as it also does for periodization and linguistic nationalism, when the boundary-line between foreground and background sinks below the level of consciousness: when we forget the tyranny of the curriculum and mistake a field of study for a self-sufficient and essentially disinterested response to the past. Medievalists, like other humanists, have long since discarded the idea that historical work could ever really be disinterested, yet certain basic assumptions about what is a ‘major’ text, which poets had an ‘Age,’ seem to replicate the thinking that we claim to have transcended as a field. (This mirrors the situation with periodization, whereby the political-historical boundaries that, we all agreed long ago, should not deterministically govern English literary history still do so in the curriculum, and therefore in the distribution of fields, hiring, scholarly organizations. . .)


What to do? I don’t know. In a small way, I’ve been trying to be a bit more experimental in what I assign to undergraduates, partly in order to be a bit more experimental in what I can speak about in my research. I teach anonymous political prophecies in English and Latin, Welsh poetry in translation, Gower alongside Chaucer, Piers Plowman beyond the visio. This has meant foreshortening some other, expected components of my course offerings.

Experimentalism is a decision that I have the luxury of making as a tenured professor rather than a graduate candidate, a job-seeker, or a junior colleague. Ideally, though, experimental teaching can in turn change expectations, reflecting a different vision of the field back into research, hiring, etc. The prospects for this shift in perspective seem to me good: postmedievalists don’t know all that much about our texts, anyway, so I think they are just as happy to hear about an anti- or non-Chaucerian book as a Chaucerian one–as long as you promise to teach “Chaucer” one way or another.