Suse Cairns, Digital Content Manager
It was incomprehensible, I declared, that the thought of the transience of beauty should interfere with our joy in it… Nor can I understand any better why the beauty and perfection of a work of art or of an intellectual achievement should lose its worth because of its temporal limitation. A time may indeed come when the pictures and statues which we admire to-day will crumble to dust, or a race of men may follow us who no longer understand the works of our poets and thinkers, or a geological epoch may even arrive when all animate life upon the earth ceases; but since the value of all this beauty and perfection is determined only by its significance for our own emotional lives, it has no need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration.
Sigmund Freud, On Transience, 1915
Sigmund Freud’s On Transience, written during wartime, and translated in the excerpt above by James Strachey, asks us to consider whether the transience of any object of beauty – be it an art object, a season, or human beauty – makes it less valuable; whether the fleeting nature of summer or an aging face destroys the worth of its beauty. Is something less precious if it is only short-lived?
It is an interesting question to ask when visiting an art museum, where through care and conservation the changes that time brings are slowed down or arrested, in order to allow generations to come to appreciate and study the objects. As institutions that enable cultural perpetuation, museums hold onto objects of great beauty and great significance, many of which are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Such objects gain value from the many meanings and lives and interpretations they’ve had. In museums, time slows down and collapses upon itself.
Perhaps because of this, one object that gives me pause every time I see it is Zoe Leonard’s Untitled, 1999-2000, located in the BMA’s Contemporary Wing. The piece, which Helene Grabow spoke about previously, is made up of seven fruit skins that, after the artist consumed their flesh, were sewn back into their original shapes. The peels now slowly decompose. It is impossible to know how long they will last, or whether the piece will look the same or be changed the next time you visit it.
I love this work of art, because it makes no pretence at permanence. Instead, Leonard has captured something vital; the notion that every moment is precious, even those that are challenging, precisely because they are fleeting. As the old saying goes, it is impossible to stand in the same river twice. I have rarely found an artwork that makes me so aware of the changing nature of time and life as this one.
Freud argues that transience increases the value of beauty, because such beauty becomes imbued with a scarcity value as well, and I think that’s true of Leonard’s work. While some works of art can seem unchanging each time you visit them, perhaps leading to a certain complacency – a sense that there is no urgency to again see a piece of art you once saw and loved, because it will be the same next time – the knowledge that Leonard’s work is going to change increases the attention I pay to it, and the frequency with which I visit it. Each time I look at it, I know that it is my only chance to experience the piece exactly as it is at that moment.
Of course, that is true of all art. The experience of seeing a work of art is always different, because even when it hasn’t changed, you have.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.