Should we see art history as linear, with the phases, fads and movements embedded in the moment, or can we continue to learn from them, revisit them over time. Indeed, can all of art exist simultaneously?
There is a bias toward linearity in art history, but it is tiring and probably unhelpful in the end as it suggests constant endings and beginnings, transitory moments of insight. From a structural perspective, it sees previous art as being a foundation for what follows (was that the point of post-modernism, with or without the hyphen?). This view traps us within the arrow of time view of … time. That what is past is past, and we move forward in some way, through the present. Just when you thought you understood something, it morphs into something else, and then that has its day and we all move one.
What was exciting about cubism was its efforts to understand relativity theory, and the new understanding of the physical world that emerged at the same time. Did Picasso and Einstein ever have coffee together? But today, few artists have come to grips with the quantum nature of the world, and the possibility that time may not even exist. That of course doesn’t mean that history doesn’t exist, but it does suggest that a temporal view of historical learning may not make much real sense. From an art history perspective, it suggests that we might grow more artistically if art were seen simultaneously rather than in periods. Yes, we have evolved new tools and ways of seeing, but that confuses the technologies of art with the insights that artists bring. That styles change reflects sensibilities and the economics of art. Some art requires electricity, some big walls.
McLuhan did say there was a difference between the medium and the message. Perhaps we have become confused.