The Transient Experience with Art

Last week I met a woman who told me about her trip to Rome. Before learning that I am an art historian, this woman explained to me that she loved her trip to Italy because she didn’t go to any museums. (You can imagine my surprise – I spend most of my time in museums when I travel!) Instead, this women and her husband spent the whole trip relaxing and eating delicious Italian food.

While listening to this woman, I couldn’t help but think in my head, “Why would you want to have your whole vacation revolve around something as transient as food? Once you eat the food, it’s gone.” But as I thought about our conversation afterward, I realized that experiences with art are just as transient. (And really, aren’t vacations based on the premise of transience as well?) A person’s physical interaction with a work of art, especially in a museum space, is limited by time. And as much as we “consume” either art, or food, or any experience, we are only left with the memory of that interaction afterward. Perhaps that’s why reproductions of art are so popular in museum gift shops: people want to try and recreate (or remember) their fleeting interaction with a certain work of art.

A visitor looking at gilt-framed paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

As I’ve been thinking about this idea of transience and art, I’ve realized how much art (especially historical and academic art) tries to disguise or resist this transient nature by emphasizing mass and physical bulk. Historical paintings are traditionally placed in heavy gilt frames. For centuries, paintings were prized if they were painted on a grand, monumental scale. Sculptures are often weighty too, traditionally made in heavy mediums like marble or bronze. It’s almost as if art wants to assert its physical presence as much as possible, so that the viewer won’t realize that his/her interaction with the object will later become a memory. Perhaps historical pieces also want to assert their physicality in order to make their subject matter seem less-distant to the contemporary viewer, too.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, first built April 1970 (as seen in March 2003)

Although all physical interactions with art are transient and finite on some level, I do think that art from the 20th and 21st century is less deceiving when it comes to transience. Many modern and contemporary artists embrace the idea of transience, and even highlight that feature within their piece. I’m particularly reminded of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, which is supposed to interact and change with the environment over time. It’s easy to see the transient nature of the Spiral Jetty when comparing my photograph (shown above, which was taken in 2003) with a 1970 film still of the piece.

My college friends at the Spiral Jetty in March 2003

I remember in 2002 there was a lot of hype about the Spiral Jetty, because it was visible for the first time in several years. The spiral was above water level for almost a year, so in March 2003 some friends and I decided to make a trip and see the piece for ourselves. I remember being struck with how the earthwork appeared really “ghostly” – just a shadow of the 1,500 foot-long spiral I had seen in my art history textbooks. Despite the sheer size of the piece, the salt-encrusted rocks traced a rather whimsical outline in the water. The work of art seemed transient, just like I remember this experience at the Great Salt Lake as transient (especially when I look at this photo and think of the time that has passed since I went on this trip with my friends).

It’s interesting to contrast the once-bulky Spiral Jetty with the large, gilt-framed paintings and historical statues in an art museum. For me, the Spiral Jetty brought about more awareness of myself (as a viewer) and of the physical time that I was spending with the piece. Perhaps I also had more awareness of transience (and the passing of time) because I was able to physically touch and interact with the Spiral Jetty, too. And I think that even the setting (nature vs. a timeless museum space) can affect the viewer’s awareness of their transient experience with a work of art.

Although a work of art (and the experience with a work of art) can make a different impression on each viewer, it is a little bit depressing for me to realize that physical experiences with visual art are not made to last forever. There comes a point when any viewer of art needs to walk away, close their eyes, or simply just blink. But luckily, even though physical moments with works of art are finite in terms of time, we can have multiple experiences with the same work of art. Perhaps the multiplicity of transient experiences leads to something somewhat lasting and permanent in the human mind?

  • Jeremy says:

    …as permanent as memory can be. 🙂

    I think what you’re reacting to is less about the transience of the moment — eating a meal vs. looking at a work of art — and more about the permanence of the thing you’re experiencing. Unless you’re eating some really old cheese or wine, what you’re eating hasn’t been around very long, and by eating it, you are destroying it. Now all it is is a memory (or perhaps some indigestion… ;)).

    But I think what you love about art is that it is history. You get to see this thing that’s been around for a long time, has perhaps influenced the course of history (or is a manifestation of that history), and will continue to be preserved, studied, and interpreted for centuries to come. It’s not that contemporary art tends to be more honest about its transience, but that contemporary art tends to not care about permanence and longevity.

  • Giosuè says:

    True statement about Contemporary Art.

  • Jeremy: You’re right that I love the history behind art. When I see a work of art, it is both a visual and a “historical” experience for me. And I personally would rather connect with something that is thousands of years old while on a vacation, instead of a dish that was made ten minutes ago.

    I suppose the inclusion of history adds a different dichotomy of transience and permanence to this topic (beyond simply the experience of the viewer). I love that history will always exist (and is therefore permanent, in a way), but is also transient because history exists in the past. It’s interesting to think about how this tension between permanence and transience is manifest visually, too: the mass and visual-prominence of the frames/sculptures suggests a kind of permanence, but the represented subject matter and historical era no longer exist.

    Could it be that contemporary art doesn’t care about permanence or longevity because it hasn’t had to worry about being “historicized” yet? Contemporary art doesn’t have to think about being a “thing of the past” or competing with the past.

    Giosuè: Thanks for your comment!

  • heidenkind says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, too. The two most memorable experiences I’ve had with works of art were in Italy, and I was telling someone about this recently and realized I remembered the experience much more than the works of art themselves.

    I think you’re right and contemporary art is very self-aware about provide an experience; but Renaissance artists were, too. They didn’t view their pieces as static, they wanted them to come alive and really impact people, emotionally and physically. Raphael wanted his portraits of women to turn men on! They may not have framed it in the same way as contemporary artists, but I think a lot of Western artists in different eras were aware that viewing art could be an experience and aimed to provide that.

  • Anne says:

    I have begun to resist the whirlwind visits to museums where we are just overwhelmed by the number of paintings to look at in a very short time. In Florence, early this year, we had poor experiences at the Uffizi and the Accademia, where we shuffled round the rooms in an endless queue, unable to stay long at any painting or to have an uninterrupted view (I had a much better time sampling ice creams).

    Conversely, the experience at the Ulster Museum viewing the Ten Leonardo Drawings from the Royal Collection was much superior. Firstly there were only ten drawings to focus on, secondly the number of people in the gallery was very strictly limited and thirdly we weren’t in any sense rushed when we got in. And the museum provided an introductory talk for our group beforehand. We were able to really look at the drawings and to share our responses.

    I’m interested in the ideal of the Slow Art Day though the need for it is a sad commentary on what the viewing experience has become in many of the largest museums.

  • Val S. says:

    This touches on some of the same issues that were mentioned in your July post The Farnese Hercules and Renaissance “Substitutions”. As I commented then, I sort of like the transience of material things, maybe because it echoes our human life.

    I have great memories of excellent meals, as well as those wonderful experiences in museums when you turn a corner and are blown away by a painting you’d never heard of before. The difference for me is that the meal is enjoyed sensually, while the painting is enjoyed intellectually. And museums always give me an incredibly calm feeling. Like you, M, I love the history, and the aesthetics, and the talent that is on display. Maybe I’m in awe! I don’t usually feel that same sense of calm in experiencing a great meal (unless the wine is that good!).

  • JohnM says:

    Please consider that artworks in museums have been culled from litterally billions of pieces over the last 10,000 years, and shared with us with great reverence.

    They speak to us of the human condition, both at their conception and now.

    I’d suggest our intellect is interpreting the image content, in the context of its original environment, while our hearts are receiving a message based on our current personal worlds.

    I project that artwork of the 20th Century, displayed in the 25th Century, will be viewed much as we look at work which is over 200 years old.

    The comparison of historical artwork with the transience of even the best of meals might be unfair, but effectively calls attention to the dimension of time as it surrounds generally static works.

    Good food for thought.

  • The title of your post immediately made me think of the monks who make sand mandalas and blow them away, or the labyrinths that Motoi Yamamoto makes with salt. The fact that the art is there and then gone is part of what makes it so appealing to me. It’s about the act of making it, and then destroying it by simply blowing it away. Yamamoto wants the sand from his art to be thrown into the sea, sending it back to where it came from, which, for me, makes his art even more beautiful.

    What I love about art history is the history, too. And both the sand mandalas and the salt labyrinths have such strong historical references that I still get my history fix from them, even though they’re transient.

    Thanks for a great post — love your picture from the Great Salt Lake! That place is eery and compelling even without Spiral Jetty — it must have been amazing to see it!


  • Thanks for your comment, Anne! I LOVE this idea of a Slow Art Day. With out fast-paced and rather impatient society, I think a Slow Art Day sounds fantastic.

    I wonder if the experience of viewing art will seem less transient in a Slow Art Day. Or perhaps the experience would seem more transient, if one is keenly aware of the passage of time while viewing a piece for ten minutes?

  • Thanks for your comment, Val. I can see what you are saying about how the transience of an experience parallels the transience of human life. Perhaps this is just one more manifestation of how art is a reflection of life. Life is reflected not only in representational (and abstract!) forms, but also in the experiences with art themselves.

  • Thanks for your comment, John. (And welcome to my blog! I don’t believe that you have commented before.) I agree that there is a certain reverence that is due works of art which have physically withstood the passage of time. This reverence for of art is very compelling to me, as is the communicative nature of art (which you so aptly described).

    It is interesting to consider how some works of art have last for centuries and centuries, and yet the time we physically spend with these works of art (as viewers) is practically nothing by comparison.

  • Thanks for your comment, Karen! Sand art is actually a very interesting thing for me to think about right now, especially since I just saw the documentary film “Samsara” this past weekend (see trailer HERE). The film includes a couple beautiful scenes with monks creating sand art (see film still HERE). It was really interesting to see how these pieces were carefully created, only to be blown away afterward. But as you have said, there is a beauty in this transience. Perhaps that is one reason why people are compelled to look at art: they appreciate and value the experience because of its transience.

  • I was hoping to see Samsara when it comes here next month — now I’ll be sure to put in on my calendar in ink!

  • Sedef says:

    This is such a great post that it has stayed with me since I read it last week. Today while I was visiting Borusan Contemporary in Istanbul I came across Ormond Gigli’s “Girls in the Window” ( made me recall your post and I just had to comment.

    I must admit to having vacations based mostly on food and having had some very memorable meals. As great as the memory of an exquisite meal can be it can not compare to an interaction with a work of art. Art can touch our soul and it’s effect will stay with us even if the art work itself ceases to exist.

    Also, as heidenkind said above, about how the Renaissance artists wanted their art to come alive and really impact people, emotionally and physically I like to think that a work of art starts a new life once it leaves the artist’s hands and by engaging with it the viewer becomes a part of that process.

    “Girls in the Window” was taken in 1960 right before the building was demolished in NYC and I viewed it today, September 2012, in Istanbul, Turkey.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  • Hi Sedef! Thanks for your comment. I’m so glad that my post has stuck with you over the past few days. I like you how mentioned that the effect with a work of art can stay with us, even if the art work itself ceases to exist. Along these lines, I also think that the effect of art can stay with us, even if we never share the same physical space with a work of art again. The only work which has brought me to tears is Bernini’s “David.” I saw the sculpture in 2003, during a study abroad program as a student. Even if I am unable to see this work of art again in-person (heaven forbid!), the effect that this sculpture had on me will always stick with me.

    “Girls in the Window” is a great example of how art can engage a viewer (and take on a new life of its own) over the decades. Personally, I think that the topic of buildings and demolition in NYC has a new meaning for Americans, given what happened with the Twin Towers in 2001. What an interesting example. Thanks for sharing!

  • Christina says:

    Maybe a little late to the discussion here, but I am a huge advocate of lingering in museums even at the expense of not “seeing everything” and revisiting art if at all possible. I agree, how you interpret an image is somewhat self-reflective. On any one day, something different may strike you. When I lived in DC, I think I went to the National Gallery once a month and could come back to the same pieces over and over again.

    I think that even without the gilt frames there is a physically to paintings. The evident brushwork (or lack thereof) documents the artist’s process. What’s more transient than being in front of the canvas yourself seeing quick, sure strokes or the meticulous labor of the artist from where they stood?

  • Thanks for your comment, Christina! I really love when I have opportunities to revisit works of art, especially when I can tell how my reaction (and perhaps who I am as a person) is different from when I previously saw the piece. Also, I’m glad that you brought up brushstrokes. Brushwork does help to emphasize the transience of a piece. Unsurprisingly, I especially feel that way when I look at Impressionist paintings.

  • Bing says:

    Great post! This is especially something I think about when I study performance artists like Ana Mendieta.

  • Hi Bing! Thanks for your comment! I’m not extremely familiar with Ana Mendieta, but your comment has piqued my curiosity. And after doing some research (and reading an article in “Art in America”, I’m surprised I haven’t learned more about her. I didn’t know that she was married to Carl Andre, nor did I know that he was accused of murdering Ana! What a story!

    The idea of transience really does seem to come through in her work. Several of the pieces described in this Washington Post article tie into this theme quite well.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.