What Good are Pictures that Don't Change?

May 29, 2007

Life is change. 
What we call "experience" is change - we are aware of the world, of ourselves, because the world and ourselves are constantly changing, always in process of becoming something else. We can only observe events, that is, changes. When nothing is happening we experience nothing. Our very existence depends on constant activity in the microscopic and macroscopic realms.  Life is dynamic, it is a movie - not a still photo. When we stop moving, we are dead.

And yet museums, art galleries and our homes are filled with still images and objects that only change to the extent that their colors and their shiny new look imperceptibly fade over the years. Why is it that we find still images interesting and valuable enough to collect and keep?

There are several reasons. In one respect, it has to do with our desire for a stable, predictable environment. It is very exhausting to have to constantly adapt to ever new and different and potentially dangerous circumstances. Adaptation is necessary if we are to grow and evolve, but our natural preference is to minimize the discomfort of unpredictable change. We need around us some things that apparently do not change, if only as a frame of reference.

Another reason for keeping still images is as an aide memoire - to help us remember events past that brought us pleasure or were formative in our growth or, for that matter, events we do not wish to repeat. Such images are the preserved slices of the past that is still important to us. They may be direct records of actual past events or they may be merely evocative or symbollic.

But the dominant reason is that viewing a work of art, even one that does does not change perceptibly in time, is a dynamic experience in itself. In the case of still art it is an experience that we can repeat and build on. In fact, it is never the same piece of art that we see (provided we do see it and not just look at it). What changes in time is our appreciation of the work. Our relationship to it changes. There is a process going on, not within the object of art but within ourselves, of getting to know it. And in this process its stillness is of paramount importance.

We never get a chance to get to know as intimately the fleeting images of moving arts - we get an overall impression, we are moved by the experience but then it is over and something else is happening. And even though the recording technology makes it possible to replay the action over and over, making the moving arts more akin to the still, we nevertheless get caught up in the dynamic of the action. There is no time to reflect quietly and at our own pace on what it is we see. It is a different experience.

The still art offers us the time to project our own images and ideas upon it. It is a free playground for the imagination, unforced by the tempo and the direction of change. Or it may simply be something that's a joy to look at, anytime we wish, to lift our spirit.

Paul Wyszkowski



Archived Essays

Contents (click to retrieve):

     1. Art: What's Truth, Beauty and Goodness Got to Do with It?   (May 20, 2002)
     2. Art as Language  (August 12, 2003)
     3. How to Deal with Art    (October 24, 2004)
     4.Where Order Meets Chaos   (September 2, 2005)
     5.And the Winner is...  (February 14, 2006)
     6.Photography and Art  (March 30, 2006)