An Artistic Experiment in Time Travel

Can art be experienced again as revolutionary?

Can we travel back in time to see art as it was initially experienced?

Two experiences, one accidental, one deliberate, suggest it can.

One of the great shocking moments in classical music is the first movement of Beethoven’s Third symphony, the Eroica. One of the more disturbing parts to contemporary listeners was the syncopation and the associated dissonances in the development. Listen from 8:40-9:37 on this performance.

Given my exposure to music of the later 19th century and 20th century with its more complicated tonalities and dissonances, it never seemed so shocking to me.

The fortuitous accident occurred at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert. The original program was supposed to be a Bartok composition before the intermission, with Beethoven’s Third Symphony played afterwards. Due to a last minute illness of the original conductor, several Mozart piano concertos were substituted. The Beethoven 3rd remained on the program.

After the intermission, my ears were full of Mozart tonalities and my brain was attuned to them. When I heard that section quoted above, I was shocked. Since my brain was attuned to Mozart, they really sounded “strange”. I heard the music as the original audiences must have heard it. It felt like scratching fingernails on a blackboard.

It was as if I had travelled back in time, and had heard the music anew.

Given this insight, I tried to do this deliberately with painting.

I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and spent about an hour or two looking at classic, conventional 18th and 19th century paintings: portraits, landscapes, and mythology. Then, I walked with shielded eyes and a lowered head to the Impressionist paintings which were a short distance away. I tried to avoid looking at anything else, only looking enough to avoid walking into other people.

I then raised up my head and uncovered my eyes. The paintings looked disorienting. The first impression I had was how the colors stood out as a primary part of the painting, not as a support to the overall composition. The objects appeared as if you saw them in the non-ideal conditions of real life, not as you recalled them from memory. I have never looked at colors in the world the same way afterwards.

It was as if I had travelled back in time, and saw the paintings anew.

You can turn back in time, at least to try to view art in a different way.

For information about some of the other unique aspects of the 3rd symphony, check out Stephen Johnson’s analysis.

One Reply to “An Artistic Experiment in Time Travel”

  1. This is great, Michael–I have to try this sometime! And I love the observation about the colors being a primary part of the painting rather than just support for the overall composition–this is very astute.

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