It has long been recognised that great art, whether visual art, literature or music, has a special capacity to “live on” – to endure – long after the moment of its creation. Thus, our world of art today includes, for example, ancient Mesopotamian sculpture, Shakespeare’s plays, and the music of medieval times. How does this capacity to endure operate? Or to ask that question another way: what does “endure” mean in the case of art? The Renaissance concluded that art endures because it is timeless – impervious to change, “eternal”, “immortal” – and this solution, which was ratified without question by Enlightenment philosophers of art such as Hume and Kant, still lingers on in some quarters today. But developments since the nineteenth century have gravely weakened the credibility of the proposition that art is immortal, and the idea is now effectively dead. This leaves us with a major dilemma: if art is not impervious to change, how exactly does it endure? If the time-honoured solution of immortality is no longer viable, what alternative explanation can we find to replace it? This paper explains why immortality is dead, describes our contemporary dilemma, and briefly canvasses a possible solution.
Derek Allan is a Visiting Fellow in SLLL at the ANU. His main research interests are the philosophy of art, European literature, and visual art. Derek’s publications cover topics such as the theory of art and literature, Dostoevsky, Laclos, Goya and the art theorist and novelist, André Malraux.