Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Art of Clock Time

The Frick Collection’s “Precision and Splendor: Clocks and Watches” exhibit features eleven clocks and fourteen watches. They date from the early sixteenth to the nineteenth century. They include table clocks in ornate cases, pocket watches with enamel cases, as well as wall clocks with sculptured cases.

Case by Charles Cressent (1685-1768)
The clock is a curious thing, for it can be classified as an appliance and a decorative object. That is to say, it belongs to the category of decorative arts. The term decorative art stands in opposition to fine art. The distinction between the two classifications being that the later is art-for-art’s-sake while the former is the beautification of a utilitarian object. The delineation rests on a notion of practicality (i.e. the arts with a useful purpose are decorative, and the arts that do not serve any specific function other than beauty are fine).
David Weber (1623/24-1704)

Interestingly, the show does not focus on the utilitarian aspect; instead, it concentrates almost solely on the ornamentation. Put simply, the interest is in the form not the function. As a result, the shift from mantle to display case entails a transformation in which the decorated utilitarian object is divorced from its function.

The hour and minute hands are at rest as are the pulleys, springs, weights, and pendulums. When one looks at the clock in the gallery it is not to read the time of day, but to admire or appreciate the outer form. What are the consequences of displaying a timekeeper in such a manner that it can only fulfill its decorative function?

Chavannes le Jeune (active c. 1650-1660)
The pieces in a fine art museum have been removed from their original contexts. The Frick provides a space for objects that fall under the rubric of fine arts to function in largely the same way that they did in their original contexts. Put another way, the items that are considered to be fine art are viewed much in the same way as they were intended. The reason being that they are aesthetic objects—intended for contemplation. In a fine art museum these items are reflected upon and examined. 

Lenoble a Paris (dates unknown)

In a fine art museum, the decorative objects are not being viewed in the manner that they were originally intended. The decorative object was made for practical everyday use—not solely for contemplation. And so, the Frick cannot provide a context in which an item such as a clock can retain its epistemological value as a utilitarian object.

Is the piece of decorative art turned into a piece of fine art? What does it mean for the three-dimensional utilitarian object with aesthetic merit to be separated from its function? Does the shift change how we view or perceive the object? Has the function changed? Can the commercial item transcend its commercial nature, and present art in its pure form? When we try to reconfigure the role of the museum clock do we take into account the creator’s intent (the function for which it was intended), the viewer’s attitude, or the nature of the thing itself?  

Author: Natasha Davis
Suggested Reading:
Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2007)


1 comment:

James said...

When visiting the exhibit I remember trying to figure out what the story was that the curator was trying to tell with these pieces and I think you are right in identifying it as the artistry of the work. I was expecting more of a utilitarian and functional description of clockwork, but generally the exhibit shows beauty but does not allow much investigation of the intricacy of the mechanics.

Your last question regarding the creator's intent seems like it might be even larger than just this context and have broader implications to archaeology and museums (or even zoos!). Without much background in archaeology as an academic discipline I wouldn't want to speculate too much but it strikes me that part of the nature of archaeological display in museums is to remove the item from its created intent and use it, instead, as a way of understanding culture or history more broadly. When you see a chipped clay pot in a display case at a natural history museum are you looking at the pot as it was used or as a piece of art?