Understanding Timelessness in Artwork


What makes the artwork timeless? An issue that occupied my mind for a very long time.
Sheakspear’s ‘Hamlet’, Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’, Michael Angelo’s ‘David’, Le Corbusier’s ‘Villa Savoye’, Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, Beethoven’s ‘5th’, etc… what do all these have in common?

One might say, great people are behind them. Ok… what constitute greatness? It’s not enough, as demonstrated by some ground breaking artists’ work that didn’t last as such. What are the qualities of a timeless art? The one that always find its top place anytime, anywhere.

Your thoughts…


art historians, curators, critics… fashion.


Well, let’s assume that is the case, on what basis do you think?

I would oppose partly this point, there are more tangible qualities than that…


the basis of fashion. as for what constitutes fashion… that’s dependent on how those who are compelling characters and arguers, trendsetters and the regarded establishment in fact feel.

consider it subjective.

a critic who doesn’t like a peice will voice that, in turn that will advertise that fact, it is their own choice, you don’t have to like any of the examples you gave, for instance personally i have little or no regard for kafka, he is however the choice of certain tutors of a certain persuasion (which leads to ideas of indoctrination rather than education within philosophical bounds), and while Villa Savoye may have a place in architectural history personally I find it bland and nondescript.

it’s also worth noting that timeless and great or noteworthy are all different things.

very little is timeless, what can look out at you from the past and be as fresh and pertinent today as it was when it was penned/painted? how pertinent will it be a couple of hundered years from now? no, there is a lot that is linked to it’s era, and ironically the more succesful or great the person behind it the more that it is of it’s time, the greater the chance that it becomes identifiable with a period.

a great person in their own lifetime is more than likely to be the product of self advertising, example of such men are edison, picasso, dali, dunlop, disney, whether the greatness continues is dependent on a number of things, not least of which is how well they got on with reporters and critics.

postumous greatness is a fickle thing, subject to fashion, many artists have gone in and out of fashion, been “rediscovered”, mostly by critics and curators looking to make a name for themselves, after all they are the ones who stand to gain from such the “discovery”, but the same is true for downplaying a popular artist.


Yeh, sure…fashionably acknowledged greatness find its ways in history books. I completely find it true that it is subjective, but I differ on the scale of subjectivity. I think it is more of a collective subjectivity that is beyond cultures and times. A type of work that touches the essence of things. Aesthetics and perception are mostly universal, but taste is local.


the essence of what things? who’s to say that other people experience the same things and feelings you do? you can have empathy for many people and things, some great and some not so. what is the “collective”? who decides that? who decides which aesthetics are universal? aesthetics are surely the most subjective of all things, the most governed by taste.


The collective subjectivism is the consensus among the species, it is the joint verdict that expands beyond the art work upto the natural object. Sadly measurable through statistics :sad:

It does not mean taste is identical by any stretch. But, what I understand from your argument is that the timelessness is not in the object of art, but in the subject of taste! right? if so, then what are the prerequisites to understanding the work of art?


What makes art timeless? well, according to trends, it helps if the artists is dead.

But seriously, even though aesthetics are global as a concept, isolating what makes something beautiful to one person but not to the next is still in definition. The study of aesthetics, considering it is effectively a form of opinion, has no right or wrong, and is less tangible than simply expressing that something is beautiful.

I think on some level, for something to be great, it has to traverse the visual aesthetics. Ultimately what makes something timeless may very well be attributed to the aesthetics on other non-visual levels, which is ultimately moulded by the world around you - taste, fashion, opinion.

In my opinion, something needs to have aesthetically pleasing elements to be timeless. It can look ugly, or abstract, but on non-visual levels, it can be beautiful. Its not something you’d wear to your wedding, but it’s something worth looking long and hard at.So maybe we need to determine what the criteria is for something to be aesthetic on non-visual levels, because obviously (as I’m about to re-iterate what ashakarc and mdme_sadie have already said) visual beauty is subjective.


well there’s the issue. a consensus is usually abused to be just a few people who “should” have the say (a bit like greek democracy) in this case, critics, art historians and curators (and to an extent art teachers) are the people who have the say, not the actual population at large. the self styled intelligentsia.

there are few statistics on what the actual public think of artworks, because they’re far too ignorant to have an oppinion, and no one really bothers to take census of artists themselves, they’re far too unwashed. when it comes down to it no-one has asked everyone, till they have, there is no consensus… just opinion (sometimes paraded as fact).

It does not mean taste is identical by any stretch. But, what I understand from your argument is that the timelessness is not in the object of art, but in the subject of taste! right? if so, then what are the prerequisites to understanding the work of art?

nope, i said greatness is the subject of taste, as it appears that greatness is what you’re talking about in your first post and in general in this thread, not timelessness.

timelessness is literally unageing, or independent of time, unafected by time, possibly there is some confusion as to it’s meaning. very very few things are timeless, especially things that are “great”, as they tend to be representative of a window into their particular epoch, artworks in particular tend to be bound to their era.

instead it is more often the mundane that reaches out accross the years as being as fresh and relevant today as it was back then.


Sure, I can see the paradox here. If the artwork is great, representative of its era, then it is time-delimited, which essentially make it more difficult to become timeless. Great point you are making here.

Let me be clear about my point; greatness emerges uncontested, if the work of art endures the passage of time, not the other way around. And, this is exactly what the original inquiry is about. What makes the artwork a survivor of time?

well there’s the issue. a consensus is usually abused to be just a few people who “should” have the say (a bit like greek democracy) in this case, critics, art historians and curators (and to an extent art teachers) are the people who have the say, not the actual population at large. the self styled intelligentsia.
Consensus statistics present interpretation more than facts, and certainly it could be abused by the elitists. But this is not the point. Timelessness is not an exclusive phenomenon for the Intelligentsia to observe. The population at large could well recognize this phenomenon. Symbolism in art is a proof to that. When it is absent as in abstract art, it alienates the public and becomes an exclusive trade to the ‘Intelligentsia’. Which makes abstract art a form of art that is in the object rather than the subject, and renders it irrelevant to time and place.huh…Greek democracy, great example. Not related but reminds me of Bernard Shaw on Democracy: “Democracy is a form of government that substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.”


I think timelessness is not something you can strive for as a creative person, because it isn’t up to you, but the people who you will never meet, that eventually decide whether your work is timeless or not. Timelessness essentially means it evokes the same emotions and thoughts in the viewer no matter what time period. You can’t really define or break something like that down into concrete evidence or criteria, since we can’t predict the future. For example, let’s say a piece of work that was created in the 1930’s has become timeless, but if it was created in the 1830’s, it might not have become timeless due to the context of the time period. And of course, this goes both ways. If the Mona Lisa was painted today, no one would give a rat’s ass. In fact, there are many artists who thinks it’s overrated and Da Vinci himself is overrated.

Accidental success happens too. When Casablanca was made, no one who worked on it thought it was a special film–it was just another Hollywood mainstream entertainment. But today, it’s considered one of the greatest films ever made.


I think timelessness is concept a piece of art achieves when representing the cream de la cream , but with in a completely innovative structure; and by that I mean the reasons of the piece,the way it was made or the condition of the artist.


I’m not sure if we can cannonize aspirations of creativity. I find it extremely healthy to put timelessness as a goal to achieve, and let time be the witness and societies be the verdict. It is the strive of doing not only the best one can, but to go beyond one’s ego to touch the essence of whatever material is in hand.

Recently, I’ve watched this documentary on the life and work of Louis Kahn called “My Architect”. I highly recommend it. Anyway, you have to see how this man worked, and how the people who are inhabiting his designed buildings reacting to it after many decades. How he touched the essence of those societies, leaving imprints that are absolutely timeless. btw, the term ‘essence of things’ is a phenomenological one.

As a designer myself, I find the strive to timelessness is a form of high morality. It clears the mind from all the clutter of the biased emotions and prejudices, and it is not an easy thing to get. If I dig deeper trying to explain that moment, I would say it is a meditative state.

Edit: Just came across this:
“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have Immortal longings in me.”
William Shakespeare


In order to fall into that particular category of “timeless” art, or what are considered as timeless through some degree of mass-recognition (i.e. the Mona Lisa, the Pieta, Starry Night, etc.), it seems that a work must be executed in such a manner as to suggest the pinnacle of both technical achievement and creative expression for that particular medium and/or genre.

Without stepping too deeply into the above discussion of critics, concensus statistics, etal, I do think that it is essential that when considering the “timeless” quality of a work (as I assume the poster referred to it) that the initial social impact upon the localized society and populace on a variety of levels be included as contributing to the lasting effect.

For example, the greatest impact and, indeed, the lasting one, that The Sistine Chapel had upon completion was upon the general populace, the Aristocracy and the Church in a similar manner. Through that rare crossing of class, political and economic boundaries - reaching beyond those distinctions - the perception gave way to a more signifigant impact and contributed to the lasting or timeless association that persists today by which the majority of humanity recognizes that work as a masterpiece. It was on a scale and level of creative and technical execution that had never previously been attained, nor has been since. THAT is what lends a timelessness to a work. Of course, I am nothing, and my opinions matter not but to me. They are not timeless.



That seems to be true when applied to classical models or works of art. As the perfection of the technique and craft is inherent to most classical examples in painting, sculpture, music, architecture, theatre, and poetry. The second one; the creative expression; if it stands alone, could well be applied to modernists’ examples where products became less crafted in the sense of manual labour and more industrialized, but highly original in terms of the expression.

So, in essence of timelessness, originality and perfection are two very important factors in addition to the acknowledgement of the society beyond the borders of time and place. Is this fair to say?


Fair but incomplete I think. When you say society you should be acknowledging more factors like insight into the person(psychology, workings of the inner self), awareness of certain things true to a larger group of people than just a society(society changes fast), these might include base principals common to religion or a certain aspect of life commoc to more than one culture(preferrably all).


i think timeless art are the ones with more important subjects like mythology, religion…or things that relate to all humans in different cultures and different times…
political art or things that are meant to express ideas or feelings about a certain situation are not timeless…like art dealing with a certain war during a certain time…i don’t think that is going to have the same affect on humanity from time to another

but i’m falling asleep so not sure if that made any sense…lol


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