It's about time (continued)

III. Et in Arcadia ego

. . . It was Monet.

These paintings are not about haystacks and cathedrals. They’re about the transience of light. Debussy’s Preludes, written about 20 years later, seem to me to have that same feeling of transience.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity shows that the only physical absolute is the speed of light. Time and space are relative. There’s a reciprocal relationship between them: When time dilates, space contracts, and vice versa. From the point of view of a photon travelling at 26,000 miles per second, there is no linear time. What happens to the moments?


So I have this vision of time being noncontinuous—digitized or quantized—with all the moments spread out like images in a gallery. Like Monet’s haystacks. Or the frames of a movie.

But we’re not moving anywhere near that fast. So in our reality we can’t visit this gallery of past and future, as in Titian’s painting, because we are in the images, we are the images. We’re in the river of time and can only toss our art out onto the banks to show that we passed by there. Will Barnett (aged 100) said, “The old masters are still alive after 400 years, and that’s what I want to be.” Something like that must have been on the minds of the original old masters, those painters in the Aurignacian caves.

Animation, I guess, is another effort to defy that prohibition to time travel--to bring that perfect moment to life by giving it a past and a future.

 Watching clouds last summer made me realize that we are nested in rates of change and time scales that we can’t perceive or are only vaguely aware of. I found that if I watched those clouds long enough they would break up and vanish. The movement was barely perceptible unless I concentrated my gaze on it.
Fading, animation by Warren Criswell,
music by Bob Boury
 The same is true of the rotation of the earth if we have the patience to watch the apparent movement of the stars. I’ve only done that once, back in Florida, many years ago. I was lying on the ground in my front yard watching the stars rise but knowing that really it was I who was sinking, and I felt the turning of planet, carrying me around like a slow motion roller coaster. It was almost a feeling of vertigo. And I wasn’t even stoned.

But the movement of the continent under our feet is not perceptible. At the induction zone in the Pacific, where the Pacific plate is pushing under the Eurasian plate—which caused the 8.9 earthquake in Japan in March of 2011—the plates are moving at about the same rate that your fingernails are growing. We can observe geological change only by analyzing ancient rocks and biological evolution only by studying fossils.

It’s the same with the ultra-high speeds we’re travelling. We have no sense of zooming around the sun at 67,062 miles per hour, or of our solar system’s speed around the galaxy at 483,000 miles per hour, or the Milky Way’s rush toward Leo and Virgo at 1.3 million miles per hour.

On the other hand our brains are capable of measuring incredibly small segments of time. I didn’t realize how we are able to locate the source of a sound until I read an article in the New Yorker about the neuroscientist David Eagleman. He said, “If you’re hiking through a jungle and a tiger growls in the underbrush, your brain will instantly home in on the sound by comparing when it reached each of your ears, and triangulating between the three points. The difference can be as little as nine-millionths of a second.” Of course we aren’t aware of that triangulation going on. The mechanics of it get edited out. Just as we don’t perceive the switch from one frame to another in a movie but only a continuous motion. It’s called the “persistence of vision.”

We don’t perceive our own aging either. At least not at first. We live the first 40 or 50 years of our lives as immortals. We know about death but somehow it doesn’t apply to us. As Somerset Maugham is supposed to have said on his death bed, “I know everyone dies, but I always thought an exception would be made in my case.”

But at some point we achieve mortality. I tried to show this moment in my painting Death Waking Time.

Warren Criswell, Death Waking Time,
1998, oil on wood, 42 x 27 inches

 It’s as if the skull on top of the tomb is saying the inscribed words. The inscription means “I too am in Arcadia.” Arcadia was the Greek idea of a pastoral paradise. That’s a river god in the foreground, pouring out that river of time I talked about earlier; he knows the truth already. But the shepherds seem puzzled and shocked to find out that Death is there with them.

 I painted Death, not as the usual grim reaper, but as a beautiful woman, because now every moment becomes precious. There is no life without death. Which is the meaning of Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1629-1630
oil on canvas, 101 x 82 cm

You don’t usually find profound statements in Wikipedia, but I found this in an article linking this painting to the history of art. The writer says that the “meaning of this highly intricate composition seems to be that, from prehistory onward, the discovery of art has been the creative response of humankind to the shocking discovery of mortality.” (

Thirteen years after painting Death Waking Time I quoted Poussin’s painting again in Penthesilea (Love is a Dog Bite).

Penthesilea (Love is a Dog Bite), 2011, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches

This one is not only about individual mortality but also about the mortality of a civilization. They evolve slowly and can collapse suddenly. Our own global industrial society is in overshoot mode, growing exponentially above the planet’s capability to sustain it. It’s hard to see how a collapse, sometime during your lifetimes if not mine, can be avoided. (See Limits to Growth, the 30-Year Update, 2004.)

Again, this is because of the way our brains are wired to perceive time. We’ve evolved to deal with short term solutions to local problems but not with long term solutions to global problems, which is what would be required to prevent a collapse. The question is whether our creativity can overcome our destructivity. Bill McKibben nails it when he compares financial crises with ecological crises. He writes, "The problem, of course, is that the collapse of financial systems happens quickly, and so our political systems respond by throwing piles of money into the breach; global warming happens just slowly enough that political systems have been able to ignore it. The distress signal is emitted at a frequency that scientists can hear quite clearly, but is seemingly just beyond the range of most politicians." (New York Review of Books, June 11, 2009)

So brain time, time as we perceive it, is subjective. Time flows faster when we’re younger than when we get older. This is because when we’re young new experiences are coming at us all the time. The unknown lies ahead of us. Another point on this scale is when some traumatic experience suddenly happens. Times slows down when you fear for your life. The ground falls out from under you. When you’re falling time slows to a crawl. You see every detail of the ground coming up at you.

David Eagleman (Incognito: What’s hiding in the unconscious?) tells about a guy who fell off his bike in front of an oncoming car. He said he could hear his helmet bouncing along on the pavement at a certain rhythm and found himself making up a little song to go with it. The brain is working much faster to make sense out of this new world that has just been created.

This why, in this animation, I wanted my frog to make his leap in slow motion.


I chose Hindemith’s Variations on Frog He Went a-Courting because of the way the tempo slowed down at the end of the first variation, and I made that coincide with the frog’s leap.

But Eagleman says “that's just a movie conceit, and that doesn't actually happen in real life, and it's because time is not one thing to the brain. It's not like a piece of footage that you stretch or squish. Instead, you have different parts of the brain that care about duration, those that care about temporal order, those that care about flicker rate, those that care about auditory pitch and so on. Normally, these work in concert, and we think that time is just one thing. But what we've been doing in the laboratory is teasing these apart and showing that time is really a construction of the brain.”

Time is really a construction of the brain. The philologist Friedrich Max Muller (T.J. Crow, The Speciation of Modern Homo Sapiens, 2003, Oxford, p.5) said that if we want to make it clear that time and space are determined by the Self, “we might say that there is no There without a Here, no Then without a Now, and that both Here and Now depend on us as recipients, as measurers, as perceivers.” This why we don’t worry about a future we can’t perceive.

Listen for the voice-over in the barroom scene of my movie where I suggest that to be is to be perceived, and David Bailin agrees with me. Bishop Berkley said that 200 years before quantum mechanics discovered it. David phrased it a little differently:

charcoal on Paper, 52½ x 54 inches

So is there such a thing as absolute time, independent of an observer? This is the point where both the artist and the scientist wonders whether there is such a thing as reality?...


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