Epilogue: Old is Beautiful

Time is an Artist – Walter Kaufmann

From Walter Kaufmann’s Time is an Artist (1978)



Perhaps the attack on time and its work has passed its peak, and we are on the threshold of a new sensibility. There is little to indicate that people are becoming more historically minded. On the contrary, the concern with the future far exceeds interest in the past, and the cult of youth and the lust for novelty have not abated. Yet there are three small clouds on the horizon, each of them no bigger than a human hand – and one cloud like that sufficed Elijah to predict the end of a long drought.

The first hopeful sign is that voices of protest are being heard. This in itself is not new, and Goya and Goethe did not stem the tide of barbarous restorations, nor did Gombrich and Kurz. But recently the restorers have gone so far that it seems possible that a reaction will set in.

On New Year’s Day 1977, The New York Times ran a story under the headline, “Optics at Chartres Reported Ruined.” The point was that three of the most celebrated and venerated stained-glass windows in the world have been irretrievably “altered by cleaning and conservation.” French artists led the protest, but were at first pooh-poohed by the officials in charge: “Who would dream of taking the word of an artist” seriously? But some scientists corroborated what the artists had seen with their eyes, and thereupon it was reported, “the Ministry of Culture has ordered all stained-glass restoration to be suspended, at Chartres and elsewhere.”

At the end of January, Time magazine ran a long story on “Chartres: Through a Glass Darkly,” and joined to it another, “Acropolis: Threat of Destruction.” The Greeks, it reported, are now planning to remove the sculptures that remain on the Acropolis in Athens to an as yet unbuilt museum, replacing them “with fiberglass replicas.” All the ancient columns will re­quire extensive “restoration.” The story ended: “The idea of a Parthenon ‘restored’ with fiber­glass replicas, girdled by lines of tourists trudging along a viewing ramp, may be depressing, but it also may be better than no Parthenon at all.”

Time’s concern may have been prompted in part by Ada Louise Huxtable’s eloquent editorial in The New York Times of January 17, 1977. Under the heading, “Alms for the Acropolis,” she said, “Pilgrimages have not been made for 25 centuries to see the marbles of molded fiberglass. The sculpture will never be experienced properly, as it was conceived, again. Next – a plastic Parthenon?” Even Huxtable ignored the artistry of time when she suggested that in the 1960s the sculpture could be experienced “as it was conceived,” and that this alone is the proper way of seeing it. Originally, the sculptures were painted, and the Acropolis may well have looked nouveau riche to Greek visitors on the eve of the Peloponnesian War. It was time that gave the Acropolis the aspect we loved. But I applaud Huxtable’s conclusion: “It is the peculiar arrogance of money and technology to believe that a civilization can be put back together again.”

How can one find hope in words like these? The problems have clearly become worse than ever. So have the extravagances of the believers in restoration. It is not altogether impossible that people with some understanding of culture may rally in this hour of unprecedented need. I doubt that they would be heard, if it were not for the other two clouds on the horizon.


The second hopeful sign is that in many of the wealthiest countries the birth rate has de­clined sharply. It is alarming, of course, that the birth rate has not declined similarly in most poor countries, and that in the well-to-do countries, too, the poor and uneducated keep multi­plying at a faster rate than others. What, then, inspires hope?

For a long time, the people who were economically better off and more educated got younger and younger, and respect for the old and for what is old declined. Now this trend has been broken. The number as well as the percentage of the old will rise steeply, and it is to be hoped that in democratic countries they will not only demand respect but get it. If so, attitudes toward age and time may change. The era of contempt and lack of interest may draw to a rapid close.

Finally, women are at long last insisting on the respect that is due them. On the face of it, this may have nothing to do with time. But in fact, this is the most important of the three small clouds.

It is a puzzle that old women have been treated so wretchedly in so many cultures. I am not sure that this puzzle has ever been solved. The key to it is probably man’s horror of time, and his reluctance to admit that the passage of time is irrevocable. One refused to admit that death was irrevocable and fantasized about life after death. That during much of their lives women tell time by bleeding periodically was mysterious and inconvenient, but bearable. From a man’s point of view, it was not that different from other rhythms in nature. What was felt to be threatening was that, unlike the cycles of sun, moon, and seasons, the female cycle stopped. Men could fool themselves about growing old. They could tell themselves, and often young women also told them, that they were still young. They could shut their eyes to the passage of time. But a woman who had stopped menstruating was a living reminder that the passage of time is irrevocable, and that there is no restoration. This was most probably one reason why widows were burned in India, and witches in Europe and in America.

To be sure, not all widows and witches were old, but most widows are; and why wait? If the widow was still very young, one may have suspected that she was responsible for her husband’s death. Perhaps it was just as well for her to have nothing to gain from it. The worse male Hindus treated their wives, the more they may well have felt that it was good if their wives knew that when their husbands died, they would die, too.

As for young witches, they were supposed to have been led astray by old witches. And why were old women so often believed to know magic? Perhaps their original magical trick was that while other cycles of nature continued endlessly and gave men the feeling that in the long run nothing really changes, women defied this pattern of nature.

The women’s movement will have to address itself to these problems. The battle which has attracted the most attention is that of young women who insist on not being regarded as mere sex objects, drudges, or mothers. Many have decided not to have children. But all their victories will be hollow if they do not manage to change the prevalent attitudes toward the old.

In the past, ever growing numbers of women have dealt with this problem by not facing up to time. They have tried to hide time the way undertakers hide death, with cosmetics. They have claimed to be younger than they were or refused to tell their age. Time was their archenemy. They did not just fancy that; in the cultures in which they lived, it was.


Women may soon rally to the cry, “Old is beautiful!” Of course, not everything old is beautiful, any more than everything black, or everything white, or everything young. But the notion that old means ugly is every bit as harmful as the prejudice that black is ugly. In one way it is even more pernicious.

The notion that only what is new and young is beautiful poisons our relationship to the past and to our own future. It keeps us from understanding our roots and the greatest works of our culture and other cultures. It also makes us dread what lies ahead of us and leads many to shirk reality.

A large part of this book deals with works of art. Many people have a very limited interest in art. Some of the text deals with ancient Israel, India, and Greece. Most people have no in­tense concern with antiquity. But the central problem of the effects of time concerns all of us, even if millions refuse to think about it. It is not easy to get at this problem.

The philosophers who have written on time are not much help here. Almost all of them have ignored life at the limits and have done their work in the eye of life’s hurricane.

My experience of time owes more to Rembrandt than to Plato, and more to the Hebrew Bible than to Kant. It has also been shaped by the contemplation of sculptures and ruins and of alarming “restorations.” To Plato and Kant it never occurred that our experience of time could be shaped by looking at works of art, tree bark, erosion, and sunsets, or by reading stories like those of Jacob, Samson, or David.

To get modern readers to look at time in a new way, it would never do to follow the paths of the old philosophers. I have tried a new way, placing our experience of time in a temporal context, showing how it has historical roots, and above all offering pictures that are no less im­portant than the text.

Of course, “Old is beautiful” is as paradoxical as “Time is an artist.” What meets the eye is the opposite. Yet photographs show how both claims are true. Still they do not tell all, and it may be objected that this aesthetic approach is overly optimistic. My approach, however, is not merely aesthetic. It does not concentrate on surfaces while ignoring oppression, suffering, and death. On the contrary, this trilogy begins with Life at the Limits, and Time Is an Artist deals centrally with man’s lot.

Time is an artist. But an artist is not only an artist. Old is beautiful. But old is not only beautiful. As long as we fail to see the artistry of time and the beauty of age, we are far from understanding man’s lot. But to understand it more fully, we still need to ask: What is man?



2 thoughts on “Epilogue: Old is Beautiful

  1. Pingback: Time Is An Artist « Taimur Khan

  2. Minerva

    I laughed out loud when I read the lines,”They (women) have claimed to be younger than they were or refused to tell their age. This was their archenemy”.

    It reminded me of a quote by Christian Dior, who said, “Women are most fascinating between the ages of thirty-five and forty, after they have won a few races and know how to pace themselves. Since few women ever pass forty, maximum fascination can continue indefinitely”.


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