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What role does memory play in art?

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, _Thoughts of the Past_, exhibited 1859, oil paint on canvas, 86 x 50 cm (Tate)
Because it can take the form of sensations, images, and emotions, memory lends itself perfectly as a subject and tool for art and artists. With the idea of memory in mind, some artists try to document things exactly as they are in order to create a record for future generations. But others deliberately frame the past in different or unexpected ways to change the way we think about history. So how does art shape our collective memory of the past? And how might it inform our experience of major events in our own time?
The task of preserving memory is difficult when it comes to art, because there will inevitably be tension between an object invented by a subjective mind and the objective fact or event it is meant to depict. Even a map can be inaccurate when drawn from just one perspective. Knowing this, many artists use art to tell stories about personal and cultural memory that are open to interpretation, that reframe the past not as a fixed narrative but as a multiplicity of voices from diverse points of view. This allows us to think twice about our history and how it has been shaped, and how we might best document things to come.
Some art engages with memory by trying to erase it entirely, as in the case of Michael Landy’s performance Break Down, in which he catalogued every item in his possession before destroying them in a public event. Similarly, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely was known for creating a sculptural machine that was designed to destroy itself completely. Some art, like time-based and performance art, never even exists in a fixed space and seems to disappear entirely when not being performed. But the ephemeral nature of this art only strengthens its connection with memory, which is where you could say it actually resides.

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Wasn't most art painted "from memory" until the Impressionists and others started to go outside and paint En plein air (out in the open air, outside etc.)?
    (4 votes)
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    • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
      I wouldn't say "most" ... many artists used sitting or standing subjects for portraits, others used their imagination which mixes memory with other, sometimes fantastical images (consider Salvador Dali or William Blake). Other artists simply copy the work of earlier artists, such as Roman sculptors who made marble copies of (now lost) Greek bronze sculptures. Then there are the "appropriators" ... see the videos and articles on Khan Academy about Appropriation, where one artist makes an homage and/or closely replicates an earlier work, with no changes or inspiration from memory.
      (5 votes)