At the outset Kubler distinguishes between art and tools (art is always more complex, serving many purposes but no need) and protests the use of biological metaphors for understanding and locating the duration of a particular artistic style. Instead, a series of signals reaches to us from the past, and historians construct from "ruined fragments of matter recovered from refuse heaps and graveyards" (14) the signals which lead to primary objects.
Primary objects are those objects which first or best attempt to solve a problem; they require "a fundamental adjustment in our ideas of the integrity and unity of the work of art." (40) These solutions may be traced through a variety of fields. An architectural example --and many prime objects happen to be architectural -- is a series of cathedrals built from 1140 to 1350 in Northern Europe, each of which was an attempt to solve the problem of how best to create beautiful "segmented structures with rib vaults." (37) He makes one minor point which is suggestive in the case of cathedrals: the typical duration of a series is 120 years, or three generations. (103)
By using prime objects Kubler may group artists widely separated in time or space, since they were working on the same problem. He also is able to comment on the relative success of an artist: he or she may have been entirely competent, even brilliant, but working on a problem which had already seemingly been addressed with its final solution, as for example, those who created copies of the Parthenon. (A prime object is more likely to result when "the investigator constructs his own system of postulates and sets forth to discover the universe they alone can disclose. The confrontation is between the new, the untried coordinates and the whole of experience..." (69)) In fact, no one can know whether a sequence/problem is finally open or closed but many sequences have been "closed" by simple abandonment. Because in a pre-industrial age it is easier to repair than to discard, works of art are discarded reluctantly, and when an area is saturated with a satisfying form, living artists may have serious competition from those 50 years dead. Thus regions with unfulfilled needs, and the cities which welcome radical artists, are most likely to be wealthy but non-colonial. Kubler reaches two important conclusions: first, at any moment the historian perceives a highly textured society (like a bundle of reeds) with varied types of artists and a set of competing form classes whose systematic ages may be very different. Second, since the ratio between discovered positions and undiscovered ones favors those discovered, the "task of the present generation is to construct a history of things that will do justice both to meaning and being." (126)
It is perhaps a simply a personal response to say that a curiously or perhaps deliberately unstudied feel predominates the work, and yet certainly it is a synthesis, that could only be produced by someone widely read and passionately serious about his work. But it seems also to be a work squarely within its time: I suspect that "primary objects" are not something that a contemporary thinker would or even could use to organize a theory of history. Such a study would privilege certain objects over others at the apparent whim of the (doubtless widely read) author of the study. A test of the author's choices might be agreement with other historians about those "cleavages in history where a cut will separate different types of happening." (2)
George Kubler. The Shapes of Time. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962. 13. All quotations
in the text are to this edition.