The birth of art
Fifty-thousand years ago, a Neanderthal in what became south-eastern Spain took a seashell, coloured it with goethite and fashioned it into a necklace. Life was hard in the Middle Paleolithic Period, and if this jewellery designer had lived to the age of 30, it would have been quite an achievement. Food, preservation of body heat and sex would have been the focus of Neanderthal existence, yet something drove this visionary, a creature from a species separate to our own, to create what may have been the first piece of art. Is this an indication of a form of spirituality, or did the colours of the shell against the Mediterranean sunlight simply arouse pleasure in the hominid’s eye?
|Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917)
Early humans and Neanderthals also forged tools and wore clothing – how are these items different from stained seashells? Debates continue to rage as to what constitutes art in student cafes and university bars worldwide. By my criteria, art must entail at least one ingredient of the following:
1. A degree of aesthetic skill in design and craft,
2. A degree of vision and
3. A primarily artistic purpose – that is, to be observed rather than used.
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a urinal he bought in New York, paved the path for conceptualists – artists for whom the aesthetic is secondary to the idea. We can call this art. The urinal was not originally constructed to become art, nor did Duchamp’s handiwork contribute to its construction, but his originality and intent ultimately render it a form of art, regardless of whether we like it or not. Performance art avoids being a misnomer via the same principle. By these criteria, a beautiful beach or accidental alignment of apples in a bowl resembling a cloud or a woman’s face, while undeniably holding aesthetic merits, should not be defined as ‘art’. This is of course an opinion – Aristotle, who did not mix with conceptualists, held that art’s primary function is to bring us pleasure not found elsewhere. As a scenic oceanfront is far more likely to elevate us to a sense of the sublime than a urinal, I consider his viewpoint redundant. There is however no right answer.
Over history, art has fulfilled a multitude of socio-cultural, commemorative, political and religious purposes. Propaganda is one such use; Henry VIII’s hugely accentuated genital area and colossal shoulders, as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger (1536), enhance the image of a terrifyingly powerful monarch to be obeyed without question. The 20th Century saw this flourish – from rat-like Japanese soldiers gnawing on Alaskan soil (1941) to al-Qaeda operative al-Zarqawi imprisoned in a rat-trap (2003-2006). Creating art to express spiritual ideas was also a worldwide phenomenon, with Fra Fillipo Lippi’s Madonna and Child (1445) and the Five Deity Mandala (17th Century) in Tibet both delving into the realm of the supernatural. (Of course, religious art is also a kind of propaganda.) Before and even after the advent of the daguerreotype in the late 1830s, art was also quite simply used to document the world. From Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait (1887), we can know he had an orange beard – or at the very least, we can know he wanted us to think he had an orange beard. This is invaluable for historians and historiographers in constructing a coherent model of the past.
|Alaska – death-trap for the Jap / Grigware. Propaganda Poster for Thirteenth Naval District, United States Navy, showing a rat wearing a rising sun fez, representing Japan, approaching a mousetrap labeled “Army / Civilian / Navy”, on a background map of the then-Alaska Territory. The poster’s graphics and its scripture reading “Death-Trap For The Jap” are aiming at Japan’s then-occupation of Alaskan islands in the Aleutian Islands Campaign.
Is the modern world killing artistic impulses?
Almost everyone in the developed world owns a camera-phone and the UK supposedly contains over four million security cameras. Visual stimulation is satiated by television, cinema and video games in the modern day, and very few of us spend time in art galleries. Have recent mediums of entertainment necessarily buried art? Clichés of what a cardboard box can offer the imagination of a prepubescent mind over that of an Xbox may be dismissed as luddite nostalgia for an undeniably darker age. Yet a cardboard box forces us to think, not just absorb or react. The effect of engaging exclusively in short-term gratification-based activities – watching a television show as opposed to reading a book – may not be fully understood in the present day, but attention span and focus, like muscles, need to be trained if they are to be used. The Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution however were not born purely from these ingredients; when we consider Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it is not his attention span, but rather his imagination, his vision that fills us with awe. John Ruskin strongly believed in the connection between art and morality, describing it as “the expression of the spirits of great men”. Indeed Huxley and Orwell considered the dystopia of a future without this possibility.
Most of us are thankful for the benefits of the modern world. We can enjoy playing video games and watching television without having to worry about leprosy or bound feet. My conservatism is not directed towards the modern world itself, but rather our approach to it. Indeed, modern technology – notably the camera – can be conducive to the production of fine art. This is rather a question of attitude. Similarly, many TV programs can be considered art, and simply gazing at a Monet is no more profound than enjoying a fine film. Rather than launching an attack on modern entertainment mediums, I hope to question our contemporary habit of laziness with regard to effort and creativity. Art’s role in education is imperative to secure future innovation, the ability to conceive of a different reality and construct something in order to attain it.
Austerity measures within many academic institutions have twisted student attention towards areas of immediately obvious and ‘indisputable’ value. This money-mindedness can lead to contempt for the perceived non-essential fields of study. The Western European philosophical discussions of the 17th and 18th Centuries were often concerned with this notion of ‘the essential’. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all mused over man’s life in the state of nature, a realm devoid of the formal institutions of government. Without any form of welfare, survival would surely be the main concern of any inhabitant of this lawless world. And yet, before us Homo sapiens even set foot in Europe, our close Spanish cousin stained a mollusc shell and wore it as a necklace. Surely, there is something fundamental, an essential urge, in our need to create art? We should foster this, not suppress it.
Science and art
“Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?’ – John Keats’ Lamia (1819) goes on to suggest hard science unweaves the rainbow.
Are discussions of ‘the sublime’ and the discovery of unworldly plains of reality outdated or even superstitious? In our technologically driven age, the previously mysterious qualities of colour and light are easily explicable through unflowery science. Can we talk of magic with any meaning in 2012?
The beauty and the curse of science is its ever-evolving and necessarily incomplete nature. Unlike religious ideologies, science does not claim to have ‘the answer’. Indeed, Popper’s theory of falsifiabilty promotes the rejection of exclusive absolutism and Einstein famously stated, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right”. Being proved wrong, conversely, is not impossible. Newtonian mechanics were considered undeniable until the formation of the theory of relativity and electromagnetism – arguably the most significant force in daily life along with gravity – was not discovered until the latter half of the 19th Century. As neuroscience develops, our complex emotional sensations will undoubtedly become explicable through detailed analysis of chemical processes within the brain. What does this increased knowledge of the physical world do to our understanding of art? Light, with a wavelength range of 630 – 740 nanometres, evokes the colour of ‘red’ – Anger? Communism? Father Christmas? To the Baruya tribe in Papua New Guinea, it symbolises the sun and life, while during the Spanish Inquisition, redheads were associated with death, their hair a souvenir from the fires of hell.
Our perception of phenomena depends on our context as interpretive observers. In our only semi-enlightened age, it is meaningless to use purely hard-scientific terminology to describe certain experiences. The attractiveness of the female body is determined by mass in many cultures – from stick-thin to hugely fat – and anthropologists offer a range of socio-cultural explanations for this spectrum. While this may become the jurisdiction of hard science in time, many believe quantitative data (generally the when, where and what) is insufficient to provide us with the why and how. There are phenomena, such as elegance or jealousy, we cannot measure with any form of meaningful consensus.
Science concerns what is, art concerns what could be. The Spanish philosopher Jorge Santayana phrased it more poetically, “An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world”. Through the beauty of a fine piece of art we can reach ‘the sublime’, a higher realm traditionally considered beyond calculation. Most of us have been there, perhaps through gazing up at the magnificent fan vaulting in Cambridge’s King’s College Chapel, or maybe through the bewitching subtlety of Sesshū Tōyō’s brushstrokes. Some pieces don’t aim directly upwards, but take us elsewhere – Duchamp’s Fountain perhaps challenging our sense of order, or maybe simply shaking our tendency to categorize. Nonetheless, an effective piece of art should take us out of our everyday reality.
Romanticism, the artistic and literary movement of the 18th Century was born precisely to combat the rationalization of the natural world. With the Age of Enlightenment, these Romantics felt intuition, sensation and perhaps most importantly, imagination, were under serious threat. Despite the reductionist chemical explanations for most phenomena in the modern day, the pleasure we can feel through art is no less real than it ever was, and feels no less magical.
“Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line’– John Keats’ Lamia (1819)
Does art matter?
The fifty thousand year old necklace tells us art predates the Homo sapiens’ occupation of Europe, East Asia, North America and Australasia and the very existence of the Sahara Desert. Without the invention of the boat, Neanderthals were unable to travel back to Africa, their homeland, and yet from Gibraltar the continent would have been visible. We may never know what the ‘Spanish’ artist was thinking, but we can imagine.
Video cameras and microscopes document and explain reality more scientifically than paintbrushes. Solving disease, ending economic insecurity and resolving political crises may be considered more important by some than developments within the art world – although advocates of Joseph Nye’s theories of international relations may see a false distinction here, the so called ‘soft power’ of cultural phenomena playing a crucial role in politics. Art does matter however. As children, all of us blur the boundaries between the magical imaginary and profane everyday worlds – a tree can become a goblin or a dog can develop skills in the English language. The majority of us lose this flexibility as we grow up, allowing our creative impulses to dry out; this can either be considered maturing or yielding, as “art urges voyages, and it is easier to stay at home” (Gwendolyn Brooks). Yet those who do not, and have the skills to manifest their creativity, can touch us in places that money, mathematics and medicine cannot.