My son asked me the other day (because even at 15 he seems to mistakenly think that I am a fount of all wisdom – until I ask him to do something of course!) when humans started to write. I answered that even the cavepeople drew on the walls – imbuing their drawings with meaning.
But it does beg the question – when did humans start to draw with the purpose of creating art – something which of course has meaning, but that the meaning might be simply to make a small corner of the world a beautiful place. Because what is art really other than an individual’s commentary on what they see outwardly and inwardly? I like to draw and paint in quite a photorealistic way. That’s because I actually think that I couldn’t possibly improve on what I see around me. That’s a deep-seated belief, which drives the way I portray the world.
But I suspect that humans have been drawing since the dawn of time. To a certain extent it has always marked them out from the rest of the animal kingdom. That’s not to say that other members of the kingdom do not show remarkable ingenuity and even craftsmanship in the way they leave their mark on the world – one only has to look at a bee-hive, an otter’s dam, a spider’s web, or even a bird’s nest to see this in action. Those cave paintings are important because they are the earliest proof of humankind’s purposeful manipulation of tools to create image with meaning, the precursor to writing. They are the proof that humankind was developing intelligence. They were also imprinting their relationship with the world – hence the fact that most of the early cave art features hunting animals.
So is that what art is? Is it marking out our relationship to the world? I think in one sense it is – even abstract art reflects perhaps a more introspective way of organising senses into shapes and colours. As the last century progressed, art became progressively darker in tone, often more difficult to understand for the casual observer. I suspect this reflects the fact that with its experience of modern warfare the world seems a more dangerous place, and despite new technologies which bring us closer together as a species, we have become more fragmented and polarised. That’s vastly simplifying the state of art as we find it, and one thing that can be said of art is that it is hugely varied in its expression and its methodology. Certainly in comparison to the art of former centuries, in which there was much more a generic, accepted form of creating art.
Another feature of the modern age which has hugely affected the arts, not just visual art, is the explosion of technologies which help artists to create art, and to share it. It is hugely easier to create professional art or music pieces in your own home. Arguably it is also easier to get your creations out into the world and share them widely, via social media and websites. Except that everyone else is trying to be heard and seen as well.
Personally I find it an exciting world to be creating in. Because anyone can create. It’s like the boy with the broomstick at the end of “The Last Jedi” – the force is not limited to ultra-powerful bloodlines, but is available for anyone. Indeed I think the true power of the arts lies in the creativity of the vast multitudes who are able to produce it and share it via instagram, etc. It is interesting to note that those who perhaps used to have power in the art world – those creating “important” works of art like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin – are not in the spotlight as they once were. The preeminent artists are those who are just one of the crowd – hiding in plain sight like Banksy. Perhaps the likes of me, painting pictures of nature, are not creating “Important” art – I can’t remember the last time I carved up a cow or dipped a crucifix in urine. But I believe that I am creating a picture of the way I see the world. And despite the fact that the world is a fairly grim place to be living in at the moment, I still love it. I still look out the window and see beauty.
It saddens me when I see what we as a species do to scar that beauty. But I’m thankful too that humankind leaves marks of greatness here as well – we are capable of creating great beauty. The scars we leave are perhaps a natural progression from the cave-paintings of old, in that they are people trying to tame their environment – by building roads and railways and functional living spaces. But let us never lose that awareness of how we can make the world a beautiful place as well.