a thought : \ Art and change
To create art has been as given to humans as speaking a language – we have always done it. No matter how long back you choose to look, we alway seem to find some sort of ornamentation, something that goes a little beyind what we solely need for survival. We've used different materials, methods and we've had different intentions: to express status, search for spiritual connection, create an instruction for succeedors or simply to satisfy the heart and the eye, but to create something beautiful seems more like a need than a choice. More like something we can't help. To leave an impression, to change something by leaving our mark, seems to have been as natural for us as it has been absolutely necessary.
In an episode of his podcast, author John Green speaks about the many thousand years old cave paintings found in Lascaux in France. The cave was discovered in 1940, and when Picasso visited the cave he famously said: ”We haven't discovered anything!” With that, he meant that the early artists, our ancestors, already knew of everything that we later claim to have ”discovered”, such as perspective when drawing, naturalist image, abstraction, pointillism, and so on. The images often represent animals and the artists have used three different colours of pigment for the contours and colouring. Some of the images also consist of human hand imprints. Adult hands, hands missing fingers due to frostbite and small childrens' hands. The hands have been held against the surface of the cave and pigment has been blown on both the hand and the wall, leaving a negative shape once the hand is removed.
It feels dizzying when I try to imagine how people gathered in the cave almost 17 000 years ago, maybe to find shelter, and left their imprints. The many hundred paintings in the cave make up a rich fauna that is at the same time realistic as it is abstract, but exactly why the paintings were made is something that remains an enigma.
To create change is what distinguishes us as species – it's how we've survived. When the terrain doesn't meet our needs for shelter we've been able to build huts and houses. When the climate has been too harsh we've been able to tediously make needles from animal bones, make thread from sinew or plant fibre and then finally sew us some clothing. We've also changes our own selves – we've been tattooing our bodies for thousands of years, and we've been wearing jewellery since we learned how to pierce a piece of shell... the making, adorning and changing of our surroundings has aways been natural to us, but somewhere, maybe when the survival has been secured, the strictly necessary making turns into more of a creative making. But can one really argue that such a border exists, between what is necessary and what then becomes ornamental? And could one argue, that such a border is important? Making and creating has given us an ability to survive, both by us being able to make clothing to keep warm, but also by us being able to create symbols to create community and practices to keep us spiritually and emotionally healthy. We are mammals who need each other to survive, and that's when tools for unity and communication become equally important as the tools with which we can manipulate the surroundings. And aren't language and art just such tools of unity?
Today, we inhabit most corners of our world. Everywhere one can find more permanent settlements, infrastructure and shelter from weather and nature. Survival is no longer such an acute and blatant question as it was for our ancestors, but we still carry our tools. Through creating and through art, we've been able to change the surroundings to meet our basic needs. When our needs are met, that burden is lifted from the shouders of art; we no longer need art to literally feed us, but we still understand art as something whose purpose it is to make a difference. To create something distinctive, to change. To create a contrast where there wa none, or to create something which we have not seen before. So we see art as the creation of something new, even without it directly contributing to our survival.
I think of artists like Michelangelo or Rodin, artists who slowly, slowly carve out something so soft as human skin and falling fabric from something as hard as marble. An unbelievable contrast, brought by an almost super-human ability to change rock into something we can recognize as skin. This is where art becomes a physical language that makes an impression on the world and gives birth to something which was not there before, at the same time as it relates back to the same ability we have to thank for our survival: the ability to create change.
But. Where are we now?
The making and creating, abilities tht have seen to our survival, are now the same abilities that have lead us to the other side of the plank. We've all experienced, or at least read about, the consequences of our antropocene world; where our ancestors in part needed to build themselves out of nature's harsh cycles and systems to survive, we now have, as we've continued down the same path, put our survival at stake by excessively depleting the same systems that no longer pose a threat.
Economist Herman Daly writes about that we now live in a ”full world”, a world where humans no longer are limited by the lack of manmade resources but rather the natural resource flows. It is, in other words, no longer the amount of fishing boats that determines the amount of fish caught, but rather by the number of fish and their ability to reproduce.
And still we can continue to make art, and the art still sees to our survival! Nowadays one can design a pattern or a form in a computer programme to then not participate in the following creation process while a robot or, more rarely, a human factory worker creates the physical object, the cup or the pillowcase, packs and ships it to a retailer and there, again, art and creating have helped our survival by putting bread on our table. But it is here I find it relevant to ask: is this really OK? Is it really OK, to let art feed us in this way?
In a full world we're hardly suffering from the lack of cups or pillowcases. Or is there another need that is met in this process? Can the objects equal the hands on the cave wall, are they something that bring us together and create a common identity? We'd like to think that, but is that really the case? Or is it the making itself that meets a basic need for the maker? But if that were the case, wouldn't the maker be able to fullfill that need even without the following mass production, and maybe accept that the making, even though fullfilling a basic need, will not be the main source of income?
While the word is filing up and we experience more and more first hand consequences of our dominance, more and more of us ask this: do we really need this? Do we need to make more, new things?
And at the same time, we can remind ourselves that nothing is new – apart from the technological, if you look at what is fundamentally human, there is nothing that our ancestors in the cave didn't already know.
Art and making is a language with which we can express ourselves, and I don't think we canever choose to not have it in our lives, just as I don't believe that our forefathers could choose not to leave impressions on cave walls tens of thousands of years ago. But I think that we today need to consider even more carefully how we express this need. Because if we continue to manifest the need to create in the act of creating new things, then we pretty soon undermine a function that has sustained our survival as a species and instead suffer the consequences as the new suff that we create neither conforms to surrounding ecosystem, nor fullfills a need.
But I still think that there is hope. It can be something as simple as mending something. To care for earth, to make something out of something that already exists, re-shape, re-make. Or to create something temporary, out of decomposing materials or something that fills a ritual function and remains only in memory. The same motivation and creation, a different outlet. In a world where the massproduced, the factory-made and the refined if the norm, I believe that art can lead us to appreciate that which is un-refined, temporary, mended, old and timeworn. That, which in this context, we would experience as a change. In a world where the manmade capital is dominant, it is the natural that becomes rare, beautiful and precious, and can lead us to create its preservation, create conditions to that, which is not made by us, but which makes itself: forests, waters, meadows, seas. We can find an outlet for the same need for creativity not by protecting ourselves against a threatening nature, but by protecting a nature threatened by us.
Because art is the language of change and making is the language of survival. Our conditions today may be radically different to the conditions of our ancestors, but we are at the core the same mammals. We haven't discovered anything, that they didn't already know; that the wind is cold, that the fire is hot and that we can find chelter together in a world that is big, sometimes frightening, but vastly beautiful.