I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation at this afternoon’s debate around the value of art. (Except for the niggardly feeling that maybe I should go back to school and get my PhD)
This is a deep topic – here’s what I have been thinking.
It seems to me that art is deeply linked to the experience of H. sapiens. We know that before sapiens arrived Homo (neanderthalis for sure, but also maybe Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis) had practiced ritual burial- bodies placed in symbolic positions in a grave, bodies marked with ocher. So the numinous experience, a relationship with death and the longing for the continuation of the self after death is not uniquely human. Our predecessors may also have decorated themselves and their clothes, so perhaps even visual expression is not entirely unique, and I am quite sure that one could make an argument that many species appreciate beauty (even if this adoration is in fact sparked by the selfish gene). But when sapiens arrives in the world we see for the first time (we believe) art supported by and embedded in culture.
The great cave paintings of so many cultures still move us, viewers are awed by their expressive beauty (which is spectacular – but beauty is an idea for another day and has no bearing on value). What I am thinking about here in a discussion on value is the consumption of resources that it takes to create such spectacle. Putting aside the question of why we did it, or the amount (enormous) of skill required to create such deceptively graceful rendering with such poor tools – what I am thinking about is the actual tools, the consumption of material and the investment of capital in the form of time, materials and labor in such an epic undertaking, those walls didn’t paint themselves. For example, scaffolding had to be erected, which required a great deal of skilled manual labor, someone had to flake a flint to cut the tree, someone had to cut it,someone had to haul it into a cave, someone had to dig a post hole, someone had to lash it (with some kind of rope-like material made by someone else). All these actions indicate to me, that the communities creating these images believed the image had great value. Now anthropologists and art historians and neuro-scientists can argue themselves blue in the face over why we did it, and why we valued this activity. But the evidence points to the fact that at this moment in time, for what ever reason, humanity valued art so highly as to devote life changing amounts of capital to this activity. And that no other species did (or does). Like Nigel Spivey I think that making art and being human are linked, perhaps so deeply entwined with one another as to be inseparable.
Flash Forward to the Romanesque or Gothic period, when civic pride clothed Europe in “a mantle of white churches”. Here again we see a moment in history when the creation of art has taken on such powerful meaning (value) that the entire capital of towns and cities is diverted into the production of stunning art ( for the glory of God or the bragging rights of the city fathers makes little difference).
My argument for the value of art then is its essential humanity. Children all over the world begin to create images of what they see in developmentally similar ways, human beings/cultures make images.
This is the point from which all arguments should depart. Making images requires a certain leap in abstraction that only our species has made (and before anyone tells me about elephants that paint in the zoo – I remind you I am not aware of any elephants that paint in the wild). I feel (because I don’t have the education or research to back this up) that making images expanded our ability to abstract. It is part of our intellectual birthright.
Art today is of course about more than making images, or even making at all. The creative impulse behind art is for me the most fundamentally human intellectual activity. I art therefore I am.
OK that is a long winded enough thought for tonight. More to follow.