If you look around some really old places on this planet, like caves aged a few million years, you’ll find art.
Primitive cave paintings depicted the things and events of everyday life.
People, animals, hunting, the sun.
Arts and visual expression appear to be as old as mankind itself.
Found in a cave in Germany, a small carved figure, dating back about 40,000 years.
We can understand modern art. Taught in grade school, Art Colleges. Folks may produce art as a hobby or as a profession.
We can work our day jobs and order art supplies from Cheap Joe’s, and retire to our comfy studio (or bring a plein air easel outdoors), and enjoy making art.
What, I wonder, would compel someone to spend time on art in the cave-dwelling days?
Back in a time where we had to constantly be on the lookout for saber-toothed tigers raiding our dens, eating our babies.
Humans are compelled to create something to a greater degree than any other animal. Sure, a few animals make rudimentary tools, like using a stick to pull ants out of a nest, or smashing mussels on a rock to open them. Also, some animals seem to enjoy decorating their homes. Typically this would be a bird, hence the common phrase “a shiny thing to put in my nest”. These birds collect colorful or shiny objects and decorate with them, ostensibly to attract a mate. This seems counter-intuitive, since most nests are built to be unseen by predators to the greatest extent possible. Eggs and hatchlings will need to “hide” in the nest until they can fly and rely on their own defenses. It seems as though a prospective mate would desire those that demonstrate effective camouflage. You’ll need to ask the birds on that one.
Humans paint. I paint. I use modern pre-stretched canvases and buy paints already mixed to consistency (as opposed to powdered pigments used by the masters). Going back 50 or 60 thousand years, humans used berries and barks, blood, colored sands and anything else that could produce a color to paint with. They painted their faces, they painted each other, they painted cave walls and precipices, they used paint to mark their livestock, decorate their hide homes and who knows what else?
While no other animal has made that leap to defined expression via visual media, humans didn’t stop with colored waters. As we advanced, we started making pottery and…you guessed it…we painted it. Then we went on to carving things from shells, bone, ivory, wood. Now we’re up to sculpture, and we often painted those, too!
You know the rest of the story. As time marched on, humans continued to develop the general class of activity & objects known commonly as “art”.
Okay, so let’s say we’re half way through “modern” recorded history, say we’re around the year zero, or maybe approaching the Renaissance, perhaps it’s 1300 a.d.
It’s easy to understand how the wealthy might have the time and resources for art. A king’s portrait painter, artists engaged by a Pharaoh to paint the history of one’s reign inside a pyramid or other tomb. Royal weavers might make tapestries for royal families to hang in their royal houses. But what about the common man?
Regular everyday people who didn’t have a pot to cook in were painting, sculpting, carving, scrimshawing, weaving and whittling to their heart’s content with no thought of reward or return. One could hardly call it an instinct, but it is amazingly universal among many disparate cultures spanning tens of thousands of years from far-flung places by folks that could never have known one another. Sure, in a few instances these things may be religious icons or relics, bear some magical powers to bring rain or improve fertility.
But mostly they’re just art for art’s sake, in its truest sense.
Whether you paint, sculpt, draw, write, sing, act, or do none of these, next time you non-consciously and idly draw a doodle while you’re talking on the phone you’ll know that this ancient “instinct” lives on.
Next time: What about celestial tracking? Stonehenge? Did we really need 90-ton boulders to track the things that came around to exactly the same place every year?
Be at peace,