What is art?
At the tip of Southern Africa is an archaeological site called Blombos Cave. The artifacts in Blombos cave have been dated to as far back as 100,000 years ago. Inscribed stones, paint production and other “manufacturing” have been uncovered at this site. I bring this up first as a chronological placement.
We tend to regard art as an extension of our own preferences, interests, messages, and the embodiment of our beautiful or bitter souls. This tendency needs review. It bears a striking, vain, resemblance to the geocentric cosmos, or arguments against evolution. Art seems one of the last places of refuge for the dream of our own superiority and special status. It has become the understood framework where our personal tyrannies and importance can hold reign. But does this idea show any relationship to fact? When it is insisted that art is the thing through which we can express ourselves, are we stating anything with real meaning? If art proceeds from us, how do we explain the vast majority of the history of art that has come before we were here? Can we expect it to be convincing or taken seriously, if we suggest that art has come this long way just to be a vehicle through which, I, the artist, can reveal himself, and you the audience can relate? That has an ominous and megalomaniacal edge. Speaking for myself alone, I’m not that interesting.
If we consider the 100,000 years since the pigment manufacturing in Blombos cave, we have the entire span of our species of human. Through Ice ages, deserts, devastating volcanic eruptions, near extinction, war, death, and the rise of civilizations art has been present. It shows no signs of having been a frivolity, or amusement. Blombos isn’t the only site of that era showing pigment use. There are other sites of comparable age, from homo sapien sapiens, but they don’t seem to be tribes or groups related to each other. This is to say, the pigment culture was already old. It would seem very likely, art has been with us since the start of our animal. Art has been around, at least, 10 times longer than Loch Ness. Some pigment evidence may be traceable back to 400,000 years. This is well before our type of animal emerged. 10,000, 100, 000 or 400,000 years the state of human affairs have changed so many times and in so many ways, that if art has been a human legacy, it doesn’t likely concern the messages and meanings I would care to project today. Tactical success for that long a period would suggest art has long been an effective method of survival for our kind of animal. Then and now, art is one of the reasons we are alive. But that doesn’t really say what art is. This is only noting that art is not our transitory, and even unimportant, set of concerns. By placing art in an evolutionary framework we take it largely out of our personal aggrandizement and have to consider it in the larger framework of man the animal who competes with his peers and other animals, jockeys for the ability to mate, and must adapt or die. Art, to maintain as us for so long needs to address these concerns. Aside from our personal sense of it, we must note, even if we find art pleasurable, it isn’t here at our pleasure. Samuel Butler said “A hen is an egg’s way to make another egg.” We may want to reposition our sense of priority in like terms. Art isn’t about you, it is about this animal’s survival. Art has been alive longer than you. But again, this doesn’t say what art is.
If we consider the evolutionary aspects, our subjective experience and some objective facts, we may be able to trace an outline of art that can help us begin to understand what art is. If we look back as far as possible, to the first written descriptions, through the history of words, to the rituals and artifacts that have survived, and how all these things correspond with one another we can start to assemble a picture of how art was conceived by our ancestors, and how it their notions have been given to us. Art and ritual, were and in many ways still are, the same thing. A common root origin between the words, art and rite is not a trivial connection. Art and ritual, explain activities in another world, apart from this one. The idea that emerges can be summarized in a term, used at the Mysteries of Eleusis: The Extraordinary Experience. This may need some explanation. Ideas of art referred to thresholds, doorways, entrances, passages, to another world and time. The other world was art. It was somewhere else. And not only was it somewhere else, but the participants were someone else. Art also refers to states where people were “moved”. This doesn’t mean emotionally excited. Moved in this sense means moved, as in their identity was pushed aside. Possession would be more akin to the idea. Schizophrenic’s accounts of their experiences bear resemblances to accounts of art. One account has a ritual participant stating, “when I left I felt a stranger to myself.” This is very different than our statements on art “I don’t know if it is art, but I like it.” Like and preference had little to do with it. Art was as well known for terror as beauty. Though we do not generally find the idea compatible, early accounts give art as a world, or set of worlds, with their own rules and methods, concurrent with our own. Though we don’t use this same rationale, it shouldn’t be considered we have escaped this. We act within the confines of traditions built of art, and are largely unaware of how entrenched and thoroughly we have incorporated these other worlds. We are very familiar with the extraordinary experience, and it isn’t our socio-political, economic, or personal messages. It is far older stuff.
Our subjective experience, however, shouldn’t be confused with the point and purpose of art. These extraordinary experiences aren’t available to send us on our way in contemplation and fulfillment. Our fulfillment is unimportant in terms of art. That may be surprising when we take the usual descriptions of art as a personal, individual, stance. Many of our modern ideas of art derive from the Protestant Reformation, the 16th century schism in Christianity. Ideas such as personal relationship with art, idea versus form, where authority resides (artist, audience or critic…basically who art the priests, in the Reformation, this was monks, laity, or the pope), knowledge vs faith (in art this is craft vs emotion) etc. Art practices and ideas during the Reformation had other concerns. When the Reformation ideas were adopted into discussion and ideas of art the Reformation was already 300 years past. It was a late, anachronistic addition. What is more, whatever views one holds on religion and religious philosophy, art is not religion. It is not as freely open ended and omnipotent as might be assumed of a God, or beliefs with the divine. Art has real, human, cognitive, historical, material restrictions and boundaries.
Let’s update and consider in light of shiny new discoveries what may be happening with art. We are primates, but strange primates. We are the inside out primates. What it means to be a primate for us is large parts of our brains are devoted to social interaction and identification. Likewise our brains devote a good deal of work to build habitats. The two things are not separate. Our home and our people are the basis of how are brains construct reality. We are not solitary animals, our animal seeps out to our peers and place. There are some things to consider. When our ancestors started cooking they opened a door to a chain of events that led to a change in our sense of body and group, allowing us to seep out and transform. With cooking we started digesting on the outside. A great deal of our physical energy was devoted to digesting food. Digestion is in many ways our body cooking food. Performing this action outside our bodies freed that energy to be used elsewhere. It was taken up by our brains. As our brains were allowed greater resources of energy, they got bigger, which caused problems with the act of birth. Our head size, holding our big brains, were becoming dangerous to our mothers. This was solved by premature birth. Humans are born premature in development compared to our cousin primates. Chimps help deliver themselves when born. Humans, like the way we deal with food, have to be cooked more outside. The community takes over the energies needed for both mother and child. But this allows still greater changes. Aside from new interactions between community members, the brains themselves were able to extend and change development outside the womb. Most of our primate cousins nearly complete brain development while in the womb, for chimps this is 9 month gestation period, like us. But comparable brain development among humans doesn’t achieve a similar state of completion until we are 3 years old. Our brains develop far more complexity in that time. Add to that that our brains go through a process of rewiring in our teens and don’t settle until our 20s, and it can be understood, that outside development, relying on the world and our group to compensate and become part of our bodies allows for some interesting extension. It does, however extend our dependency on our group, and demand a change in group relationships and behavior. This doesn’t concluded how our inside became out. We have also extended our bodies tools. We have transformed and altered what it means for our brains to have a body and limbs. The boundaries of our bodies are not set or stable. We developed tools. But not just tools, weapons. Without effective claws and teeth we made claws and teeth. Our big brains, responding to the stresses of environmental need but also to the availability of dispersed labor and position, developed methods for honing our new weapons. We hardened spears in fire, and perfected shapes and methods of production. At first these were stabbing instruments, but then the theme of distance became attached. Weapons as a form of long distance communication-projectiles. This description of long distance communication and our extended bodies is important, but may lead off our topic here. It should suffice to note that proximity is a base of our cognition. Spatialization, and dealing with, or overcoming it, has a surprisingly large part of our sensory input and mental processing.
With these outside compensations we have also been able to “hone” and transform not only our habitats but ourselves. It isn’t just a sense of honing a tool. The stresses needed to pressure a change in tool is not differentiated from honing and needs for the rest of the body. We might be better off thinking of tools as interchangeable and extensible limbs. You may want to think of how you inhabit the space of your car or look of youtube videos of extended personal space (see Richard Wiseman’s dummy hand experiment, Ramachandran’s Phantom limb treatments, and myriad other “phantom” experiments.) As certainly as our weapons could be honed for use, so could the rest of our bodies. Our transformative and extensible bodies were not toolish. We could change ourselves, our form, in relation to each other with tools. Whereas, it is a common practice among animals to inflate, stand taller, splay out, to indicate position and strength, man developed ways of adding to our person. Social weapons.
We could alter our environmental body. We could not only make our dwelling toolish and meet needs we could make it other places. We developed methods of turning our dwellings into other places, changing and enhancing them as well. When I say dwellings, I don't mean hut, or houses, I mean temporary stations. We seem to have been nomadic and restless in our development. But we carried a "home" with us. Some evidence suggests this may have been the stars and constellations. Some cave paintings with illustrations primarily on ceilings as opposed to eye level walls, as well as suggestions of stars, and constellations give over clues to this extension of habitat to the stars. Regardless, of how early this starry identification of the original or actual home happened, it became the standard for man in the civilized era. It is still predominant today.
In sum, both physically and mentally we have adapted the environments, persons and condition where we live as part of our bodies. Our identities and realties are also built and supported by the outside world. We use the external as mental support and order.
We have a very interesting set of tools to understand reality. We have a surprising number of methods to discern visual depth. Depth and distance, proximity and spatialization, and we have developed emotional cues to note what is near as important and what is far as less so. Our emotions should be considered as a support not a focus.
We have several systems in our brain that discern patterns, such as faces, and the variations within the frame of that pattern. We innately know faces, and facial expressions. We communicate over distances and these faces build other mental events. We also communicate by sound, and prosity, the rhythm, stress, and tone in our voices. We sing to each other, and these songs can build imagery. Possibly more so than words themselves. The relationship between prosity and facial expression is important. We have facial expressions that correlate with sounds and vice versa. When we communicate with faces and speech we are doing so as a unified function. They are one piece, and they indicate we communicate events by description and “replay”. We don’t just live in the moment. We have systems in place to describe other times and places. This may seem unique, but I should point out, bees have similar abilities through dances.
We have time, and narrative- the ability to understand sequences of events in other places and times by description, not just acquaintance.
We have the theory of mind, we have an understanding that things that look like us, have a like entity looking back. We project identities into things-even inanimate things.
We have reality testing. Modules of our brains confirm, based on the propagation of experiences, what is real. And by real I don’t mean factual, or material reality, I mean a workable order or habitat. A way of noting statistical consistency or regular patterns.
We also have error, inconsistency, misreads, hallucination-an array of mental vulnerabilities. Our brains are susceptible to a great deal of misunderstanding. Though very useful our ability to extend to our neighbors and environments also includes some surprises. If enough criteria are met, our brain will concoct patterns out of nothing. Our reality isn’t a cold hard truth, our brains build composite realities, covering blind spots, stitching incompatible information together, mixing and matching to suit its own order. Our brains only worry about matching the factual world in so far as it can keep us alive. Our brain will produce the hyper real, as a useful order. Let me give an example. Paint and light are not the same. This is surprising to some. You can mix paint, which is made of particles of pigment suspended in a medium. You can mix blue and yellow and get a green color. But when you try to mix light this doesn’t happen. Light doesn’t mix like pigments. Light is frequencies of vibration. That said, when we paint we can make the paint seem like light. We can, in paint, make light do impossible things. We can deliver a hyper-real experience. In other words we can slip past enough of your brains reality detection, to deliver an experience of what is unreal. Our reality includes the impossible. At this point in history, be assured most of what you think or believe is not factual, but is built of the hyper real. Stripped of this and placed in a setting outside our special habitat, you likely wouldn’t survive. And I don’t just mean, your life would end. I mean long before your life ended your identity would cease. It isn’t just paint, by which the hyper real is delivered, there are myriad methods, and ways to slip past the guards of reality and provide the hyper real. The artist’s tool kit is for the most part, methods of tricking and distorting reality detection. Realism and art have gone hand in hand because if your brain reads a thing as real it gets a pass. It goes unquestioned. Sometimes the resultant pass causes stresses as what is real is adjusted and we emote. But much of art slips past undetected. This is interesting. It means that we can have knowledge by description of what isn’t. But this is still subjective in emphasis. This describes how our brains function in such a way as to accommodate the extraordinary experience. Let’s step back a few paces. How is this useful? We can understand our brains do a thing that assembles into our experience but I’m trying to make certain it is remembered that art is an evolved aspect of the human animal. We may love our fingers and toes, but they didn’t come about so we could love them.
We can see how art has been used and is used. It is a mixed bag of good and ill, instance by instance. We have used art to transform ourselves, with masks and paint, to attract and to terrify. We have used art to kill and comfort. Art has been used to enlighten and disguise. And it has been used to reveal and hide. That’s how we’ve used it. How has it used us? If we look at what has been made from the hyper-real, not art pieces or artifacts exactly, we can see organization. As I mentioned we are primates whose brains spend a lot of energy on identification of tribe and habitat. Looking outside how much we may enjoy it, art seems to be several things. It bonds groups under unified, special, realities. These realities can be taken away as emblems, rhythms, noises, even specified motions and actions, like procession or dances, meaning even when away from the group, when proximity is broken, unified identity can be maintained. Familial and familiar emotional ties are entangled in these “realities”. Given enough comfort and stability, we can manipulate environments to better accommodate the idiomatic realities of our tribes or groups. We can build effigies of the hyper real, and live in our common habitat. That habitat can extend generations. The hyper-real can be cultivated. Our veneration and habits around veneration build larger complexes, more honed hyper reality. We develop structures by which we can more efficiently build more comfortable hyper reality. We can incorporate more of the hyper real into our mundane in between time. We can immerse in the unreal. We can extend our group size, and ideas can be propagated outside usual group limits. Our primate brains, though largely devoted to our group, has number limits. After a certain number we don’t identify populations as our group. But with this mobile, mental, extended, group connection, reproduction can occur in larger numbers. When I say reproduction, I don’t mean people breeding across usual limits, I mean methods of hyper reality-Art- breeds. This effective, even organic, practice breeds. We build cities. When we trace their roots, they emerge from the very small magical center of a hut in a settlement, to small village temple around which the village builds, to larger temples that transform villages into cities, and cathedrals into still larger cities. When Cathedrals are succeeded by emerging civilized areas of veneration, centers of business let’s say, or palaces, and with these the city extends still further. When considered as organization, cities bear a striking resemblance to both organic systems and computers. Information transfer, storage and work modules all interact to operate a complex system. Though we can be sacrificed individually, our large groups and practices, our cultures, our methods of order and hyper reality maintain. Ars longa, vida brevis. We may have to consider that our unreal methods of living are contributing to a larger animal built from us. It may be we, individually, are a contribution to a bigger concern, a different animal. Likenesses to hives or organs made of cells might be obvious, but I’d like to state it clearly. Looking at cells and how they communicate and build larger organism and looking at how we transmit, cooperate, unify and transform seems to share many parallels in method. It may just describe how large numbers of things coexist in an environment and unify, but that also describes how living things organize and become more complex and even different, bodily, things. Civilization, culture, and other methods around which we orbit in interest, themes that unify, seem to describe something very similar to chemical signaling in cells, attracting and provoking the actions of other cells. That we have a private opinion in these things seems subordinate.
Remove our practices of art from civilization and culture and nothing remains of those things. You can take many other elements out of a civilization, or a culture, and they can proceed, but you can’t remove art. But then this begs the question, could we remove art at all, even if it was desirable? Art doesn’t seem a voluntary part of the human animal. It has been costly and dangerous when individually we haven’t had the energy to spare. Jorge Luis Borges offered an anecdote that several authors have mentioned with time and honing they seem to converge into a single author. That is their styles and ideas seemed to converge into a great single author. I’m not suggesting that. But I am suggesting that point of notice indicates a uniformity of method. The authors were noting a commonality of how efficient they were under a framework, how alike, but it wasn’t by choice. Encouraged through the reward of our experiences we are performing unnoticed actions to a noticeable but unclear result. Sugar is not in itself sweet. Sweetness is the signal our brain sends to say “Eat that! I run on that! Eat it.” A hen is a way for an egg to make another egg.
This conjectured definition suggests some ideas, few of them new, strange though they may seem, but rarely applied to art. I am imparting this definition fully aware it is both incomplete and in parts, likely wrong. I do so in the fervent hope of refutation, and correction. As an artist it is very disturbing to me to have only a dim awareness of what it is I am doing. Looking back in history, and deliberate, focused, progress, art has been a questionable contributor. A real aspect of art is harmful. Equally a real aspect is beneficial. In either case it bares the stamp of its lowly origin. As audiences you should be equally concerned. Together what are we doing? In simplest terms a definition of art allows us the comfort of knowing what we are doing, and if possible allow us to aim for excellence regarding its finest parts. Ignorance of art, fumbling in the dark, seems a much more dangerous proposition than might be guessed at first. A definition may allow us the opportunity to avoid areas wherein we would not like the consequences of trespass.
This isn’t just a question for artists, cultural gurus, or sophisticates. Science is desperately needed to help assemble knowledge of art, and has been superstitiously unwelcome for too long. A multidisciplinary approach would be ideal in addressing the definition as it would seem probable the answers to the question of art can shed light on what it is to be human.