Humans are interested in and fascinated by beauty. Even well before the development of language, our ancestors sought an artistic representation of the beauty they saw around them. In Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic times they painted the walls of their caves. Sometimes their paintings were simple objects, but gradually more complexity was added and the cave paintings gave us glimpses of how these Stone Age people lived.
It is likely that those who painted the walls of early caves did not recognize what they did as art. In time, as cave drawings developed in complexity and others understood them to be stories or to re-enact important events known to the tribe, appreciation for the paintings grew. In time, philosophical perspective and aesthetic appreciation of the world grew in these cave dwellers, but they could not tell us how as there was no language development at that stage of human evolution.
Later, simple pigments were discovered and used to add colors such as red (iron oxide), black (manganese dioxide), and ochre (redish-brown or yellowish-brown pigments obtained by mixing clays with metal oxides). Such pigments were gradually used as well to decorate early figurines and common tools constructed from various materials.
We do not always know whether the wall paintings in caves were drawn by a single member of a tribe, with or without a younger assistant perhaps acting as an apprentice, or whether in some cases they may have been a group effort. Were these early artists somehow recognized as high achievers in the tribe, as the creatively elite of the tribe, or were they initially acting alone and ignored?
It seems reasonable to suppose that appreciation of this early art grew gradually, in some cases just as it does now. We look at something which is aesthetically pleasing, but we may not actually appreciate that until the fifth or sixth time we look at it. Then, we want it or we want something like it.
Thus, in the tribe, hunters or those who are doing other chores may look one day at the cave wall painting and see a color or an interesting combination of colors which he thinks would look pretty cool on one of his tools–perhaps some kind of knife he uses to skin an animal after a kill. He seeks out the artist, who somehow figures out what is being requested (remember–no language yet). The artist decorates the stone knife handle with both red and black pigments, and perhaps the artist gets an extra slice of meat the next time an animal is killed and cooked after being skinned with the hunter’s red-black handled knife.
Interestingly, many things happen here. First, a relationship between the artist and the hunter are established for the purpose of commerce. The hunter’s knife is decorated, and the artist is paid with an extra piece of meat for dinner. Both feel better because of the transaction. The decorated knife is seen by others who, of course, want their knives decorated–perhaps differently. This is effective advertising for the artist who now has more business. Others may not want their knives decorated in exactly the same way, and the artist has to expand his art. But tastes are still simple and the artist has little trouble complying. Everyone is happy. We all know who the artist is. Soon everyone in the tribe is developing tools with the idea that they will be decorated by the artist at the final stage of construction.
The rest is history as they say. The story is a simple one and while it may reveal in a one way how art may have worked its way into the human story, it does raise at least two important questions: (1) Can anyone be an artist, and (2) can anyone appreciate art? Most likely, I think, the answer to both questions is yes.
However, will someone who is given the opportunity to develop an artistic talent actually choose to develop that talent. Also, will someone constantly exposed to art of a certain form, perhaps any form, eventually develop an artistic appreciation for what he or she is looking at or experiencing through the non-visual senses. The answer to both these questions is, I think, no.
In both developing a capacity and talent for art of a certain kind, or to not practicing, but just appreciating such art, is a more complicated set of questions now than it was when our ancestors began applying pigments to cave walls. Our ancestors would have understood such questions at all.
Today we have hundreds of art forms. We no longer use just a few stark pigments carved out of the earth, nor do we just “paint” on cave walls. We sketch with pencils and pens, colored pencils, crayons, chalks of many varieties. We paint with oils or in water colors, on canvases, on thick or thin transparent or translucent papers or on the sides of buildings. We draw people, animals, landscapes, still or animated life. We draw in perspective or with special attention to depth, to see both distant and foreground objects in a drawing. We mix colors in strange and unusual ways, some of which we have never seen in the real world. We create designs, draw portraits, and cartoons. We do illustrations, and make creative commercial or noncommercial designs. We do photographic and computer art. We cut, re-size, and digitize. We create artistic covers for novels. We create sculptured statues, aesthetically pleasing buildings and small figures from many different types of materials. There may be no end to the kinds of art we do, and to what, in the end, we will call art.
For the remainder of the month I am going to write about some of these artistic strategies. I’m going to talk about what I know about, but with no illustrations. I’ve tried many artistic strategies. The one’s I have not tried I won’t talk about.