Image from Wikimedia Public Domain: Cave Painting from Lascaux
Art began with the dawning of humanity. Survival and reproduction are the basic animal drives, but in humans, creativity makes a divine triptych.
Cave paintings were the earliest human response to the world itself, an innate human desire to understand and capture moments in time. They may have had a more esoteric purpose, such as praying for a successful hunt, but as a precursor of what we know as art, the motivation resonates with modern thought; to seize the moment, to hold it forever, to convey the truth of it.
For some, the definition of art is simple. It follows certain rules, it is recognizable as a representation of something else and it is performed or executed by recognized masters. But art has never really fit into these narrow confines, nor should it. Art is alive and organic, it grows and changes. The only thing that never changes in art is the desire to communicate an idea, an imperishable truth.
If you look at art this way, then understanding it, and what it encompasses, becomes easier. It must convey truth. There is a wonderful story, told by artist and animal behaviorist Desmond Morris about Congo, an ape he studied at London Zoo. He encouraged Congo to finger paint and the results were so striking that people flocked to see and purchase the paintings. At first the ape worked hard over his paintings, blending colors and creating amazing abstract patterns.
But Morris says he made the mistake of rewarding Congo with a banana when he produced a painting. Soon Congo was merely swiping the paper and holding out his hand for the reward. The truth of his art was lost in the desire to be rewarded for it.
Why do some artists and their paintings continue to move us through the centuries? Why does some music never fade into obscurity? Why do some books and plays never go out of print? Why, for example, does Shakespeare continue to draw audiences and give inspiration to young artists?
It is because these artists do not merely convey images of the world around them, they convey the truth of it. Truth does not always reveal itself completely. No one has ever solved the riddle of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, or even worked out who actually wrote the plays of Shakespeare. Was it an out of work actor from Stratford, or someone concealing himself behind the actor? It simply doesn’t matter. Once art is created, it exists of itself, regardless of the artist.
Great artists often speak of themselves as a channel, a conduit, through which art flows into the world. Beethoven was deaf, but he felt the vibrations of the music that he composed. Van Gogh was confined to a hospital after he cut off his ear, but he continued to paint everything around him. The truths these artists found in spite of their personal tragedies continue to uplift and inspire us today.
So don’t say, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like,”; say, “I respond to art that has truth for me.”
Because that is what art encompasses – all of the truth.