I recently bought a book I’m finding fascinating. It’s called “Ice Age Art” and it was written by Jill Cook as a companion to a British Museum exhibit I wish I could have seen. It’s filled with photos and discussions of art works made as much as 40,000 years ago. Not, for the most part, cave paintings, these works are primarily sculptures small enough to be carried in the hand. There are heads and figures of people, animals, and imagined creatures like lion-men. Their beauty, which could be at home in a 21st-century museum or gallery, astonishes. As does the sure knowledge that, behind them, was a mind capable of imagining. But what I find most amazing is how they clearly point to the existence of a basic human need for art.
The works have no utilitarian purpose. They can’t hold anything or cut anything; they’re useless for cooking or making fire. It’s been shown by recreating the work in similar material with similar tools that it might have taken as long as 400 hours to finish a small sculpture. Four hundred hours of painstaking work, of time taken--and given--to the creation of an object whose only use was to be looked at.
I am knocked out by the thought that people we can only think of as “primitive,” who lived lives that revolved around the most basic needs included art as one of their necessities. The need for art, the need to raise our eyes from the hunting and gathering, from our plates and our bellies, to see ourselves and our world in a different way: this is an ingrained part of who we are.
Have we spent the past 40,000 trying to deny that? Certainly we modern and evolved humans often manage to marginalize art. We’ve pushed the making and enjoying of art into the confined spaces far not always near the center of our world. I’m thinking of how hard our arts institutions have to work for their existence. And I’m thinking of how our schools have decreased their arts programming at the same time that sports programming has ballooned. Imagine this--a generation of children growing up with not only sports, but also arts as the focus of their recreational time. You want competition? Teams of painters and writers and musicians. Team Picasso up against Team Leonardo. The Oils against the Charcoals. Go Sonnets! Go Odes!
Maybe we just need to have enough faith in instinct to believe that someday, when soccer practice is in the distant past, that art impetus will kick in and all those former athletes will discover the life-enlarging possibilities that the arts can give them. It could happen. After all, it’s in our genes.