I did a series of interviews last fall, immediately after my book was published, in which I consistently got asked a challenging question: ‘What do you have against art?’
Every time I got asked this I was caught off guard and did my best to pull together a coherent response. My basic response was something like: I have nothing against art – that would be totally insane. In every situation I felt like there was something lacking in how I related what I was trying to say, though, because I was really just trying to do damage control, and there was actually something really profound and beautiful underlying this.
Let me explain where this strange question even comes from: I mention in my book how there are a bunch of social structures, behaviors and beliefs that traditionally arise when human societies cut themselves off from the living world – when they begin to have a closed off, hardened, oppressive relationship to life (aka domestication). Most of these are things we generally think of as universally ‘bad’: slavery, war, genital mutilation, institutionalized religion etc. One thing that appears on this list of cultural phenomena coinciding with a fractured relationship to the land and life is, strangely, more clearly defined art. Anthropologists have long observed that a class of artists and whatever classifies as lasting, refined works of art really begin to blossom and develop in more domesticated societies. In my book I just casually list art off in this list of other strange phenomena that coincide with domestication, and that’s what the interviewers were picking up on.
When an interviewer would ask/say: “You write in your book that art is inherently bad, do you really believe that?” The only thing I could really think to say was “No.” Because I don’t. And I hadn’t written that in the book, either. My thoughts are much more complicated, or maybe more simple, I’m not sure.
Here are the facts as presented by anthropology: a class of artists emerge and art becomes more and more refined in direct correlation with the level of domestication and disconnection from the land in a culture. There are some examples of extremely simple, hunter-gatherer societies (and many ‘hunter-gatherer’ societies where this is not at all the case) in which art is barely noticeable/not a major cultural institution, where there is no abstract religion, no abstract political structure; no abstraction from direct immediate reality. I think this tells us something about not just the nature of art, but the function of it.
In a sense it could be framed like this: when human consciousness steps into a territory that we might call separation or abstraction, when we disconnect from that pure essential source of life and nourishment (both physical and spiritual – a distinction not actually made by some cultures, I should add), we still need to get some of that good stuff somehow. Art, in its various incarnations, can serve as a medicine, a distilled, potent dose of connection, in this situation. This situation is so ubiquitous that I would call it being human; it isn’t something to resist or pretend isn’t a huge part of us. It’s at the root of the human journey, and I personally think that journey is really interesting and amazing. Where we, in a highly technical world, don’t have a constant connection to aliveness, the earth, the sea, the sky, the infinite woven into our selves, art – something that shows up more subtly and intertwined with daily living in simple cultures – emerges in bigger, more distinct ways to feed the hunger left by this void.
At a deeper level, when I look at wild nature, I don’t see anything making art. Or, perhaps this gets to the core of it: I don’t see any distinction between art and life. A spider doesn’t paint pictures of flies, but it does weave a web, and that web is exquisite. I don’t want to say that wild nature does or doesn’t produce art, because then I’d have to define art, which doesn’t sound fun. What is clear though, is that any distinction between art and life is flimsy or non-existent in that realm. One step removed from that, you have human cultures and human consciousness. The most simple of these cultures have only tiny traces of abstract thought, and consequently barely any of the other things that accompany that shift in perception. Art as a distinct phenomena is among these things. The further consciousness travels into the realm of duality, time and other ways of seeing that fragment reality, the more art becomes something that is separate from life. In many traditional cultures these various art forms are practiced by everyone as part of daily life, but as culture becomes more domesticated, more stratified, art becomes something made by artists, produced for consumers of art. The distinction between art and life that can’t really be seen at all in wild nature, and only subtly in traditional societies, becomes a massive rift.
But there’s a layer beyond that one. This dynamic where art is how we can express and feed our essence in a way that a river or my cat does by just being, it really illuminates one of the things that make us uniquely human, something that ‘primitivist’ philosophers call symbolic thought and see as fundamentally unhealthy; as the perceptual place where humans have fallen from grace. I don’t see it quite so simple, though, and won’t be able to fully express this in a short blog post, but that shift in consciousness that drives humans to make art, I think it’s something beautiful and truly amazing. It is an intrinsic impulse in us, to create, express and feed off of the expressions of others, and it clearly is one of the most powerful things that awakens, speaks to, and allows us to express the very deepest core in us.
This is the amazing paradox: Art seems to emerge out of our separation from wholeness, and yet is one of the most powerful tools for touching and rediscovering that wholeness.
I am a huge fan art in many forms. I love listening to music, playing music with friends, drawing, and probably owe my entire life path to one or two seminal books that I picked up as a teenager. I love aesthetic beauty. Some paintings blow my mind open, some poems I’ve read have completely altered me for months afterwards. All this is to say I am not some kind of staunch intellectual who thinks art isn’t amazing on any level. That’s insane. Art seems pretty well necessary to the human journey, and even this piece of writing, although I don’t know how to define art so won’t call it that, carries the same impulse as a lot of art: the desire to understand, express, celebrate and participate with life.
BUT, I like to think about these things. It’s fun. I look at the forest and imagine a life where every moment is so beautiful, so overflowing with that connection, challenge, meaning and mystery we find in art, that its entire function has been transformed. I actually think that the best art moves us in this direction, and is probably the most effective and important tool for moving us in that direction. One of the purest functions of art could be to destroy the hunger it feeds, to mend the fracture it speaks into.
That’s pretty amazing.
If anything, this train of thought gives art more importance, since it holds the spark which activates and gives voice to that very intrinsic, wild part of us. It carries that essence where we might otherwise not have it.