In this post, I want to look at the role of art as well as the artist and by association the tool maker. There is little question that symbolic art and sophisticated tool-making capability are unique in their nature to humans and more specifically to Homo Sapiens. Around 80,000 years ago everything started to change, or to quote Ian Tattersall “all hell broke loose and change became the norm”. Symbols start to appear in cave art and also on other objects.
While birds and other creatures used tools and still do, from this point the nature of the tools that are developed by humans reaches an unprecedented level of sophistication and gradually specialisation starts to develop. In the Stone Age, we see distinct sites were new techniques for manufacturing tools and evidence of their extensive trading. The Langdale axe industry was a neolithic enterprise built on the quality of the local greenstone; specialised production of tools was a full manufacturing process. The Great Orme which overlooks Llandudno Bay, where I used to sail twice a week before going up to University, has a Bronze Age mine and manufacturing process. All of this wasn’t just learned behaviour; Chimpanzees and crows use tools, the latter utilising small twigs to extract insects from logs, but that really isn’t the same thing. Collective development, innovation, specialisation and trade eventually evolve via the craft halls of medieval times into modern manufacturing, R&D and the whole supply chain of innovation. We don’t just pick things up and reuse them, but reshape them to create novel functions and more, we invest them with symbols and symbolism.
The idea of having pride in your work arises from this and the idea that functional objects should also be a delight to perceive. I’ve always seen the iconic Campagnolo corkscrew as a good example of that but there are many others. We’ve evolved to see beauty in function as well as form and the fact that decoration starts to appear in human evolution tens of thousands of years ago speaks for itself.
Imagination can be engendered by objects and we see this in Children’s play. I remember when a large box, a step ladder and some material from the dressing-up box could become a pirate ship, a line of cords and some sticks during a family walk up Moel Fammau transformed the day into a roped up group of Sherpas ascending Everest. We are able to give meaning to objects and transform them physically and otherwise to suit our purposes, or more frequently just to satisfy our curiosity.
Now all of this was vital for the development of language and the development of abductive innovation capability in the species. The development of symbolic art in turn triggered the rapid evolution and sophistication of language to the point where we name ideas as much as we name things. Stories work through abstractions and we weave meaning into day-to-day objects simply by the way we talk about them as well as their use. We don’t often descend to the level of Gollum with My Precious but we all come close from time to time. We make the ordinary sacred and that is a unique quality for good and ill. A consequence of that is the ability to see new or novel aspects of things, to think abductively and then to exapt, to radically repurpose existing objects for novel use.
Without art human innovation and creativity are radically diminished, something the proponents of STEM education need to consider, The way much of modern education is going art and the humanities will become a privilege of those able to afford it; an unwarranted return to the 19th Century but then income disparity is already back at those levels.
The Gaping Void cartoon makes the more general point that excellence is of itself a moral art. Most fine art tells a story of some type, it conveys a message that can engender horror, empathy a desire to enable change and so on. Art doesn’t simply sit there to be admired, it exists as a call to action either personally or collectively. Think of the impact of Picasso’s Guernica not just on contemporary politics but as a lasting image of the starkness and horror of modern warfare. It doesn’t take much effort to find many more. Meaning for humans is not confined to physical reality, it is also evidenced in our abstractions, our art and our artistry.
Sistine Chapel ceiling
Artist: Michelangelo 1475-1564 Italy
Original by Qypchak sourced from Wikipedia
As a general theme for the Twelvetide series this year, I am using Renaissance artists, ideally with a journey theme for the banner picture which may or may not relate to the ideas in the post. Then a Gaping Void image to open the text and make a point. Sometimes I will spell that out, sometimes I’ll leave it hanging.
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