The Purpose of Art and the Human Need to Create
And a Review of Leiden’s Museum of Lakenhal’s art exhibition on PEARLS: Siluce’s Story.
If prostitution is the oldest profession, and mammoth the earliest family meal for four, then visual art is the oldest expression of the human need to create. When I lived in Cape Town, I took a trip to Clanwilliam, where ancient Bushman (San) art was carefully preserved on their original rocks. The oldest of theseorange and yellow depictions of men hunting African buffalo, silhouettes of callipygian women and people holding hands are dated as 8,000 years old. In the book of Genesis, God creates man in his own image. The ability and will to create is what made God a god; man is made in God’s image, but is not a god himself. For, when man tried to create, whether with independent thoughts in that perfect garden, or building a tower to reach the heavens, God was wrathful and man was thwarted. Yet man still tries to create, and in so doing, express that which is internal, not overtly manifested, but real nonetheless.
Human being’s attempt at visual creation is often known by a colloquial term: art. It is ubiquitous throughout time and space, and takes many forms. Some art is defined in its ability to provoke an emotion: Edvard Munch’s The Scream certainly does that. Other art is more cognitive. Dali’s melting clocks (see photo to left) don’t appeal to me on an emotional level; his brushstrokes are quite cold and clean. But they start the clockwork of thought: is this an allusion to Faulkner’s Quentin, always obsessed with time as represented by his all too functional pocket watch? Does our ability to break clocks, ie. a tool that measures time actually emancipate us from time’s tyranny itself, or simply reduce our awareness of it? Why are the clocks melting vs. being broken by a hammer or fading or simply stopped?
Sometimes still visual art evokes narrative: Caravaggio depicts a head (with his features!) upon a platter, held by a beautiful woman.Every viewer knows that this is a still frame moment from the larger torrid tale of Saint John the Baptist and the wicked Salome. Michelangelo carves David, just before (or perhaps just after) slaying Goliath, and though Goliath himself is not portrayed, he is evoked just as strongly as David. Another twist of the narrative painting is depictions of morality scenes, such as child Jesus teaching the learned doctors. These stories were known to everyone in the Christian world, and thus the painting alludes to meaning outside of itself, even as it reminds the viewer of the ethical lesson they should have internalized.
Other art is forgoes narrative and is solely created for the sheer beauty of it all, for its aesthetic appeal. Botticelli’s impossibly long-necked Venus on the half shell (right hand photo) is simply stunning both for its virtuoso, but also simply because Venus is enchanting to look at. And, when all these other categories fail to apply, some art exists as an expression of the artist, an expression of self or an expression of connection between artist and larger community of mankind. As Whitman writes in Song of Myself:
“Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude;
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?
What is a man anyhow? what am I? what are you?
All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own,
Else it were time lost listening to me….
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.”
Whitman celebrates his own being while comparing himself to all others living and dead. His poem is both a bold declaration of his own creative impulse, as well as homage to the variety of mankind.
Lastly, art can be created for social and political purposes: art that attempts to persuade to viewer to adopt the creator’s opinion. This ‘art’ can still be beautiful, emotionally evocative or thought provoking, but it is all too easy for it to slide into mere propaganda. Street art, graffiti, advertisements, political messages, revolutionary inspired work… even Hugo Chavez’s face printed onto untold thousands of T-shirts can be seen as fitting into this category of art and message, of beauty and profane.
But why, Luca, (you may be thinking) why simply tell us the reasons art can be created? What is the point of it all? You may think yourself pretty insightful, chicky, but this post hardly constitutes as ‘art’ if there isn’t any relevance to your discourse. You are quite right, and this brings me to the second part of my post today. The reason I have quickly alluded to many of the reasons that art can exist is because I recently saw an art exhibition that incorporated them all, and it simply blew me away.
In the small(ish) city of Leiden in Holland, the Netherlands, there is a museum housed in what used to be a lakenhal (a textile building). When I visited there early in January 2013, I was told that I was in luck, that I had arrived on one of the last days of a special exhibition. It was about pearls, and it was incorporated throughout the entire regular museum. Therewas a correct order in which to visit the rooms- would I be so kind as to take one of the free headsets so I could hear the narrative that goes with the display? Oh, yes, we have the story spoken in English too, don’t worry about your inability to understand Dutch. Intrigued, I paid the requisite fee and entered, my headset firmly on my head, the accompanying little black box in my hand.
On the wall of the first bare, blue roomit announced that this exhibit was the tale of Siluce (SILL-LOOSE-SAY), the girl who lost her pearl, and the journey she undertook to get it back. I pressed ‘1’ on my device. A buttery male voice whispered into my ear: Siluce was playing in the ocean with her sisters, when she swam deep, deep, and met a giant fish.He asked her to come with him, to join him in swimming in the depths of the sea. I watched a video of a silver globe melt and reform and move in spherical patterns. Siluce was intrigued, but grew frightened as they descended, and told him her world was the one above the waters. A video of a woman, dancing with a ball, dressed in a loose and transparent sheath of white, playful and solemn in turns. So the fish gave her a gift from the ocean to remember him by: a pearl. A fish of a Chinese fish in a courtyard, its shimmery scales made of mosaic tiles, water spurting from its upraised mouth. Siluce took the perfect roundness of the pearl in her hand and came back upon the beach.The pearl represented to her a glimpse of maturity, the roundedness of a woman pregnant, adulthood, use value overtaken by societal value, and the seduction of a gift by a stranger. I followed the line of stickered pearls on the floor to a narrow corridor, the walls of which were encrusted with rounded beads of glass. As she examines the pearl, an ocean wave crashes upon her, and her fingers uncurl, and the pearl is flung back into the sea. And, unthinkingly, Siluce dives back after it. The ocean currents swallow her whole and sweep her away. On the ceiling of the corridor was another video screen, and intermittently a woman would hit the ‘glass’ with a sickening thud, and be scraped off again as the current pulled her another way, her hands outstretched, her eyes wide in the water.
Ascending the stairs to the third room, skeletons of a whale, several turtles and a shark confront me. A rubbery Jules Verne style diving suit hangs loosely near them. Drawers open on the end of the room hold seashells, mollusks and pearls. Siluce is swept to the northern part of the world. A video of Siluce underwater dominates the room. Another room: this time a video of pearls being spilled across the floor of a ballroom, with three dancers playing with the resulting chaos, arrests attention. She is confronted by a man who tells her she isn’t welcome there; she observes the petty quotidian lifestyle of the women who wear pearls. Another room: pearls are sprinkled lightly over 18th century Dutch masterpieces, fixtures of the museum. She searches for her pearl so she can leave and find her way back to the sunlit waters of her home. There is a painting of strands of pearls dripping from a woman’s mouth.
Eventually, Siluce finds herself in a park; men stride along in their own realities, and pay no attention to her. One roughly brushes past her and she falls into the lake. She drifts in the water as her lungs burn, and decides not to fight it. And the fish appears, proffering her perfect pearl to her, as pure as an air bubble ascending to the sky. She grasps it, and happily allows herself to drown.
This exhibition is inescapably modern art, for better or for worse. But the reason I thought it was one of the best installations I had ever seen was because, for me, it incorporated everything that makes art so powerful. It had an auditory narrative framework, which, along with the visual displays, evoked a strong emotional response, especially when Siluce died. It was like being read a fairy tale, with adult themes and imagery. Some of the art, in particular the dances, were aesthetically and technically stunning. The hand of the choreographer and exhibit progenitor was deliberately present, and the passion involved in this labor of love was obvious.
And, importantly for me, along with the emotional tugging of heartstrings and wonderment at the virtuosity of the movement, there was cognitive provocation. What does the leitmotif of Siluce or the pearl represent? Why the incorporation of scientific curios such as the skeletons: found objects instead of made objects? It was then that I realized that there was a subtle moralistic, political commentary: Siluce and her pearl traveled from the global south to the global north, from a colony to a mother state. The exhibit could be seen through an anti-imperialist lens, reminding the viewer of the consequences of conquest, the history of the curio cabinet, the exploitation of resources of a colony for the benefit of a people thousands of miles away. The pearl could (and does!) represent nature at its purest, Siluce’s innocence as to her own value as an item of beauty, as well as the veneer of civilized sophistication: around the throats of the ladies who lunch. Humanity’s relationship with objects with no other value beyond their beauty is not necessarily a healthy one. And what should the viewer take away from seeing pearls through these different filters through the mediums of words, pictures, photos, dance, song, videos?
I left the exhibit emotionally drained, but with an incredible lightness of being. It reminded me of graffiti I saw the day before in Rotterdam. In Dutch, the graffiti read, “Art? Yes, thank you!”
I couldn’t agree more.