I believe in art. Of all the distinctions science makes between us and the other sentient beings with whom we share this planet, art is the one thing that truly makes us human.
The cave paintings in Lasceaux, France are not the oldest surviving examples of human artistry; aboriginal sacred places in Australia probably hold that distinction, but the Lasceaux paintings are ancient. That they are some of the most beautiful images ever created is beyond dispute. The exquisitely stylized representations of the animals suggest that the technique may have been in use for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the walls of those caves were decorated. Art has defined humanity since the dawn of self-awareness.
Art can be interpreted broadly, sometimes including forms of expression few would consider artistic by any measure. Some might recall a piece displayed in a New York gallery a few years ago that so incensed the mayor that he ordered it removed.
Art can also be interpreted quite narrowly. John Singer Sargent unveiled a portrait at the 1884 Paris Salon entitled, “Madame X.” The painting ignited a firestorm of protest. It was bad enough that Sargent disdained the period’s rigid rules of portraiture; but the jeweled strap of Virginie Gautreau’s daring gown was shown to have slipped down her right shoulder, and Parisian high society was scandalized. Even though Sargent repainted the strap in a more modest position, he was savaged by reviews so vitriolic that he thought it prudent to leave France. “Madame X” is now one of Sargent’s most famous paintings.
Even cartoons can incite mayhem. Witness the outrage of Muslims over depictions of the prophet, Mohammed, in a Danish newspaper. In an earlier age, “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall dismissed newspaper articles vilifying him, but he feared and hated political cartoons that told the same story; most of his constituents could not read.
I believe art is meant to make people think, to alter their view of the world. It can do so with the idyllic serenity of a traditional landscape, or the jarring sensory dislocation of some abstract pieces. I believe art is the driving force of culture, and culture is the portrait of a society. Our art reflects us, whether we like it or not.
Art is not limited by the constraints of language, thus making it a universal form of communication. Through art, our Cro-Magnon ancestors in prehistoric France communicated the thrill of the hunt, Hieronymus Bosch laid bare the anguish of a troubled mind, and Pablo Picasso exposed the horror of war.
On the lighter side, my father illustrated a lot of Little Golden Books when I was growing up; I doubt that even he knows how many. From an early age I knew that I, too, would become an artist. But it was only after becoming a parent myself that I realized the true value of his accomplishment. He communicated with children through art, and in so doing, instilled in them an appreciation of art as an essential part of our lives.
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