Why Art and the Caves
Gary Bruce Smith
The question as to what art is for arose in a conversation the other day. A rather ardent young man who was into his post-structuralism and was questioning the what-for-ness of art. What does the modern artist do, he said. He only reflects what there already is in the society. He reflects what has already been made but the social engineers, the real people. With a sense of definiteness he concluded that he artist was a parasite. Art was nothing more than bourgeois decoration. Those who disagreed found themselves in a defensive position having to talk about things like aesthetics and the innate value...and so on. Which again made them easy meat for the social engineer. Art, said one fiery over forty, was something that was beyond Philistines like the young social materialist. The argument degenerated into a general exposure of each other's political and philosophical prejudices. But all of this got me to thinking about what art is for. In the modern age is a painting on a wall in a gallery really so significant. As an artist these questions really worry me and are not just academic. Was I producing wall decorations for the elite who wanted to impress the corporation head or simply, worst of all, to match the colour of the furniture? Was I some strange parasitic home decorator lost in a world where other were creating and engineering? Why the argument worried me was that I tended to agree with my young friend about museums and galleries. There is something anachronistic about the whole exhibition thing; something pompous and somehow very anti-art. But then I'm also find the other extreme, the extremely laid back nonchalance of an informal soirée, equally pretentious. So face with these questions I began to look at what I did as an artist. But after a period of depressing introspection which lasted longer than I would admit I came to the conclusion that the question- what is art for- is the wrong question. The question should be why art. Why, what motivates us to produce art at all. Artists have produced art in caves in France millions of years ago. This wasn't for decoration or all, least not the sort of decoration that would be open to the public or to impress the quests at a dinner party. And it certainly was not the art to fill a gap on the wall. No there was some other purpose here and possibly the artist of those French caves were the ur-artists- the real founders of human art. But the question "why art" still has to be an answered one for me. I don't like rock and cave art much. I live in Africa and this is no exotic or esoteric thing for me. But it is that cave with the strange shamanic figure that intrigues me. When I came across this paining in a magazine I knew that the answer had been thrown at me. The painting of the artist as a shaman says something about the why of art. I began to realize that the answer to the question could lie deeper than a mere what is art for. Or to put another way deeper than a for- whom- is- art question. . This question refers to an audience or a human judge who is there to evaluate what art is for in terms of his or her perception. We are referring to an audience or someone to evaluate the art. In this sense art is only good or bad in terms of those who judge it. Art, I realized, is not FOR anyone at all. Neither is it art for arts sake. The truth stared me in the face every time looked at the caves pictures. Art was something that only the shaman knew about. Art had been made not for human approval or even appreciation but for something else. Maybe we could talk about this something else in terms of magic or sorcery, but that would only place art is a delicious position for the social engineer to really mutilate. The best I can say is that Art is the sorcery and magic that we have lost in the dark caves of France. Why we do art is in memory of this and on the hope of the resurgence of this strangeness and mystery that is hidden in those caves. That is why I do art. Neither am I a nostalgist like the over-forty woman. I do not want to bring back anything, but the spirit of the shaman lies, I believe, firmly entrenched in the technological age. The magic is not lost but still to come. I was satisfied with my answer. My soul was at rest and I felt I could paint again. But the only obstacle was explaining this to my friends. This was feeling and feelings somehow become misinformed in the expression. At the next gathering the young social engineer again waxed lyrical on the useless of art as a sign of Capitalistic oppression. The over-forty was vibrant in her denunciation of his young arrogance. During a brief lull in the debate I said, "Maybe we don't yet understand it and maybe you don't understand it all." In the ensuing silence you could hear the thunder.