Art, Its Whys And Wherefores
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
LOVE--Hunger—Shelter: sociology puts these at the root of human behavior. I would add Self-expression.
Discoveries in the earliest known abodes of man demand this addition to the trinity of needs which guide our actions. Love makes for reproduction, race continuity. Hunger inspires hunting, agriculture, trade and industry. Shelter—a roof, a haven of safety against enemies and elements, is very important sociologically. But alongside of these must be placed the need for self-expression. It is a primary want—a basic urge.
Just as it strives to satisfy creature requirements, humanity ever seeks outlet for the expression of the inner self. Artistic effort comes fast on the heels of primitive man's new-found weapons. Not far behind the discovery that an effective dagger may be made from a piece of animal bone is the carving of some animal form on its handle.
Caves of France, Austria and Spain are rich in paintings and engravings. These are said to have been religious in character. They had magical significance; they were hunting maps, or what not. But whatever their meaning, what matters most is that they were man made, the product of skill and imagination. Through them man expressed the beauty within himself. And the tribal dance, which goes back to the same prehistoric epoch—what an outlet for self-expression is there? Religious expression, if you will—often weird and grotesque. But expression none the less of the spirit within.
Progress moves in uneven waves. Across the centuries it may appear like a steady upward swing. In reality every field of human endeavor shows alternate progress and retrogression, not unlike the heaving waves on a rolling sea. Art, recorder of the human spirit, clearly reflects these waves.
After gaining in forest bower and rocky cave a measure of security against his fellow denizens of woods and field, the savage begins to primp. Hut and cave take on a bit of ornamentation.
Catastrophe overtakes the dwelling or settlement. A nomadic existence sets in. We are back to bare realities. Settled once more, enjoying a bit of respite from danger and strife—again the best in him asserts itself. This time expression is on a little higher plane. The structure of the dwelling takes on improved tone. Its powers of resistance are greater, for man is learning through misfortune. His home has better line and contour. At the same time appears imagery of bird or beast crudely scratched on the rock. A little carving is seen on the war club. Art is linked with material progress.
There come attacks from neighboring tribes, or earth-quake and volcano take their toll. The slate is wiped clean. All the advance of infant mankind is as naught. Back it goes in physical well-being, lower in mental development; artistic effort is crushed. There follows more wandering, more uncertainty; then a new settlement, peace. Achievement both along practical and artistic lines is higher than ever before.
Tribal conquest destroys, then lays the foundation for an enlarged community, a broadened common inter-est. New-found security brings gods and temples, and more advanced artistic effort.
In turn this larger community is lost. 'War, pestilence, ruin, chaos: man's achievement has been nullified. An early civilization is dead. No, not dead. For the spirit of man never dies. A wave has dropped to the ocean's bosom. Nothing more. It will rise again. There will be other waves.
Thus tribes and nations and races come and go. Each has its high peak. Each its fall. All bring their contribution for time's crushing heel to destroy. But always there is a rebirth, a reincarnation. The crumbled fragments of the old foment a forward movement in the new. People subjugated conquer their aggressors. The captive's thought becomes the captor's philosophy. Babylon still lives. And Pompeii. Through scientific excavation Egypt's glory of 3000 B.C. is reborn in the twentieth century A.D. Artistic efforts of the past find ringing echo in the present. Art monuments of ages gone are guide-posts of taste today.
In the pages which follow we shall trace the development of taste. We will scan its high and low water marks, its ebb and flow. Fortunately, facts are plentiful. For art has come down from the distant past, just as our own day will pass it on to a distant future. The present inherits the past.
Excavations in various parts of the globe have opened for our perusal the pages of remote antiquity, yes, of many thousands of years before history. The knowledge of all the ages is before us. To know and apply art we should view what has gone before, delve into the earliest sources of civilization. There are highlights of art a hundred thousand years or more before the Christian era. When the mammoth roamed the plain man was painting frescoes. During the Stone Age he was doing creditable etching and sculpture. The Bronze Age and the Iron Age have left numberless examples of their art for us. The arts of Egypt, of ancient Greece, of Persia, of the early Kelts and primitive Americans are the heritage of the twentieth century. They are here to teach us to love and produce beauty.
You may well ask how we ascribe ancient or primitive art to definite periods. How do we know that a piece of painting on the wall of a cave belongs in the Stone Age? For one thing, the entrance to the cave may be embedded in strata which the geologist is able to translate in terms of time. Possibly implements belonging in the Stone Age were in the same cave. Often human skeletons are by the side of remains of a mammoth or some other animal since extinct. Excavations of Biblical or Egyptian monuments tell their own tale in language which present-day science is able to read and understand.
I shall present the story in brief of man's earliest artistic efforts, then something of expression in form, line and color through ancient and modern times. I will at-tempt to trace the way in which through the medium of its home humanity tells its tale. If because of these pages a few homes should be constructed in better line and furnished in a little better taste than else they might have been, this work will have more than justified itself. Yet it is my secret hope that some lives as well may be the better for my story.
Let us then begin our exploration into the vast recesses of time. In the Stone Age let us look for creative art. The earliest known cave-dweller has some valuable information for us, enlightened, super-refined children of civilization.
But before we go on I want to leave with you this one thought. Our greatest possession is knowledge. We know the artistic expression of those who have preceded us on earth. Their taste in all its manifestations is open to our view. If we do not benefit by it and develop a taste superior to that of all previous times we are not worthy of the great heritage.