I have a ceramic artist friend who wants to start throwing things when someone comes into her studio, picks up a piece, admires it, then turns to her and asks, “But what’s it for?”
The first rock artist probably had to face a similar comment from clan members when they saw the painting he had laboured over for many hours, from the mixing of the pigments, to selecting the rock best suited for his ‘oeuvre’, to deciding on a subject. I imagine them standing around in a perplexed semi-circle before the daubs of colour on the stone. “It’s beautiful, Vincent,” they may have said, “but what’s it for? And by the way… it was your turn to bring home the bacon today!” Where survival was the daily imperative, what gave him the right to waste time and energy on something as useless as this?
Yet, when the threatening night drew in, these same hunter/gatherers, with their women, children and old people found comfort in what could have been seen as the equally pointless pursuit of dancing and singing under the stars.
We can only conjecture at what drove those first painters, musicians and dancers to turn to such strange, anachronistic pastimes. Perhaps it was an attempt to make sense of a dangerous world, to establish where they fitted in, to strengthen familial bonds. Perhaps for the visual artist it was to create a diagram of a hunting strategy, to understand the habits of the animals, to take control of his environment; or perhaps it was a message to posterity – ‘I was here, I lived, and my life had meaning.’
Whatever it was, it caught on, and from Africa to Australia and everywhere in between, evidence exists of disparate groups of First Peoples producing extraordinary works of visual art. And musical instruments. And dance. And oral and dramatised stories. For both the participants and the audience, what we now call the Arts had deeply spiritual, emotional and practical significance – perhaps as important as the discovery of fire and written language, not to mention the many direction-changing inventions, like the wheel, that have both blessed and bedevilled humankind ever since.
It is, after all, about imagination; envisioning a different reality, one perhaps less frightening, more comfortable, less confusing than the artist’s own. It is discovering who we are and how we relate to other living creatures and the natural environment around us; it is unravelling the interconnectedness of things. It is the process of creating something of beauty for its own sake and no other.
The role of play in the intellectual, emotional and physical development of children is mostly acknowledged these days, but less so, by extension, the importance of creative activities which expand their imaginations and give them access to a means of self expression and discovery which reaches way beyond the reality of the here and now. The fact is, artists see life from a different angle.
In some mysterious way, great artists are attuned to a deeper level of consciousness and when we are entranced by the balanced perfection of a strand of music or its interpretation through the supple movement of a human body, we complete a creative circle. A sculpture which presents itself to us in such a way that we gain an insight into some hidden element of its existence satisfies a search deep within us for meaning.
We know what profound effects different forms of art therapy have on emotionally and intellectually disturbed people and perhaps more than ever, all of us need to find ourselves again in the beautiful truth of music or in the stamp of defiance of the dance. Beyond physical survival in the artificial jungle we have created for ourselves is the need to keep ‘body and soul’ together. This was the message the cave painters offered their kinsmen so long ago and this is the privilege we are so extravagantly presented with at the FynArts Festival right here in Hermanus each year. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.