Sunday, January 24, 2010

How We Got To Be US

About 35,000 years ago, give or take a week, there was a softball game between the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. The latter, Homo-Sapiens, (that’s us) won in extra innings when the rounded rock, called ball, rolled into a nearby cave where one of us was painting on the wall. This was not the official scorer; this was an artist who hid the ball, saved the day and still does.

It’s a good thing we won that day because Neanderthals could never adapt to hitting a curve ball. Nor did they ever think of a wheel, sliced bread or Saran Wrap. We have proved ourselves technologically. We even knew enough not to have invented the Yellow Pages or answering machines until we had the telephone.

But there must be other measures of our distinction. Give me twenty minutes and I’ll think of something…..

Love comes to mind, in all its many permutations; and perhaps by extension we have learned trust and community. Of course, the opposite is also part of our being. We can remember and forget, just like our computers. But unlike them we can imagine and transcend ourselves. Art, I submit, is a necessary function

Think of it this way. The artist / composer / writer sits in his room late at night by lamplight. Down below a commercial ship is trying to navigate along the river. Commerce requires illumination from the desk of the creator.

Artists stand outside the circle banished by Plato, dangerous as they are, or at least straddle it to get a better view. They push and pull us along and around the corner.

I don’t mean to consign that role to a designated few. All of us have the stuff to transport ourselves and others. Only in some does that impulse survive childhood. Society resists change and has ways of crushing the creative life out of us through intimidation, censorship or indifference, in a variety of ways, particularly if it isn't utilitarian.

We are good at that too. A vestigial fear of the unknown still clings to us since that first softball game and it also inhibits us. We need to make room for the mystery and maybe we’ll recognize it as our disowned selves.

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