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Category: Culture

Why Art?
It’s too bad we can’t talk to the ancient Cro-Magnons. I have some questions for them about those first cave paintings they made over 40,000 years ago. Specifically, I’d like to ask them “Why?”

Those renderings obviously took some time to complete. Didn’t you have some more pressing duties to attend to? Like surviving and seeing to the survival of your tribe? They also required artistic skill; where did you find the time to develop and practice such skill in your short, brutal existence? And, most of all, I want to know what it was that impelled you to make that art?

Whatever it was, it has continued to drive your descendants to make art right on through prehistory and into current times. Art, in fact, is as consistent as any other trait in the story of homo sapiens. It is not hard to find a reason for why our other cultural characteristics exist. There is a clear need for our communal attitudes, for instance. We are social animals, and banding closely together serves both our need for sociality and our self-defense against predators and other tribes. Our propensity for war, though not our prettiest trait, can at least be explained in terms of individual and group survival. We build shelter and clothe ourselves for similar purposes.

But why do we make art? Why does it seem to be such a persistent drive within us? What function does it serve? I’ve asked some modern Cro-Magnons that question and gotten a variety of answers.

Some have said that it is silly to ask what purpose art serves. For them, it merely is — a part of who we are as a species. I wish this answer satisfied me. It does seem appropriate to say that art needs no justification, but that only helps me in my approach to individual examples of art; it does not explain the part it plays in our history.

Others have suggested that there was a religious component to those old cave paintings, and that may be true in some cases. But not in all cases, I think, and this explanation doesn’t address all the art that’s been created since. Aborigines, for instance, made some art that operated like a prehistoric Mapquest. It used symbols to guide its users to remote and distant places. I see that use as a very practical one, though it may have had some kind of spiritual underpinning as well.

Perhaps if we look at religion as just another art form —a kind of storytelling — then we might get closer to the truth. Those depictions of mammoths and other beasts might have been an effort to understand and explain the world that those early humans lived in. That act of creation could have given them a sense of control and mastery of their surroundings. Religion certainly has that function, since it helps us, as most art does, to cope with the universe we are confronted with. As humans, we want to make sense of the world; making sense of things is part of our larger nature, and our ability to do that has also helped us to survive.

Not everything, however, either in our world or the world of the Cro-Magnon, is so easily understood. Even with our considerable intelligence, we cannot explain very much at all about our environment. Perhaps that is where art comes in. It is the product of an inquisitive, reasoning, inventive mind when reason and simple observation are not enough. It seeks to explain the inexplicable.

That early art seems to have served as an early form of written language as well. The art of writing has since evolved into its own category of expression, but it is still being used to explain the universe and the human experience. All of this writing and painting and creative storytelling seems to be about communication, then. We are very communicative animals, and that skill has surely contributed to our survival.

I guess that’s what I’m getting at with my “why art?” question: how does it help us survive? If art is communication, with whom are we communicating? Other people, yes, but in some cases the artistic effort is not so clearly directed. It simply goes out into the void, and there is no answer to the expression or even the expectation of an answer. What good does that do?

My guess is that those ancient Cro-Magnons wouldn’t have understood the question “Why art?” As some have suggested, they do it because that is what humans do — because it feels good, or there is some demon inside them that must be expelled, or they find meaning in making something beautiful. They communicate with the universe with their creations, it seems, including the small part of it that is their own consciousness. No response is really needed, but they must do it in order to cope — and to survive.
Going, Going
Manson H. Whitlock died last summer at the age of 96. I don’t imagine there will be a national moment of silence or much attention paid to his passing at all beyond the few isolated news articles. I hope, though, that someone will commission a statue of him and offer it as a donation to my pet project. His looming presence would be a prized addition to the Museum of Lost Arts.

Mr. Whitlock repaired typewriters for a living, and despite the small resurgence in the popularity of these desktop curiosities, his noble profession will soon cease to exist. It will join a growing list of antiquated skill sets that have no place in our modern, computer-driven society. The Museum aims to keep these virtuosities from vanishing without the recognition they deserve.

Other displays at the Museum of Lost Arts (or MOLA) might include, for example, a tribute to practitioners of shorthand. This skill was wondrous enough when it was a common one, condensing language, as it did, into a form that could be written as quickly as even the gabbiest speaker could talk. Amazing, but I’ll bet there aren’t more than a handful of people who can still do it.

Driving a car with a manual transmission will soon suffer a similar fate. The coming of electric vehicles has all but guaranteed the demise of this once-handy aptitude. Cursive writing is also on the way out, following good penmanship, which has been extinct for years. Adjusting rabbit ears on a television never got the respect it deserves as a field of expertise, and now I fear that it never will — except in the Museum. Also on the short list:

Reading a broadsheet newspaper. Dexterity, large muscle motor skills, and a keen sense of spatial awareness all play a part in this challenging (and now passé) ritual. I see an interactive exhibit with large squares of newsprint available for kids and parents alike.

Talking face to face. You still see this method of communication in use today, but mostly it involves elders for whom those tiny keypads are just too demanding. Watch while you can, boys and girls; these old geezers’ use of odd facial tics, such as eyebrow-cocking and smiling, will soon be obsolete.

Sitting quietly with your own thoughts. This deceptively simple pastime began to disappear with the advent of television. Soon, all of us will be plugged in (literally, I predict) all the time, and the fate of the meditative state will be sealed. I imagine a diorama at the Museum with a featureless, horizon-less vista and no sensory input at all. Medical staff will have to be on site at all times to treat nervous breakdowns.

Modesty. We hope to have workshops for those who want to experience what it used to be like not to share every little detail of one’s life with the whole world.

We can’t bring Manson L. Whitlock back. Not without asking his permission, anyway, and that’s not possible without bringing him back. Besides, I’ve read too many Edgar Allan Poe stories where that kind of thing turns out to be a really bad idea. We can honor him and his craft, though. Even if this MOLA thing doesn’t fly, I’m hanging on to my old Remington Noiseless as a tribute to a bygone age when cars and keyboards were strictly manual.
The French
I take back
what I said
about the French

Oh sure
there are the pointy shoes
the murses, the chain smoking
and the little dogs
that go poop in the street

But they are a pretty people
so passionate
and mais oui, polite!
Bonjour, monsieur! S'il voux plait! Merci!

And there is the history
layer on layer
built up and pulled down
Death and rebirth
darkness and light
popes and kings
and obscene excess
and finally, revolution

There is bread and cheese and wine
and love
flowers, carousels, fountains, long rows of trees
along grand boulevards
chic Parisian matrons
with coifs of wine-copper

And in the caves
the Metro, the streets
the museums-within-museums
art, art, art
art to make you wonder
art to roil you up
so much art it makes you weep

Mais oui!
The French!
Meat Me in the Future
Oprah Winfrey was in some hot water in Texas a while back. She had some disparaging words for beef products, and a bunch of Lone Star cattle ranchers sued her for meat defamation. It was a silly lawsuit based on a silly law, but at least those cows had someone to stand up for them.

The Frankenburger is not so lucky. There is no petri meat anti-defamation league, no champion for lab patties, no mommy and no daddy. If you don’t know, “Frankenburger” is the name the press has given to the meat patty created in a laboratory using only stem cells from cows. The cells were first soaked in nutrients, causing them to multiply, then coalesced into strands. Later, they were collected into pellets, frozen, and finally compacted into patties. Coalesced, collected, and compacted — I wouldn’t wish that childhood on my worst enemy.

What’s more, even the technicians who made the meat seem apologetic about it. Dr. Mark Post, leader of the Maastricht University team that created the meat, admitted, “There’s still much work to be done.” Not exactly the proud parent the little burger might have hoped for.

I feel badly for the Frankenburger. It comes from living tissue, after all. Those first quivering strands of cells could be said to be alive… before they were coalesced, anyway. Who is to say that they didn’t have a soul, even if it shone only dimly? I don’t know, but I do know that this humble quasi-being deserves better than the abuse it has suffered.

The media have been particularly cruel. That is not surprising; this defenseless bit of flesh is just the kind of victim they relish most. They use a mocking tone, for the most part, with very little regard for the meat’s feelings. Special attention is given to the meat’s color (a dull yellow until tinted red with beet juice and saffron), its taste (“animal protein cake”), and its pedigree (non-existent). One commentator in London’s Daily Mail said that the whole idea turned her stomach. I wonder if she could hold onto her cookies in a slaughterhouse.

I’m sorry, but I cannot abide this kind of slander without saying at least a few kind words about the Frankenburger:

It does not fart. Because cow farts are rich in methane, they contribute mightily to climate change. Methane, in fact, is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide in this regard. For this reason, cows add as much as automobiles to global warming. The humble Frankenburger, on the other hand, emits no gasses at all. It exists only to serve us, quietly and without unseemly odor.

It’s low fat because it’s all muscle. That also means no gristle (if you’re on a gristle-free diet).

It does not require large tracts of land to sustain it. In theory, it could be cultured in huge underground factories, leaving the surface to more planet-friendly food production and to more paving.

It appeals (or should appeal) to our fundamental humanity. If we can love a cow, how can we not find a space in our hearts for a hamburger that has never felt the sun on its back, the breeze in its face, or the company of other cows? I would like to think that Oprah Winfrey would feel empathy for this beleaguered little beef-thing. She seems like a nice person, and little Frankie definitely needs the love.

We probably won’t hear about the Frankenburger for a while. At $330,000 a serving, it will only appeal to the kind of people who can afford Teslas. Even so, it’s never too early to start making room in our lives for this orphan meat, no matter how unappetizing it may be.

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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee