People these days are often rather concerned with the economy. Fair enough, as it is all encompassing. But focussing so much on GDP I believe is a detriment to the human experience. The first financial laws and principles recorded (before coins or money were even invented) were on Hammurabi’s Stele in Ancient Sumer, right around 3,000 BCE. Economy is literally as old as civilization. But there is something far older.
The oldest recorded and dated paintings are the paintings in the cave at Lascaux, in France, and they date to roughly 16,000 BCE.* The economy may be intrinsically linked with human civilization, sure. We need a way to trade with each other. But it seems to me that art is intrinsically linked with human existence, which is far more fundamental.
This is why I believe that, regardless of the economy, art and the act of making art are vital to a high-quality life. Art is a part of what makes us human, because it is merely expression. As British artist Hamish Fulton once said, “Art is the creative business of how we interpret and engage with life.” Simply put, art is how we as humans express our thoughts, opinions, and inner visions, and by doing so, it is how we deal with life and everything it throws our way. Art is a part of humans being human.
Art is not only hugely beneficial to the artists, however. It is also enriching for anyone willing to engage in the art. Good art makes the viewer think, hopefully about something new or in a manner that they never have before. Either way, if the viewers are willing to truly give a piece of art more time than it takes to glance at it, and if they are willing to have an open mind, they are sure to find that unprecedented thoughts will find their way in. Perhaps the work only allows you to rethink a certain object. Perhaps, however, it leads you to question much deeper things, like why and how are we here? Or what makes us human? As long as people continue to be willing, art will continue to inspire deep contemplation and questioning, which ultimately leads to personal and social growth.
Aside from enabling an audience to think critically about life, art is a connection between human beings. Or rather, it is a vehicle for that connection. The point of most art is to express the thoughts of the artist, and to give the viewer those same thoughts or questions. This inherently connects two people—two people who likely will never come face to face—because it connects their minds and their spirits. It connects their thoughts, and something as simple as that is reassurance that we are not alone.
Another benefit of art as a means of linking humanity together is that art is not hinged upon one language or another. It is visual, and so one does not need special knowledge of any given language in order to understand, appreciate, and connect with art. While we have thousands of different written and spoken languages on this planet of ours, art is a means of communication that is not dependent on any of them.
I believe this literary independence is largely due to emotion. Whether it is overt or subtle, the emotion embedded in a piece of art is still there, and it is accessible to anyone anywhere, so long as they can see it. Emotion is universal and timeless, and it is that universality that makes art timeless as well. A masterpiece by Da Vinci or Van Gogh is just as powerful now, to people all over the world who cannot speak Italian, Dutch, or French, because the works of art require nothing more than that their viewers be human.
People smile, laugh, envy, cry, scorn, and desire in the same language. Regardless of when or where you live, you can and probably will identify with the emotion found in a piece of artwork in front of you, if you try, and in that instant, you are connected not only to the artist who created the work, but to anyone else who has ever viewed the work and experienced the same thoughts and feelings about it. And that is a very powerful thing, one that should never be dismissed due to something as erratic as the economy.
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*16,000 BCE turns out to be a very very conservative estimate. New discoveries suggest that the paintings at Lascaux may be up to 38,000 years old. And cave paintings in other parts of the world suggest that humans have been painting for much, much longer than we ever imagined before. Suffice it to say that artistic impulses are older almost than it is possible to wrap our heads around. To read more, check out anything by Graham Hancock, and/or this article from the Smithsonian. Or this one.