Friday, December 18, 2009

The Praxis of Axes

In 1911, an ancient stone hand-axe was discovered in Norfolk, England. It was made by a neanderthal, and is believed to be in excess of 200,000 years old. The axe was cut from a piece of flint which had a fossilized shell on its surface, and the maker clearly designed the tool around it, carefully centering it and making sure the bottom of the shell was roughly parallel with the bottom of the axe.

This surprising example of the artistic urge predates spoken language by more than 100,000 years. Written language does not appear until about 4,000 years ago, making it a new thing by comparison. Neanderthal man couldn't have explained why he chose to decorate his axe because he didn't know how to speak. The majority of his day was most certainly occupied with the serious business of not dying, yet he took the time to do this.

Many of the major currents in art since the beginning of the twentieth century, specifically modernism, post-modernism, and the widely varied aftershocks of post-modernism (often subsumed under the umbrella of critical theory) all have something in common - they ask art to justify its own existence. Modernism asked art to purify itself from within in order to prove that the experience it provided was unique and couldn't be had in any other cultural sphere. Post-modernism and its many tributaries asked art to police institutions of power, those attached to art itself as well as many from the society at large

There is something moralistic embedded in both of these attitudes about art - they suggest that art is something frivolous unless it can prove itself not to be. Under all of these regimes, the urge to create and to enjoy the fruits of the creative process are not valid in and of themselves. Simply making qualitative judgments about art objects is not enough - indeed, the very notion of quality has been under siege for quite some time - art must have a more important job than just being art, a job that can be proven to be of great value to the society.

But if the neanderthal art is any indication, it would place the aesthetic urge right behind eating, reproducing, and seeking shelter, and considerably earlier than speaking. It would have to be considered one of the first things early humans did as they became less like animals and more like people. Viewed in this way, it would seem that the positions outlined above are quite superfluous, tantamount to making people justify the fact that they are hungry or sleepy.

I believe it was Richard Serra who said that art should never be deprived of its uselessness.* As it turns out, there's a real profundity in its uselessness, and in point of fact, that's wherein its actual utility resides.

*Someone please correct me if I'm wrong in this attribution.