How Art (R)Evolutionised
When the hunter gatherers during the Upper-Paleolithic Era painted themselves hunting mammoths and other prey, they depicted the animals with well-defined forms to insinuate their importance in their own survival, but painted themselves as flat or with nothingness due to an undeveloped sense of self. With the development of the human mind, sense of self and belonging, and the rise of what we now call 'society,' what we call as 'art' developed in parallel. Majority of the evidence and artifacts dating back to this period lead back to Africa, where the modern humans have been said to originate from. In the Blombos Cave, twenty eight miles east of Klipdrift, South Africa, a red ocher was discovered by Henshilwood and Witwatersrand dating back about 75,000 years, embedded with parallel, overlapping and triangular markings. It's purpose hasn't been deciphered, but it is 35,000 years older than other undisputed evidence of symbolic behaviour then. The shapes denote something else; a symbol made by a mind to be understood by others. This was an expression of consciousness which is what makes us different from biologically driven animals.
What brought the leap in this consciousness? One theory suggests that a larger conglomeration of people in a society led to an exchange of ideas and symbols and the pace of evolution quickened, with different groups of humans coming up with different descriptions and expressions; the interpretations of which formed their cultures. However, this progression was not linear and forward, but many times the means of communication via symbols (pre-language) and early tools have gotten lost, such as when the early-humans migrated from Africa to Europe via modern day Turkey.
The cave-paintings or exploration of colour by the pre-civilised hunters brought them no material benefits; neither in easier, more skilled hunting, and nor in protecting themselves. Yet, they filled the walls of their homes with aspects of their life that they found intriguing. This evolution of their capacity to interact with one another was the beginning of art. Eventually, during the Bronze Era, they transformed these mere paintings into the first literary script called "Hieroglyphs," and a formal form of communication was established. Even today, certain scripts like the Chinese and Japanese Kanji make use of visual-characterisation in their written language.
Art & literature are an expression of the human mind and thought, they're a depiction of the human beliefs; and a representation of human engagement with ideas. They have existed throughout the history of human life, and evolve as the homo sapiens evolve.
With the organization of society, a formal governing system and trade, artists emerged and thus, developed a recognition and market for art. Artists, since then have found a place in kings’ courtrooms and have witnessed among peasants and poor tradesmen. Monarchies have supported and killed traditions of artists, poets, and philosophers; sometimes building libraries and other times, burning them down. For instance, Emperor Qin Shi Huang of China allegedly burned down thousands of books and manuscripts on history and several philosophical concepts including Confucianism and Taoism, written over five centuries from 770 to 221 BC, and buried over a thousand scholars whom he did not trust to strengthen his own governing philosophy, Legalism. Destroying art structures was commonplace to deprive people of their culture, allowing kings to rule more easily without significant rebellion, rendering the next generations unknownst of their land, ancestors and thus, a reason to fight for.
Art and literature also reflect and cast further light upon the social-economic organisation of a society. With the invention of religion or the belief of a 'higher order,' humans directed their art to engineer a mindset aligning with their own beliefs, thereby attracting the masses to this great unknown, and metamorphosing this means of communication to propagation. Art and literature was thus used to cultivate a belief and following that the creators believed in or deemed essential.
For instance, the vision of the Devil as in the biblical context that we imagine today has undergone serious changes depending on interpretations of texts and borrowing from printings. The Bible denotes very few lines of detail to the physical characteristics of the devil apart from the serpent who tempts Eve.
The mosaic of Basilica of Sant'Apollinaire Nuovo, Italy (circa 6th century CE) is said to be one of the earliest descriptions of Jesus and the Devil where Jesus is dressed in purple, on his left is an angel in red and on the right is the devil in blue, both with a halo and wings. This isn't as scary and “devilish” as one would imagine him now. That the colour red was associated with hell and evil in the coming years gave rise to the concept of a red coloured devil. Further on, horns and wings without feathers were added to the depiction of the devil which can be traced to one of the Babylonian texts which describes a demon named Lilitu who embodied rebellion, evil and carnal desires who later became the Christian Devil.
In the following Dark ages, much of art, literature, and intellectual inquiry was destroyed and Europe was in a turmoil with ravaging invasions from the Goths, Vandals, Celts. There was a brief period where the French lord Charlemagne consolidated the lands and though unable to read or write himself, propagated the culture and bright craftsmen and monk-scribes from the Eastern Roman empire to create literature in Latin so that the language could become a unifying tool. But then there was a lull period after that as the church took control and only a certain kind of representation was allowed, others who thought differently or rebelled were burnt at stake. Jan Hus, a theologian and philosopher, predecessor of the Protestant movement and key figure in the Bohemian movement, was burnt at stake for going against the teachings and practices of the Church. He was inspired by John Whycliff, whose books were also banned. Hus's student, Jerome of Prague was also burnt at stake for supporting radical views on religion. Gradually, after consolidation of the religion and culture, trade grew and artisans and scholars formed guilds and were mostly employed by the Church, the noblemen and the wealthy families. The wealthy families increasingly indulged in art and artisans and with the black plague wiping out more than more than a third of Europe's population, the wealth was further consolidated and patronage towards the arts increased, supported by these families, and the authority of the Church was opposed that ultimately led to the Renaissance. The printing press was also a revolutionary tool that paced up the onset of the Enlightenment.
With the coming of the industrial Revolution, rational thinking and material advancements happened and there grew a certain way of how things should be, or the “right” way for everything. But our thoughts went a step further beyond the realms of right and wrong where everything has meaning only in contexts, not in universals. Postmodern art laid the framework for this thought and the role of subjective interpretation was brought out. The arts stand as a mirror to any Society, reflecting their everyday life and recording it for future generations. These colours, lines and words will transcend time and reveal to the people yet to come how it felt to live in the current century. They offer respite from the existential questions and solace to the outliers who don't fit in the carefully organized structure. It is both the search and the answer. They are the method of the people to express themselves that normal forms of communication don't allow, rather can never possibly allow. It offers paths to the wanderers and challenges the existing ones. They are material forms of our abstract thoughts, never homogeneous but always inclusive.
As emphasis on individually surges, artistic expression is the only way to carve out space for oneself. It is the identity of the people of a generation, forming a collective consciousness. A society without art has lost its link to its past, one which has stopped talking to itself, whose people no longer dream and aren't curious about the unfolding of the future. It's a stagnant phase that'd soon lead to a rot and bring about a painful death even which will be forgotten.