From the very beginning, whenever man has found a moment he doesn’t have to devote to survival, he looks around, gauges the distance, assesses the world, does this against himself, against his temporal weakness.
At first, those moments must have been fairly direct, profoundly simple, reactions to silence, to budding beauty. He must have felt a desire to be that, an extension of himself. He may have taken up a stone and made a scratch on a rock, a cliff. Nothing larger than a few inches, slightly curved.
A woman in a cave, after cooking the leg of a bear for her family, might have taken a piece of charcoal from the dying embers and made a circle on the wall. The family must have been astounded. The children went and did smaller circles, the man went outside and looked at the moon, nodding.
They all felt shivers in the spine, not knowing why. In fact, these humans were now on a par with God in making. Awe turned those items into sacred reflections of ultimate power. Power was transcendentally understood as paying attention to man.
The great unease of living was now compromised by hope. A stone, a piece of wood, a color besmirched on a wall became the intermediaries. They spoke to the tribe through charlatans and shamans.
The story could be told in many ways. Those initial marks were not enough, but contemplative time led to complexity. Religion was born from the thrust of the marveling art impulse, but its fate was to become codified and authoritative while art went on to serve many masters; Popes and tyrants, an aristocracy that could send one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time to the kitchen to eat with the servants.
When the merchant class, the bourgeoisie took over, art flourished for a while. But all too soon the artists (in Europe) smelled decay and rebelled against the mediocrity of their patrons and turned to romanticism. Some created art that was esoteric, impossible for the average man to understand, while others gave voice to the simple joys of the everyday.
Somewhat unconsciously and through differing points of view, artists have always striven to reach the sublime. By the sublime we mean works like a large painting by Rothko, a sonata by Charles Ives, Whitman’s poem “Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge,” an apple by Cezanne, a symphony by Mahler or Bruckner… and, in retrospect, a haiku by Onitsura, a Mass by Bach, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a Greek tragedy, cave paintings in France…
Thousands of other examples could be given. The fundamental tone reached by masterpieces is the recognition of great sorrows and great joys, their acceptance, if possible, their distillation.
That being so, why are large masses of human beings so uninterested? Why are they caught in the coils of entertainment industries? Ironically enough, because science, that twin sister of all questing art, has provided the masses with so many creature comforts that people’s souls have been dulled into “lives of quiet desperation,” as Thoreau put it.
The American poet, William Carlos Williams said once, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
America, and most of the world along with it, is dying just as previous empires and societies have died, one ignored artist at a time, one Garcia Lorca killed by a bullet, others driven to suicide.