We have to remark on what “identifies” the evidence of a “great empire” – or a “remarkable civilisation” – and when we do cite such evidence, we invariably point to the ruins of great works, great architecture, great civic constructions. In short, all those incontrovertible examples of material achievement. And sure, such civic constructs are wonderful, are useful for the transport and export of commerce and citizens. But one must ask; are these in-situ monoliths the be-all and end-all of civilisation? Is there a better measure of the achievements of humanity than mere physical ingenuity? After all, even the humble crow can adapt a kind of tool to use to its advantage.
No. As the saying goes: “Humanity does not live by bread alone” … and when the time comes when those “great empires” start to fall apart, history shows us that it is mostly unstoppable. And the end result can be as in Shelly’s “Ozymandias”:
“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
A lonely visage indeed. And one that could be relocated to many a modern metropolis in these days of continual warfare promoted and sustained by a now apparent economic necessity. A necessity of destroy and rebuild that fosters both the mighty industrial military machine and the global finance for reconstruction industry, monsters consuming and regurgitating continuedly, almost a vital component now of superannuation investment and stock favourites on Wall Street and elsewhere.
But is there another component of measurable achievement of humanity’s civilisation? I believe there is, and it is also a “canary in the mine” measurement of decline and fall of a civilisation … and that is its art.
That’s it. Pure and simple. Whether it be of several mediums; paint/music/written/woven/dance … a combination. Whatever. If it be expression, TRUE expression of the soul of a peoples, not just a moment of revelry or decadence. If it be that moment captured of an essence of beauty of the heart of the ethnicity, what is deemed its culture … then it will strengthen and embolden those who participate in its renewal of life for the group. And this is the difficult part, and can demonstrate the decay of the tribal element of society. It cannot just be a dull repetition of a rite or custom – such are peripherals to the renewal of the soul of the tribe – there must be “new art” or new interpretations of the continual dance of life. Every tribe does it by innovation of the age-old oral/personal hand-me-down activity. By making it a “word of mouth” practice, every new generation, via its individuals, adds or subtracts just that little bit extra. It could be a personal twist to an old tale, it could be a sudden bit of improvisation to a movement of dance … whatever, because of the need for each new generation to reinterpret the old, it can’t help but introduce their own “new” to the art.
But what does this mean to us in the West? The trick of the matter is in the “ innocence of acceptance” of new art. Not meaning to just accepting anything extreme and the more extreme the better, nor that oh so obvious “bad art”, but by dropping our guard against letting our emotions rather than our intellect judge a piece … letting the music or language do the “talking”. Let the interpretive artist, who wrestles with the form, place in front of you their work and just like we judge a meal placed in front of us by the senses we trust, let the artistic works we “consume” play with our imagination and mind like gourmet food plays on our palate. Not to analyse it to oblivion, but rather just settle back and savour the moment. For that is all it need be. But a moment, a line of poetry or a riff of music, or the colour on the canvas.
And this is where the west will be lost, not through war nor depression, but rather by the slow starvation through economic deprivation of essential artistic support of our souls. Our artistic desires have become a commodity to exchange as collateral of moneys or fame, and in doing so, we lose the innocence of creativity and we fail to stop long enough to let the renewal of our soul be recreated. It has gotten to the point where we look more to recognise the familiarity in new work, rather than originality. We seek the familiar for comfort, we do not allow the amateur into the “art market” without some sort of recognised “cred” a prize in a known competition, or some other glittering event.
A big mistake was made when the creativity juices of the west were allowed to become exclusive possessions of the commercial middle-class. This has brought much art into the world of corporate copyright, many sounds into exclusive ownership of white-collar investment. Much of the written word into the stultifying atmosphere of dead grammar, and as such, “chosen ones” are sometimes promoted as the “next big thing” when all they are is another disappointing experience. Very little that is new, that is wonderful and creative gets left in the flowering fields of free enjoyment of the masses for long. All becomes “owned” … all becomes known for “the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Such is the sacred creed of the economic class. And they are killing us and our art.
Eric Knight, the author of “Lassie Come Home” wrote a beautiful “Author’s Note” to his book of Yorkshire short stories: “Sam Small Flies Again” where he states that many of the best stories, being oral in the retelling, will die with their authors:
“When a man has little else to rely on, I think he falls back on his blood and background. And so, curiously enough, nearly all of these stories were written five and six thousand miles away from my native Yorkshire. It was mostly being homesick, I think … But you’ve got to get them down some day and have done with them. That’s the sad part. Probably the finest stories ever made up by writers weren’t put down, and died with them.” (Author’s Note to “Sam Small Flies Again” by Eric Knight).
And it is sad that so many beautiful characters too will cease to exist after their storyteller “witness” passes on. We have to recognise that the beauty in the art lies not in the commercial recognition and promotion, but in the viewers mind. Real art … that is those genuine attempts to wrest beautiful moments that encapsulate that fragile point in time and place and translate it to dance, paint, song or verse must be left not to those who would profit from such a moment, but left to the emotional innocence still living in the community and it’s imagination, or we are lost as a civilisation.
Perhaps it is already too late, for I cannot see how we can regain that innocence of what we see in those tribal cultures we like to document and gawk at as some sort of picturesque novelty. I am not talking about innocence as naive, nor gullible, but an innocence “accepting without blocking” the new, the subtle, the amazing without submitting such to analytical cynicism or commercial viability. And why not give art the chance we give sport, when we hungrily look to the next “star player” who with dexterous play rescues his team from defeat to the heights of glory?
And, of course, all new enterprises now have to be submitted to that capitalist axiom of judgement:
“ … but is there any money in it?”
A Place of One’s Own
Within everybody’s heart ,
There is that little pump.
And in the still of the night,
You can hear its tremulous thump.
Within everybody’s heart,
There is a little room.
Upon the wall there, a picture
Of a place we silently yearn.
To some it is just a fantasy,
A desire they can’t fulfill.
Some will strive to seek it…
Some have not the will.
And some will substitute
A lesser philosophy
To dull and blind the senses
To a love they will not see.