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Within the past few weeks anthropologists and archeologists announced in the magazine Nature a discovery from the nation of Indonesia. Cave art, that is nearly identical to the famous depictions found in the Lascaux caves of France, have been dated to be over 40,000 years old. That dating puts the Indonesian art at approximately the same age as drawings of horses, human hands and bulls found in France. This new revelation is an earthquake in our understanding of humanity. Modern humans did not evolve from a single lineage. We were diverse and yet much the same from the very beginning of development even as human groups and tribes were totally isolated from one another.
Most important, what these discovered cave paintings indicate is that the quest to understand human existence, the yearning to define who we are, is a timeless and universal one. Humans living in France were pondering the same questions and arriving at the same assumptions at exactly the same time as were humans thousands of miles away in Indonesia – at a time when interactions between those two areas were impossible. The impulse to define ourselves is one that is implicit within all humans.
During this month of October, I have looked at the topic of how we define ourselves both as individuals and in the larger realm of humanity. Our quest for self-understanding is a spiritual matter and one that leads deep into introspection about meaning, purpose and worth. Two weeks ago, I related to you and to Northern Hills Unitarian my journey of self-understanding – from my years of falsely defining myself as a straight man, to my time spent seeking a god that would define me in his terms, to my eventual awakening to an inner truth about myself and my belief in the absence of a theistic god. We are masters of ourselves, I concluded. We are the gods that control destiny and goodness in the world.
Last week, I examined how our jobs and careers are too often used to define us. Our jobs are falsely used by the culture and us to determine individual value. Instead, I asserted that it is not what we do to earn a living that defines who we are, it is our hearts that matter. How are we engaging the world to improve it? How are we loving, gentle, forgiving and caring people – in our families and communities? Who is our one true self across the spectrum of life – at home, at play, at our inner core? Ultimately, who we are is so much richer than what we do or did in a job.
Today, I want to look at the Indonesian cave paintings and several other examples of history’s most important art, as ways people have been defined in humanist terms.
Stanford University Encyclopedia published an article by several professors on the relationship between aesthetics and existentialism. This inquiry gets at the heart of my topic today. Why is it, and how is it, that artistic and musical expressions are so closely tied with what we think, feel and understand about ourselves? Existentialism, of which Jean-Paul Sartre is the leading philosopher, asserts that art is the primary way humans reveal themselves and the universe. In other words, we use art to confirm reality. Not only that, but we use art to interpret existence and answer the eternal question, “Why are we here?”
Sartre and other existentialists see art as a deeply spiritual undertaking. Art is a way to understand what it might be that created and animates all things. Humans have used all forms of art to convey the beauty, wonder and complexity of nature. Art is thus a manifestation of our ideal interpretation of things that exist – whether that be the human form, a flower or even an emotion. And that ideal depiction becomes for us the reality of an object. A subtle and softly colored painting of a mountain exists in our minds as identical to the actual upward thrusting rocky mass. In other words, a mountain truly exists not because it IS, but because we depict it as existing – in a painting, in a song, in writing or in a photograph. According to Sartre, an art work manifests the reality of an object or thought because humans have interpreted it and rendered it in art. And that is why humans hunger and yearn to create art – from amateur scribbles to the evocations master artists create with paint, marble or sound. Art is a picture of truth, it’s a window into the spiritual domain, it’s a way to assert existence and thus to define ourselves.
Take at look at one of the Indonesian cave paintings.
While we may not see this as high art by modern standards, it is nevertheless remarkable. At the dawn of homo sapien existence, around 40,000 years ago, an artist used paint and colored dust to assert his or her existence. I not only exist, he or she proclaimed, but I exist in relation to the physical world around me. And here is the one tool that makes me uniquely human – my arm and my hand through which I can shape the world unlike any other creature. From this artwork and others like it in France, came the first cry – much like that of a newborn babe – “I live! I’m here! I am a god of my own thinking able to paint, make tools, build a shelter, and profoundly change the environment.”
Now take a look at two art forms from over 20,000 years ago – at a time when human villages first emerged. They are what archeologists call Venus figurines.
Such carved pieces depict women with exaggerated breasts, hips and genitalia and they were likely icons of worship. They have been found, in various styles, all over the world. This similarity in art form, from totally different cultures, indicates a common thread of self-identity and definition. These artists were rendering their understanding of both humanity and the divine. The one miracle to which they experienced and found awe-inspiring was the ability to spawn new human life. People – and most particularly women – were spiritual beings – goddesses – who brought forth life. Once again, we find an artistic self-definition: humans are gods unto themselves imbued with the power of creation. These artistic interpretations of an ideal woman who holds the power of fertility IS reality and defines what we as humanists think about ourselves. We are goddesses and gods.
And that fact ought to give pause to today’s culture. Archeologists indicate that the overwhelming majority of art depicting the human form throughout human history have been of the female. It has only been within the last 2,000-3,000 years, and the advent of Judeo-Christian thinking, that art turned to being male centric. The arrogance and violence of the phallus has supplanted the gentleness, humility and nurture of the womb. We would be wise to return to a worship of the feminine, much like early humans understood.
This next artwork reflects both paternalistic thinking and the re-birth of humanist ideals. That reverence of humanity and its ability to reason flowered in ancient Greece. It was replaced by moralistic Christian thinking during the so-called dark ages when reason was rejected and human flesh was demeaned. Myths of a supernatural God were preeminent.
During the Renaissance, as we all know, a re-found appreciation for nature, as put forward by Greek philosophers Lucretius and Epicurus, led artists to once again define people by humanist ideals. Even in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel religious paintings, one of which is shown here, the focus is not on God, but on humans. We see bodies in their naked beauty. We see eroticism in how Eve is the one first tempted by Satan and how she supposedly used sex to bring down Adam. Her provocative posture, relative to Adam, seems shocking in a religious context and yet it perfectly depicts the Renaissance understanding of ourselves – as creatures of wonder, as sexual beings, as fully part of the natural world. Once again, as with the Indonesian cave paintings and the Venus figurines, art offered a definition of us. It is humanity that is acts as god. It is the natural world, not a supernatural being, that is the pre-eminent reality.
Art, as we all know, takes many forms. Art is also found in the written and spoken word. William Shakespeare is one of the most influential of writers for his interpretations of humanity. His descriptions of the human soul and his implicit definition of who we are stand even today as great insight. Here is just a brief sample of his writing from the play Julius Caesar.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
The play is a thoughtful interpretation of actual history and, indeed, of humanity. Who and what controls our destiny? Is it fate or God that controls us? Or, is it our minds and our choices that map a life journey? Shakespeare clearly believes in the latter – seeing the actions of Julius Caesar to declare himself Emperor, and assert his power to serve the needs of Rome – as decisions he alone made. Brutus makes a similar choice to assassinate Caesar and save Roman democracy.
As an aside, Shakespeare’s words are perhaps also art from the past that can inform us, the Gathering, in our current merger deliberations. Shall we be bound in the shallows, or will we embrace the flooding tide to explore new possibilities?
Shakespeare plumbed the complexities of the human soul in his humanist centered art – art that sees us not as puppets but as masters of our fate. We choose evil or good. Do we succumb to our strong willed convictions and the arrogance of imperfect thinking, as did Caesar and Brutus, or do we listen to and negotiate with others of equally strong convictions? The tragedy of Julius Caesar is that he and others refused the higher ethic to understand, talk to and compromise with opponents. The story of human failure is one of competing and violent passions – Caesar against democracy; Brutus against Caesar who wanted to serve the poor and the marginal over a democratic but elitist culture.
Shakespeare’s written words define humanity as essentially good but also tempted by darker inclinations – to lust for power, for money, for the arrogance to assume one is right and all others wrong. Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear, Brutus – they are all characters in whom we can see ourselves – persons with often heroic intentions but who fall due to a lack of humility and empathy. Nevertheless, once again, existence is defined according to human terms, and not by the fiat of a mythic and callous god.
The other art form that defines who we are is music. And, as countless experts have asserted, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, particularly its fourth choral and instrumental movement, is considered the greatest and most influential piece ever composed. “Ode to Joy” is the classic piece that, in some ways, has been trivialized. One critic said that Beethoven was too successful in his musical expression of the joys of human brotherhood and sisterhood. The movement’s intricate and yet uplifting melody perfectly embodies what we universally think about our higher selves. Here are the words of the chorus, adapted by Beethoven from a poem by Fredrich Schiller.
Whoever has been lucky enough
to become a friend to a friend,
Whoever has found a beloved wife,
let him join our songs of praise!
Yes, and anyone who can call one soul
his own on this earth!
Any who cannot, let them slink away
from this gathering in tears!
Every creature drinks in joy
at nature’s breast;
Good and Bad alike
follow her trail of roses.
She gives us kisses and wine,
a true friend, even in death;
Even the worm was given desire,
and the cherub stands before God.
The words embody the humanist self-definition I assert is represented in all great art. Beethoven’s triumphal orchestral sounds evoke, without image or word, the goodness inherent in all people. His symphony is art at the highest expression. It is humanity’s exultant cry, much like the Indonesian cave painting. “We are beautiful by the mere fact we live. Our bond with the natural world is the joyous song of ages.”
I turn now from the truly sublime to what many of you might call the ridiculous – the modern art of Andy Warhol.
Even as his art is sometimes demeaned, his works have commanded some of the highest prices ever paid for paintings. They have equally been acclaimed as some of history’s most important artworks – even as they depict the seemingly mundane and common – a Campbell’s soup can or an altered image of Marilyn Monroe. Nevertheless, Warhol is considered an artistic genius precisely because his art depicted the popular and common. And that describes pop art in general. It is not art for the elites, but for the masses. It is not art in need of academic interpretation. It is the everyday object, image and common artifact that becomes, in all their ordinary appearance, high art. Warhol saw beauty and meaning in the things we value as modern humans; they are things we mass produce – articles representing the height of human achievement in science and industry. What is the image of Marilyn Monroe absent her fame in the wonder of film and TV? What is a Campbell’s soup can without the science of mass production? Warhol’s art does not revere the natural world. It reveres the manufactured world – that which humans by their own hands and reasoning have fashioned. These are artistic depictions of existence made possible by people – not nature and not God.
What we consider art is in the eye of the beholder. A painted black square on a white canvas is praised by many art critics. For me, a child could have painted the same. Fortunately, most of us perceive great art when we see it, hear it or read it. Such pieces do something to us. They excite our minds with all kinds of thoughts and emotions. They also provoke us to reflect about ourselves and about all humanity. Personally, I find the Indonesian cave painting of an arm and hand stunningly profound. It is the voice of the real Eve, the symbolic original human being. The hand reaches outward to us and to all eternity. “This human exists,” it seems to say. “This human comes with good intentions. She comes for a purpose – not as force of control and destruction – but to unite and build. Take my hand,” she says. “Share with me the delights of life and love, join me in both creating and succoring our sisters, brothers, sons and daughters. Together, we are one human family, bonded in the reality of this life, and destined to do wondrous things…”
I wish us all much peace and joy.