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Painting the Walls

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Being an artist of the everyday.

Suppose for a moment that every human being is an artist. For the sake of argument, let’s be specific — a visual artist painting on a cave wall, as our human ancestors did forty and fifty thousand years ago.

Blank canvas, as it were for both the human and the cave walls. There’s no past to live up to — no art classes; no coffee table books full of work we can’t remotely create. Blank canvas.

Now, what do we as artists paint on the cave walls?

Do we mirror our surroundings, the flora and fauna, in an attempt to get the look as real as possible? After all, cameras and smart phones haven’t been invented, so if we don’t paint it, it won’t be preserved.

Or do we depict the dead — the remembered faces of those we care about now gone to somehow preserve their memory against the ravages of time?

Or do we paint figures that reflect an inner mood, emotions?

Might we try to draw the unsayable? The stories that we tell around the fire concerning a world we can’t see with human eyes? Is there such a place?

Or do we tire of thinking and merely reproduce the pre-existing cliches — the doxa — of the tribe, passing on to posterity some of the gossip that humans are prone to?

One thing I think is fairly certain: the artists in such a situation will not be attempting to express individuality. That won’t make sense or even occur to anyone until over-abundance begins to atomize people. The concept of the atomized individual is a concept born of plenty and safety. And that’s not what our human forebears lived with.

No. I think that our pictures on the cave walls are going to be about us . . . our group; the human beings we depend upon and care about and what we do with our lives.

My hunch is that the artists would attempt to express some of the most important things to the tribe. The most important things being what we call “sacred.” It’s not a guess — that’s what we see on cave walls — reverence and gratitude for the sacred. But, the sacred on the cave walls looks fairly mundane, doesn’t it?

The surviving paintings depict the web of existence surrounding the artists and the tribe and the things that the people do in the web of existence. There are paintings of the hunt; of sacred dances.

So far as I know, there there aren’t any cave paintings of people painting in caves. Again, that self-reflexivity piece is the art that comes from a time of plenty. People living on the edge, as our ancestors did, stay grateful and see “the sacred” not as a disembodied something-or-other out in space somewhere. But rather, right here, right now. Today. Among those who we care about and who care about us.

Being that kind of artist is being an artist of ourselves. Looking at the mundane, the ordinary, and seeing how extraordinary existence itself is, down to the minutest detail. 

Try it today. Be an artist outside of tradition and orthodoxy. Be an artist of yourself.

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