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Category Archives: art

Metamorphosis 1

In the course of human evolution, the transformation from Bhimbetka to Ajanta is a mere flash in the pan. If it took 4.5 billion years to get to the first cave paintings, it only took another 2000 years to blossom into the art of the Ajanta Cave paintings.

But note the presumptuousness here- I almost said it aloud- that Ajanta is more “evolved”.

Are we sure? What was the purpose of Bhimbetka? Instruction? Maybe. Celebration? Possibly.

We are not sure if the cave paintings were meant to guide young students in the art of hunting. If such was the purpose, then the first instruction manuals far predate accepted ideas regarding manuals. We normally accept that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the first “manual” (yes the RTFM kind). It was a treatise on operating the Astrolable, written for his son.

Interesting. Some would consider the astrolable to be the first computer the world ever had.

Check this link:

http://www.tomwujec.com/?p=1237

So to get back to our early cave painting. Suppose they were instructions. Then this could be our first Audio-visual education system. Imagine the audio from the aged presenter, relating the process. And then, add to that his story of how he did it when he was young. And you’ve got storytelling, celebration, oral tradition, transfer of knowledge and graphic design all thrown into one neat little multimedia package.

In the degrees of abstraction, we accept that design, or plan, (as in floor plans) is the most practical form of art, moving through architecture, sculpture, painting, dance and music into more and more abstract forms. We also naturally tend to believe that the more abstract forms must have evolved later, the more practical forms having arrived earlier.

But if storytelling, visual communication, instruction and planning all came in one package, then those boundaries or degrees of abstraction that we ascribe to the arts may have been all fuzzy and meaningless in the context of history, time-lines and evolution.

In the early stone age, hominids would rely upon found pieces of stone or other objects to fulfill their objective. These were the first “tools”- no different from the kind of utilization you would find today amongst chimpanzees. In due course our ancestors learnt to shape flint into sharp objects for the purposes of scraping, cutting, digging. Thus the earliest stone age tools were so created. Even so, the stone tools remained stone pieces.

The transformation began when the first stone-age axe was built. For the first time, here was an example of a design. A plan that is now transformed into a constructed product. Stone + wooden handle. It is the implementation of an internal thought. It is no longer a stone, no longer a stick. It is far greater than the sum of the parts- it is the execution of a “plan”, a thought.

In the scale of “abstractness” that we use today, this “plan” and its realization, is pretty low- in the sense that it is a design, and a mere tool. But as a milestone in the evolution of human intelligence, it is a giant leap from “adaptation” to “creation”- a metamorphosis into abstraction.

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The Sum of the Arts

One of the things that sets man apart from creature, is our ability to use language.

There are three languages we use.
Speech and writing are essentially verbal languages.
Art is a visual language.
Mathematics is a symbolic language.

Our education is strongly biased towards learning the verbal language, at the expense of the other two.

We start with “C-A-T Cat B-A-T Bat”. Then we go on to learn longer words and sentences.
In school we learn our pronouns and prepositions, punctuations and paragraphs.

But Perspective?
Color theory?
Rule of one-thirds in composition?
How about negative space?

The problem is, we spend all our time learning to analyze, understand and produce the verbal language during our growing years. Visual language and communication take a back seat. The art teacher is a fish out of water, a lonely man struggling against the current, never taken seriously. As a subject, art is an optional, an elective. Or the art class is a relief- a break from the “serious” subjects.

The consequences are disastrous- we become visually stunted. Most of us are unable to communicate visually.
We lose out on the seriously huge potential of using art to communicate and express.
And then we are made to believe that art is the domain of a privileged few- the God-gifted.
Nonsense.
Had we taken as much care to understand chiaroscuro, as we did to learn comprehension, we might have been an entire community of artists.

The greatest despair, however, is not that we are not all Rembrandts or Gauguins.
It is that we fail to use the most powerful medium of communication- the visual, to express and convey.

Begin 0

Have you seen this picture before?
Can you possibly take a guess who the artist might be?
Okay, which period?

If you ask me, it looks pretty “today”. I mean, this could be a digital-oil paint hybrid. Or maybe a piece created completely in Corel Painter.

Shockingly though, it is a prehistoric cave painting from Gua Twet in Borneo. They are stencils of human hands, made by placing the hand against the wall and then blowing a mixture of red ochre and water around them.

Those guys must have been high!

We almost believe evolution started with the iPad. Or maybe it started with the Beatles and LSD.
But then how do you explain the cave art in Lascaux, or Bhimbetka, or Borneo?

Did we become intelligent when we invented the wheel? Discovered how to make fire? When did it all begin?

What is intelligence?

Carl Sagan said that intelligence is the tendency of an organism to control its environment for the purposes of survival. By that definition, intelligence must have started with the first appearance of life. Even the single-celled amoeba moves away when the environment turns acidic. That’s intelligence at the basic level. It tries to acquire a better environment. (Although I can’t say we show the same level of intelligence in dealing with our environment).

Without intelligence, a species cannot survive. It cannot continue to exist through the hurdles of “Natural Selection” and “Survival of the Fittest”- the two strongest tenets of evolution. If intelligence is about survival, then it is the central facet of evolution. It transformed  us from hunter-gatherers to community dwellers. It gave us our domestic hearth. It gave us our literature, art, mathematics and medicine. All that we do or have done, is guided by the sole purpose of the survival of the species.

At one end of the intelligence spectrum lies the amoeba, at the other, the human brain.

The Gua Twet painting depicts the journey of a Shaman into the spiritual
world. The picture is in the public domain.