The Human Condition:

The Roots of Art in Civilization – January 31, 2016

New York at night without lights

Several people on Facebook have recently posted a quote from Eli Broad, founder of The Broad Museum: “Civilizations aren’t remembered by their business people, bankers, or lawyers. They’re remembered by their arts.” My immediate response was: “Yes, but merchants, bankers, and lawgivers usually create the stable, civilized conditions under which art can be made and enjoyed.” And I’ve been thinking about that idea for a while since then.

Trade, access to capital, and stable, predictable laws are certainly conditions for pursuing art, great or otherwise. It’s difficult to paint and sell pictures without enough of an economy flowing through your city, state, or country to enable people to buy your art, or for gallery owners and museum curators to arrange places for people to see it. You also need banking services to enable gallery owners to operate as a business—paying out in advance for rent, utilities, commissions, and sales staff—and for patrons to amass enough disposable income to consider acquiring your art. And you need the stability of predictable laws ensuring your rights to the intellectual property embedded in your art, guaranteeing the right to ownership and retention of property in general for your patrons, and enabling transactions among individuals and institutions.

These civilizational requirements apply even more strongly to music composition, which until recently needed a group of people who sing and play instruments at least semi-professionally to get together in one place to perform or record your work. The requirements also apply to playwrights and screenwriters,1 who need the support of a theater company or a production studio to see their scripts presented or produced. Only the poet, short story writer, or novelist can work in relative isolation, cranking out daily word counts that might never see the light of day, regardless of the external economic conditions. Even if the economy is healthy enough to support any number of printing presses and publishing houses, access to the literary market has always been restricted by the publishing gatekeepers.2 Certainly, Emily Dickinson seemed content to write her poems on the back of shopping lists and put them in a drawer, except for the few works she circulated among family and friends.

But what other conditions are required for creating art, particularly great art?

You might think a general condition of peace would sustain the painter, composer, or writer. And certainly it is difficult to produce an object like a painting or a mural, a musical score or studio recording, or a novel either in manuscript form or epub coding while the bombs are falling around you and soldiers are raking the streets with gunfire. But one needs to consider the difference between peace as an opportune time for creativity, due to a lack of imminent personal violence, and peace as a suitable subject for contemplation and the artistic process.

Other than for landscape painters, pastoral composers, and modern activist writers, peace has always made a relatively poor subject for artistic expression. War and its lesser conflicts have given humanity more to work with in the form of divided loyalties, opposing passions, hard choices, and the clarity of mind that imminent death can bring. Peace is a long, golden afternoon where nothing much happens and we have time to drink wine and play with puppies—or paint pictures, compose songs, and write poetry. War, its dreaded approach, and its dreadful aftermath, place the human soul inside a landscape of stark contrasts, confused expectations, and troubling choices. Virgil, entering a golden age under Augustus after decades of strife and civil war in Rome, turned his artistic vision back to the trials of the warrior Aeneas as he escaped from the Trojan War to wander the Mediterranean, captured and spurned the heart of the Carthaginian queen Dido, and then waged a new war in Italy in order to found an empire.

Conflict, drama, forced decisions—these are the basis of so many stories. Even love stories are, underneath, tales of conflict between two people with similar but not quite identical aims and the obstacles they face. Romeo and Juliet without the animosity of Tybalt and the warring history of the Montagues and the Capulets would be a work of five minutes full of teenage hormones. And the recently popular mood of basing stories in the “hero’s journey”3 throws the protagonist more often into physical trials and tests than into exploring the inner workings of his or her own mind.

A time of social dynamism is also necessary to great art. War and civilizational conflict can provide that dynamism, but so also can the rise of a new religion, the disruptions of new ideas and inventions, and the collapse of the long-held order that was once made possible by those merchants, bankers, and lawyers. Of course, social dynamism may be war and conflict by other means. Religions establish and distinguish themselves by contrast and conflict with earlier belief systems. New ideas and inventions create disruption precisely because they upset traditional values, established players, and formerly profitable ways of doing business. And the collapse of a civilization, whether through internal systemic failure or external challenge, often brings on a state of war and conflict.

The “culture wars” this country is currently going through—sometimes called a “cold civil war”—are based on a clash of ideals and intentions, between those people for whom the march of progress, with its promise of change toward a better, more utopian order, is not happening fast enough and those people for whom what has gone before, with its traditional values and proven methods, still has the power to provide stability and order. These conflicts have been a particularly rich source of material for modern writers and artists.

Another source of artistic stimulation is population dynamics. Having lots of babies and so an assured supply of young people seems to be good for art. People tend to reproduce both when they think the future will be promising and stable, as in the great fecundity this country experienced with the “Baby Boom” after the rigors and uncertainties of the Great Depression and World War II. But people also tend to breed—to cast their genetic futures with the dice—when times are uncertain. The thought that you might not be around next year or the one after to settle down and raise a family can be a powerful promoter of survivalist urges. Most of us know, or suspect deep down, that while our own bodies are perishable and short-lived, our children, their children, and the generations to follow can make us practically immortal—or as immortal as mortality gets.

A young society is a dynamic society, full of new words, new personal styles, and new traditions as the adolescents push away from their parents to establish themselves in the world. A young society is full of hope and conflict, and that’s part of the power of the current crop of young adult literature and coming of age stories. The “hippie movement” and the “counter culture” of the 1960s were fine examples of this, with their outpouring of new ideas about religion, morality, and conflict, along with new hair and clothing styles, new freedoms in the arts of painting, music, and literature, and a reinterpretation of sexual codes that in the 20th century were still evolving from the restraints of the Victorian Era.

A society dominated by the elderly, where the young are in the minority and older, more established adults are hanging onto power and privilege, is a society that is already freezing into settled patterns and stale outlooks. And a society where the demographics have tipped toward the very old, such as in modern Japan, is a society on the verge of collapse and extinction. The stories, songs, and paintings from such places would be very dull indeed—right up until the end, of course, when new conflicts will create new stories and songs.

No, civilizations may best be remembered for their arts, but that art doesn’t happen without the rest of us to foster and support it. And yet civilizations in transition, especially those on the cusp of failure, may produce the greatest art of all.

1. Isn’t it interesting that “playwright” uses the ancient form “wright,” which comes from the Old English wryhta, meaning “worker” and is usually attached to “millwright” and “shipwright” to mean a worker in wood. It’s as if the playwright is carving the story out of an inanimate block of words in time. On the other hand, “screenwriter” goes directly to the modern action of “creating in words.”

2. Until now, when access to direct ebook and print-on-demand distribution has opened the field to any author wanting to publish his or her work. But these services rely even more on stable economic conditions, rights to intellectual property, and the existence of that great information and economic collaboration, the internet.

3. With a tip of the hat to scholar and mythmaker Joseph Campbell.