My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
November 19, 2002


To editors, cartoons are extra. All art is.
There's no reason you have to have cave paintings.
You have to kill the dinosaur, you have to have fire,
but you don't have to have cave paintings.

Doug Marlette. "Editorial Cartoonists: An Endangered Species?" Media Studies Journal

In theory, those editors are right: we should be able to survive without art, without music, without storytelling. In theory, human needs can be stripped down to food and water (enough by itself for people whose croplands and springs have dried up and blown away), and shelter -- a roof against the elements, a barrier between you and lurking predators. In colder climates you'd need fire and clothing, too. Add family as well, because we are born too weak and ignorant to fend for ourselves.

In theory, those editors are right. We have no rational physical need for cave paintings, or for music or poetry or storytelling. It's just that anthropologists have found no culture so poor and desperate that it doesn't have them.

Some impulse takes us beyond the bare bone requirements of existence so that our ancestors didn't just mold clay into an amphora to carry wine, they decorated it with pictures of animals and flowers and gods. A church needs no more than walls and a roof to fulfill its mission, but that doesn't stop us from adding spires and stained glass, statues and incense, an organ and a choir. We need no more than bare stitchery to hold our clothes and blankets and quilts together, but we add embroidery and carved buttons and cute appliqued giraffes. A plain box-shaped house will meet our actual needs, but we add gables and bay windows and parquet floors, and then we rearrange nature to choose and order the flowers and shrubs and trees that will surround us. Our babies need diapers and bottles, but we also give them teddy bears.

Of course you could argue that poetry and storytelling are essential survival skills. We need to give our children knowledge to protect them, and while there are many ways of doing that, we know that stories and poetry makes the knowledge memorable -- red sky at morning, sailors take warning, the plodding ant survives the winter while the heedless dancing grasshopper does not. At the most basic level pictures offer survival information as well, allowing us to show others which animals are predators, which protein, which plants are edible, which poisonous. Drama can be a way of showing what the world's rules are, and what happens to those who break them.

But the little boy drawing in the earth with a stick while singing silly made up words is not interested in information but in play. He's caught up in the sheer pleasure of mastery. Jane Siberry says, "it isn't art, it's self-defense/if it captures him, he has to capture it back." So he spends hours in total transfixed concentration, figuring out how to control a tool and make it show what's inside his head.

Because like all of us, he's learned very early that nobody sees the world exactly as he does; what seems simple and obvious to him is a totally novel or wrongheaded notion to his mother or father. Whether we believe we are right and must convince everybody else, or that we are all blind men examining an elephant, each with a portion of the truth, we seem driven to show others what the world looks like to us.

That little boy is also enchanted by the tangible result: the dirt looked one way before he started drawing, and another way when he was finished. He knows that in his own small way, he made a dent in the universe.

That need to make the world acknowledge our presence seems every bit as basic as our drive for food and water. As the only species that realizes we must die, we leave our signature to force the world to remember us. We pass on the stories of our tribe -- our loves, our hatreds, our years of wandering in the desert. In poetry and drama and paintings we tell about the gods who loved us and the tricksters who deceived us. With rock paintings and skyscrapers and tombstones and "Kilroy was here," we demand the world's respect. Though we may be such things as dreams are made on, we are "the hungry ghosts, crying remember me, remember me."*

In the process, we change the world that surrounds us -- but we also change how our descendants will understand that world. If our stories always tell of our tribe's brutal victimization by another, our children cannot view the other except through the lens of grievance. Once the impressionists showed us how light disassembles and restructures colors and cathedrals and irises, we could never unsee those images, never again view the world as solid and immutable. Once we have heard the Bach B Minor Mass or seen the Chartres Cathedral, we cannot unimagine the grandeur of God with which they are infused. Once we have read Dilbert and Pogo and Vonnegut and Doonesbury, we can no longer view our institutions and our leaders as wholly sane; art, after all, is often about speaking truth to power.

And sometimes, art has no greater justification -- and needs none -- than sheer playfulness. Maybe you make up a poem with three syllable rhymes because it's a challenge and it's funny and people clap if you pull it off. Or it might be a way of answering the IF questions: you're wondering what would happen if humans had to compete with plants on an equal basis, and so you write a story like The Day of the Triffids to figure it out. Sometimes we do it just because it's cute -- the instinct for AWWW may be just as ingrained as the instinct for awe.

But whatever our motives for it, our kind has been making art for the whole of recorded history -- in fact, our history IS our art. Which suggests that the editors are wrong. We DO need cave paintings, and the need for them, the urge to create the world anew and reorder it in our image, is as basic a need as food and shelter. Maybe, by creating the illusion that we are in control, what our art is really doing is making the world safe for reality.

* from "Dust and Shadows," by Shriekback

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