Let’s say you’re a human sitting beside a fire in a cave, 17000 years ago. You hear your tribe talking about today’s hunt – the number of deer caught is decreasing each passing day, they’re considering relocating to higher ground, perhaps they will find more reindeer there. In that moment, would it occur to you to draw your memories of the hunt on a cave wall?
The mundane, the common, the incomplete. Can our imagination leap the familiar to fly into unfamiliar lands? Can it become art and transcend reality?
What purpose will it serve?
Perhaps you think of these dangerous beings of the forest as supernatural. A ritual can protect you from them. Maybe you’re not the superstitious type, but nevertheless want to teach your children various aspects of the hunt. When a question is asked about art’s purpose in a person’s life, there is never a dearth of answers. Some look at art as a means of escaping from a dismal and indifferent world, some others look at it as a means of communication, a sort of encrypted message sans mathematics sans symbols. However, the answer that satisfies me the most is expressed by Aristotle as thus –
“Art completes what nature cannot bring to a finish. The Artist gives us knowledge of nature’s unrealized ends.”
Nietzsche famously proclaimed that we must become Gods now that we’ve outgrown religion. He failed to understand that we have been trying to become Gods ever since we became capable of making art. Art is a way of bending reality to our will. It is an extension of our imagination that never tires of blaspheming against reality itself. Whether that bent reality gives us solace from this violent world or effectively communicates a certain point or is just there for the sake of it is entirely up to the beholder of that art, regardless of whether that beholder is the artist or someone else.
I bring this point up because it is the foundation stone of my answer to the question in the title. But before the house is built, let us all be a wayfaring youth and take a brief journey through the evolution of art.
Although our ancestors Homo Erectus left engravings on shells, and our cousins Neanderthals may have used animal teeth as jewelry, anthropologists believe that only the cave paintings drawn by humans some 20,000 years ago should be considered the first works of art created by us. They drew stags, bison and all animals they encountered in their hunts. The peculiarity of these art-forms arose from the fact that while the animals were drawn to sufficient detail and accurate scale, the humans themselves were represented through stick figures, indicating the sense of self wasn’t very well developed back then. These humans eventually invented agriculture and started organizing themselves into civilizations. These civilizations did a better job at depicting humans through bronze sculptures, but they never exactly looked like actual humans. They were more caricatures than reflection. Fast forward to Greece and we see the rise of idealism in art. We see sculptures of humans with perfect musculature and perfect body proportions.
With the rise of organized religions throughout the world, art became a tool, both as an enhancer of spiritual experiences as well as an advertiser for them. Then with the emergence of scientific enlightenment came a horde of rebellious artists who wanted to make art for its own sake. We see the emergence of movements such as impressionism, characterized by its emphasis on the interaction of light with its surroundings. As a reaction to that came more movements such as expressionism where reality is sacrificed to a great extent for the sake of expression. Finally, in the 20th century, movements such as surrealism, cubism, dadaism, et cetera forsake reality entirely. The modern artist of the 20th century sought to create something extremely original. So original you would wonder if there exists anything in the world that could have inspired it.
Let’s go back to that human, 17000 years ago. We were musing on why that human would want to create art. The crux of the matter is that that human was aware. That human would have used their conscious mind to create art. Consciousness is the basis of human existence. Modern art, however, tries to tap into the subconscious mind to create art. It is my firm conviction that the subconscious mind is not meant to create art. The subconscious mind is present in all animals, yet only humans create art. Sure elephants have been trained to draw flowers but they’re merely using their memory to do something they’re trained for, not create something original. The human mind created thousands of stories out of constellations, which in truth are just stars coincidentally arranged in certain patterns in the night sky. Is it really a surprise then that modern art, created out of the highly random subconscious mind, evokes meaning in the eyes of beholder?
Since modern art employs the subconscious, it should be called post humanist art – art that goes beyond its creator, the conscious mind of humans. Thus, I answer the question aforementioned in the title – Can art transcend reality? The answer is no. Constellations and modern art may be beautiful, but they’re not exactly art. The open-minded side of me does want to consider them art-forms in a certain eye, but they should be categorized very separately from other art.