I am a soldier, so that my son may be a farmer, so that his son may be an artist.
– John Adams, Second President of the United States
At the pinnacle of human achievement reside the arts. It is a revered space they rightly share with philosophy, science, and learning. These accomplishments became possible and flourished when our ancestors made the leap from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. Anthropologists agree that civilization as we know it would not have been possible without effective and productive agricultural practices.
We see the evidence throughout history. As societies expanded they sent mapmakers along with their armies to survey, conquer, and hold new territories. Surveyors and mapmakers? Well, yes. In order to have effective farming free from poachers and neighboring raiding parties, you must first establish the boundaries and borders of the property that you claim is under your control, jurisdiction, and protection. Clearly, the thinking went, a society’s growth, sustainability, and survival are dependent upon it.
Only when mankind was relieved of the time-consuming burden of following herds of wild animals to hunt and the laborious foraging of fruit, nuts, and vegetables, did the loftier milestones of written language, advanced mathematics, and art for art’s sake become possible.
Sure, music and artwork existed in prehistoric human cultures. They were, however, necessary tools devised and used to preserve and archive knowledge via visual aids, song, dance, and transgenerational oral tradition long before the advent of written language. After written language was finally developed and adopted, music and song were able to evolve from a basic system of cataloging and documentation into something much more ambitious.
Art became a celebratory looking glass into the human condition.
As Marshall McLuhan noted, “The artist must ever play and experiment with new means of arranging experience, even though the majority of his audience may prefer to remain fixed in their old perceptual attitudes.” Art can be difficult. It can be challenging and as McLuhan also observed, it is a “distant early warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen.”
Art should be celebrated. It should be enjoyed, studied, discussed, and preserved. We have critics, museums, libraries, and institutions of higher learning that do just that. Purists would argue that it should not be a popularity contest governed by an audience more concerned with the comfort of familiarity than the advancement of one of our species’ greatest achievements.
Halls of fame, battles of the bands, and televised talent contests do not celebrate art. They are often a monetized modern bread and circuses production designed for mass consumption and entertainment. Not that there is anything wrong with this so long as one maintains a realistic expectation of what these constructs are and what they are not.
They are not the hallowed ground of cherished human artistic endeavors. I challenge anyone who doubts this to locate the wing of the Louvre where the “Lightning Leonardo DaVinci vs. Michaelangelo The Merciless” installation resides.
So Bon Jovi beat Radiohead in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame’s 2017 annual fan vote. Is the outcome of this popularity vote really such a surprise?
It shouldn’t be. And as Thom Yorke once sang, “After years of waiting/After years of waiting nothing came/And you realize you’re looking/Looking in the wrong place.”
Charles H. Root, III
8 December 2017
South Wales, NY