The oldest known artwork can be seen in a cave in Spain. It consists of one red dot placed on a cave wall about 40,800 years ago. Surrounding it are images of human hands, placed on the cave wall a mere 37,300 years ago. Even after thousands of years of progress, the urge to make art is just as recognizable to people now as it was then. Perhaps after our species has gone extinct, our art may be the only part of us that survives.
Art is not entirely a human endeavor. Male bower birds of Australia create bowers or small structures that serve as a display gallery for their collections of bright objects, flowers and feathers. Chimpanzees and elephants willingly paint obscure designs when offered paint, brush and paper. Bees and wasps create perfectly hexagonal cells while termites create towers that cannot be reproduced by human architects. But human art has been the only art that has survived so long and not just because we discovered climate controlled storage.
Quest for Immortality
Many ancient pieces of what we now call art served a religious or cultural significance. Cave paintings of animals are thought to have been a type of magic spell, where creating the images would call the animals to their hunters. Many small statues of a heavily pregnant, faceless woman honored the mystery of fertility and may have served as good luck charms. What they chose to represent and how they did so tells us how advanced their cultures were.
Ancient humans were just as aware of their mortality as modern humans. By creating an image that lasts long after the artist dies, a part of that artist continues to live on for generations to come. It is a way for humans to become immortal. The great art of Egypt, preserved so well for thousands of years because of the country’s low humidity, is all about individuals questing to become immortal.
Art and Affluence
Art is a luxury, although great artists like Vincent Van Gogh would have argued that art was a necessity. Art that has survived countless wars and natural disasters have only done so because someone really rich had taken an interest in it. Only the most affluent ruling classes to commission artists to make tombs, statues, murals or other pieces of artwork.
But even the poorest classes will still create art. Although this art usually does not survive, I does show that the need to create art is a vital part of what makes us human.