There is something quite profound and humbling looking at an ancient artifact. This is also true with an architectural site that was constructed eons ago. Exploring these ancient places and relics is what I call mind-travel. It provides a spacial context for a temporal understanding of our past.
One of the functions of art is to provide a context for interpreting our world. Sometimes that interpretation is immediate. Sometimes the context develops over a long period of time. Art, at best, can do both by being responsive to time itself.
Another function of art is meaning. By using our intelligence and intuition to integrate the details of our experiences we can find meaning in art. All art is abstract no matter how realistic it may appear. What is real and not real is established from an interpretation we invent to simplify our lives. I believe, this process of simplification is how we find happiness. It can create a feeling of being completely satisfied in the moment where time escapes us.
We also cannot separate context from meaning. Context is always changing because of time and cultural tradition. The mosquito net of culture creates a buffer zone shielding us from things we are not ready to understand. If we can not create a context or if that thing has no meaning in any of our traditions, the object becomes inessential, an impostor to what we know to be true.
Another function of art is that of memory. There are many ways people form memories but culturally & historically our memories seem to be very short and exclusive. Art can be a story. Art can take us back in time. Art adds color, beauty and inspirational thought to our lives.
The last and most important function of art is play. It is vital to find the ability to play to create art. Art also encourages us to play to enjoy, understand and fully appreciate it. We sing and dance to music. We solve problems and discover new ideas by allowing ourselves to explore our curiosity. Something extraordinary can be created, invented or learned just through our ability to play. I believe it is one of the essential ingredient that allows culture to grow and change.
Recently we have seen historic art be brutally destroyed. I was told by an old friend, “…almost anything can be justified by history, it is so varied, not all of the same cloth. Even what ISIS is doing has its historical precedent in both the East and in the West.” And there are substantial examples throughout history of people disgusted with any iconic use of an image or object. But something else is going on here, I think. We do not live in a humpty dumpty world anymore. We honor our civilization by remembering history. We respect our past, our heritage. We can and will put the pieces back together again. In fact, we do it all the time. With our modern technology we fabricate copies of historical artifacts in every detail. It is hard to tell which one is the copy and which one is the so called “real” one. So what’s the point ISIS? I am sure ISIS is aware of this. So it is pretty clear that these theatrical events that ISIS is so proud of are just an idle worship of destruction itself.
What ISIS doesn’t seem to understand is that the purpose of historical preservation is not for idle worship and never has been. Civilization has come a long way but history has also showed that people have short memories. We still haven’t got it right yet. Throughout human history we repeat the same atrocities over and over again. But violence is never a solution for anything. Through written documents, old ruins and artifacts we can get a glimpse of history. We want to learn from our mistakes, grow from our accomplishments and be a kinder, wiser and more compassionate civilization.
Objects in particular take on an identity of their own separate from any intentional iconic meaning they might of had in the past. These artifacts in many ways are nothing more than a hollow shell wiped clean of most of the secrets they once contained. We pull these hand-made objects into our existing culture. Give them a new frame, context and some kind of meaning according to our impressions of something we really never knew. We treat them as an artistic object admiring scale, the sense of detail, the material and craftsmanship. We look for any clues that might of been missed that could reveal its purpose. Who made this? we ask. Yes, many of these artifacts do come with a story but it is foreign to us, always incomplete and outside of our cultural buffer zone.
Precariously, time is on arts side. ISIS is only destroying shadows from the old humpy, dumpy world that we keep re-assembling and will continue to do so no matter what. The truth is there are many cultures in this world and many roads on our journey. No one group has a cornerstone on anyone’s path.
Place not thy heart on what passes away; for the Tigris
Will flow after the Khalifs have passed away in Baghdad.
If thou are able, be liberal like the date tree,
And if thy hand cannot afford it, be liberal like the cypress.
Saadi Shirazi (ch 08, maxim 81)