I’m pausing the writing blog this week to ponder a question that does involve writing, but not writing alone. Last weekend I visited several art galleries, to ask when they are having openings, as I wanted to go and meet some of the artists. In one of the galleries, I got into a discussion with the woman working there about art and civilization. I’m not sure exactly how that conversation got started, but that’s how I am. I’ll talk about stuff like that.
In the conversation, I told her an idea I’ve mentioned before on this blog, that I think human beings could become civilized some day, and if we do, it will be because of art. Whether art could be the path that leads us there, for her, was a moot point, as she declared a belief that we are not capable of being civilized.
Her view was something along the lines of “People are too inherently bad” to ever really be civilized. I can’t disagree about human capacity for badness. The physical nature of our existence, with all its discomfort, pain, and distress (and that’s if you have a good life), combined with our spirits that rebel against those things, can lead us—very easily—into abusing one another as well as ourselves. It is as though, just because we are born, we thrash about angrily: “What the fuck is this? I don’t want to be sick! I don’t want to be lonely! I don’t want to grow old!”
That basic dilemma cannot be changed. Does it mean, then, as my art gallery interlocutor said, that human beings will not ever attain civilization?
I replied that in the long run, I think we can. I don’t say definitely will, but can. And when I say “long run” I mean something like a thousand years from now. That sounds impossibly distant to us, but after all, such a time will come. I do believe that art will be the path, by which I mean real art, not propaganda produced by government or corporations, but creations from the heart.
Some forms of art we’ve known for centuries, even thousands of years: epic poetry, songs, dances, theater, sculpture. Based on some of these early forms of art, other forms have been invented in recent centuries: novels, opera, symphonic music, graphic novels, movies. There certainly are artforms yet to come. And of course there are things like architecture, gardening, interior design, clothing, that can be art as well. A joy of creation can be expressed in many ways.
If we can become civilized (which we so obviously are not at the moment), what would that be? I can’t see a thousand years ahead, so I don’t know all that might be done. This is a good spot to use a quote I wrote down a couple of nights ago, lying now on my desk, from a song by Ryan Adams: “You can’t see tomorrow with yesterday’s eyes.”
I have yesterday’s eyes, but one thing I know absolutely, that the most basic aspect of civilization will be that every human being is valued for who they are born to be, that every human is allowed to express their nature and feel joy in their own existence. So much of the stupidity that litters our own society at the moment, in our bigoted attitudes toward what we call “race”, toward ethnicity, toward gender, toward sexuality—a civilized people will have to look at us with pity for the darkness we live in. As long as we live in that darkness, we don’t care that some people are poor, that some people are hungry, that some have no health care, that some are afraid others will harm them.
I have hope, however. I will say it in an art gallery. I will say it on a blog. Because of art we will get there. If you have an urge to create, then do it, and don’t wait. Paint a picture. Plant a garden. Decorate your living room the way you really want it to look. And encourage your children.