Ars Longa

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Lascaux cave painting

I was reading an article in techdirt by a musician who copes with music piracy by selling “attractive physical objects.” I’m not going to tackle the problem of artistic piracy, though as a writer—one offering my words for free at the moment—it is one I worry about a lot. What struck me was that he said, “In the broad historical perspective music is frivolous non-work and we are lucky to have time to make it at all.”

His historical perspective is not nearly broad enough. Certainly it’s always been true that not every person who so desires can make a living, or any recompense at all, by being a musician or artist; even in the caveman days, there must have been those who were told to stop drawing on the walls. But this is true of any craft or profession. Not everyone can dig ditches either.

There are interesting arguments to be made about certain kinds of activity being inherently frivolous—the froth and foam of the financial sector springs to mind—but music, art, poetry, etc, do not fall into this category. Without them we would have no culture at all; no “attractive physical objects” nor even any unattractive ones (not counting the sticks monkeys use to pull termites from their nests).

Art makes culture. It’s a frightening time when even artists have forgotten this. When pundits call on Obama to “bring back the poetry,” poets may cringe at that use of the word, but it is a very telling one. Poetry and language are indissoluble. One can say poetry evolved from language, but many believe it was the other way around; that the first language was the creation (discovery) of poetry: words as names, raw as flesh, full of all that cannot be said, teaching the pleasure of verbal rhythm. Only slowly was language teased and flattened into performing other functions.

This is true of all the arts. Material goods and shelter, trade agreements, legal and political systems, religion: all these elements of culture depend on the original creation of culture through art, the continuing maintenance of culture through art, and most important for the point I’m making, popular respect for art. To imagine we can have a prosperous nation without this maintenance and respect is like the Chinese believing they could become a powerful nation by severing bonds of family, community and faith (not to mention art). Only when they quietly abandoned those practices did China start fulfilling its potential. In this country we’re taking a more erratic path. That sentence I quoted above haunts me. “In the broad historical perspective…” Being well into middle age, it’s my turn to say, “What on earth are they teaching kids these days?”


Struck a pair of stones to start off. Left behind
ten men curled like scythes round the fire.
Left behind the bracing moon. Passed a pack
of ibex, passed the mammoth. Left the carious
canines before the rath, left the scapula—
freed space for petal dyes, for fixatives.
Passed (in a dream) Chauvet. Alsace. Lorraine.
Past the scree, past the wolf standing sentinel, her
mouth. Struck two stones to hearten the blaze,
sped up; pulled from the sack the manganese, the gilt
mixture of ochre and ore, the animal fat,
the deer bristle. The hare I speared fresh
for better reds. Mash of berries in a rolled frond.
Looked back—still breathing, still lone, set
bone to the bare wall: summoned up the aurochs
in a dervish turn, flank hot with lashes, all hot with dying and kneeling
down. Then nothing. Then the quiet
credit of our kind.

-Joseph Spece


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