And there were men.
And they drew their escapades with the mammal kind.
Into clay tablets. To keep records.
Some were numbers. Others were sheep. Still other goats.
The Sumerians traveled to Egypt. They traded there.
And the Egyptians too recorded transactions.
Engraving stone they left to the eternity of the dead. For the trade of the living, they concocted dried sheets of mashed papyrus pulp.
On this paper, they marked symbols. Unlike the Sumerians’ cuneiform, their scribes evolved a more intricate script, hieroglyphs.
Pictograms we call them. Abstracted drawings that represent nouns, verbs, numbers.
An art to which the Chinese remain loyal to this day.
Along came the Hebrews. A nomadic nation. Until their enslavement. And upon freedom. In the dusk of their liberation they came upon a mountain, where word has it they received two tablets, containing five scrolls. And on those scrolls. The first phonograms.
Symbols that represent sounds. The sounds that Humanity makes to compose words. The words that we use to communicate thoughts, verbs, nouns, adjectives and beyond. There, the desert witnessed the birth of the first abstract language. The genesis of abstract thought.
While the Hebrews transmitted their laws from mouth to mouth, parchment to parchment, Egypt and Babylon saw their empires crumble. Greek philosophers gave way to Roman orators, Barbarian warriors to Christian emperors. The greatest libraries and temples of knowledge surrendered their treasures to destruction and warfare. And western civilization entered an era of ignorance and illiteracy.
Many the anonymous man was entrusted once again with the task of depicting scenes on walls. Not on the walls of caves or Roman villas, but on the walls of houses of worship.
Byzantine mosaics, paintings, sculptures, and friezes replaced the letter, removing from the masses an instrument of transmission. Now, they were left to commit history to memory, to collect their identity and recite it daily in song and in tales, lest it should disappear.
That is. Until. A man named Guttenberg appeared.
And slowly, a path was carved.
Man’s voice regained the means to run, fly, soar, far beyond expression, over a vast uncharted system of dissemination.
Democracy was re-born. The exchange of knowledge and experience threatened to render all men equal.
Today the means of dissemination have become accessible to more people than ever before. Democracy looms large and is accompanied by the broadening of identity [with the exception of certain bastions of academia, frontiers of knowledge, which remain sealed to those who cannot pay the price – but let’s not get sidetracked – we’ll save that for another article].
Once upon a time there was the artist.
Every man was the artist.
The artist was born out of a need to master the visual language of expression. He did so loyally. To him we owe our collective memory. To him we owe the ability to document history. To transmit identity.
But today. What will he document today?
Blurred territories? As the geographies of our identities merge into one.
Blurred soundscapes? styles? tastes?
As we pat, taste, see hear smell, pick and take, forming composite identities out of our mixed appreciation for culture … the global culture that includes every man’s history, every man’s geography … We are greedy in our quest for self. We trample the topography of time, leaving no rock of knowledge unturned, for perhaps underneath hides … our true identity.
And the artist watches. No longer every man. Rare now, among the myriad time travelers who would forgo documenting identity – the distinction between the self and other – to dredge the information highways for profit and adventure.
The artist abstracts to describe the blending of form until it no longer describes figures. He searches for a common, global iconography to describe how we’ve merged into one.
Some artists refrain from representation. They use time. Just time. Like Guiseppe Penone.
Who embeds a bronze cast of his own hand in the side of a tree and returns over and over, through the passage of 10 years to photograph, observe, and document the imprint he has left. Now only observable by piercing x-rays, that render transparent the tree’s mature membranes.
The layers of bark have embraced and enveloped Penone’s imprint and made him part of them.
Identities merged. Tree and man.
Other artists seek out ancient, universal languages of marking time. Like Doni Simons.
One. Two. Three. Four. Vertical lines. And Five. A diagonal bar.
A universal designation of the unit “Five”.
Perhaps derived from a thumb held, folded in, against the palm, with the remaining four digits stretching above it, erect, reaching straight upward.
She marks. Layers paint, ink, fabric. And unmarks. Removing paint, ink, thread.
She marks while allowing time to affect the marking.
Via the aging of the marks. Or the accumulation of them.
Or hers and others movements, as their gestures permute the markings in time, creating variations on the theme of “Five”.
Still other artists try to redefine the boundaries of our identity. Many of the distinguishing factors that separate cultures have disappeared.
Yet some artists-slash-chroniclers-of-time-slash-identity have happened upon a boundary that remains relatively less surmountable.
60 years ago, Jasper Johns, embarked upon a journey of such discovery, superimposing one number after the next. Digits. 0. 1. 2. 3. Through 9.
Creative ingenue Jean Cocteau, who would use film, in addition to drawing, to navigate the uncharted waters of the 20th century, said “I am neither an illustrator, or a painter. My drawings are handwriting untwined/un-knotted and re-entwined/retied otherwise”.
Enter the late Cy Twombly, artist and advocate of the evolution of the scrawl. The transformation of marks of communication, left by the human (versus robotic) hand. From legible and literate to scribble and doodle, Twombly drew our identities as they lost their ability to communicate with their most direct and immediate means, known even to pre-historic man.
Twombly perhaps perceived the written or drawn phonogram as lost. Or perhaps, his drawings conserved human touch, defiant, even in doodling, never accepting an end to the marking of the hand.
His work seems to ask: Has human identity surrendered to the machine?
But despite Twombly’s despair and defiance, in the face of Penone’s realism … Although Johns and Simons would find unified human identity in counting, transcendent of language, and Cocteau would manipulate photographic and cinematographic representation to play with every man’s illusion of the newly-irrelevant of documenting, some artists would remain faithful to an ancient identity.
David B. Wolk, a scribe of religious texts, in the tradition of the Hebrews, remains an artisan of tradition. Jewish kabbalah maintains that the Hebrew letters themselves are the building blocks, or the “DNA”, of the universe.
To Wolk, his work is simply that of all humanity, the emulation of the act of Genesis. A re-creation of creation. Not unsimiliar to the prayers uttered and re-uttered over the past several millenia, as Jews, dedicated and re-dedicated the Universe to its original creator.
Speaking of the universe, here’s a universal human habit: identity is transmitted by repeating similar vocal patterns, and manipulating one’s hand to trace, precisely, the same symbols for these sounds as one’s father’s did.
We find ourselves at sea in the relentless and uncharted waters of Globalization. This, our era, simultaneously proclaims every man an artist, while reserving the industry’s [yes, art – like everything else – has become an industry] greatest spoils for the masters of celebrity status and cult persona.
A short history of this phenomenon will segue us into the “coming soon” next article in this series.
During World War I, and again in World War II, scrawled drawings appeared behind enemy lines. ” X was here”, they said. The names varied from place to place. But one name stood out and re-appeared more frequently than the others. Kilroy.
Kilroy was a U.S. military ship parts inspector. A he inspected, he would scribble in chalk “Kilroy was here”, taking credit for a job well done. Soon, soldiers happened upon his autograph deep within the belly of these machines of war.
Earning their respect for having made his mark, in hard to reach places and garnering admiration for the multiplicity of his marks, Kilroy’s graffiti engendered the highest form of flattery: imitation. Soon a voyeuristic image accompanied the motto, “Kilroy” was drawn peeking over a wall, proclaiming that no place was beyond his dominion.
Today’s graffiti artists have taken on that challenge. Their work broadcasts the right of every individual. Ours is the right to mark where we’ve stood, sign our autograph, take credit or take blame. The most accessible way to personalize our mark in time and space? Our signature. No other like it.
As the speed of dissemination accelerates, it seems there is little room for Proust’s nostalgia. It seems that time past is indeed lost, and exponentially so with every moment it recedes in our collective rear-view mirror memory.
A question remains, lingering, not long, like a taste on our tongue, smell in the air …
Can we calibrate our individual rhythms to dance in harmony with one another? Can we replicate the same grace and agility with which we mark our own passage through time, territory, life in our interactions? Synchronize our passage with others’? As we leave our individual imprints on the topography of facebook, twitter, google +, and the very real streets of our cities, can we handle the output of 7 billion more “us”es?
Can human respect and dignity sustain the manic pace of our simultaneous output and preserve the heritage of the billions of lives lived and transmitted hence?
I warrant it can … but only time will tell.