Why Make Art?

It's in our blood - the compulsion to create has been with us since the beginning of time.
From adze to iPhone; cave art to Pixar, our creative industry has come a long way. Of course the journey hasn't made everyone vast sums of money, so if not for the cash, why the compulsion? Why make art? 

“Because I would explode if I didn’t” writes one artist, “Because I have to” writes another.  But why is this? Why will humans explode if we don't make art? What other animal on planet earth cares? Mr Attenborough? Anyone?

Lyle D Rosdahl submits that our “drive to create… is what makes us human.” Numerous other contributors share variations on this sentiment. In other words, humans appear to be inherently creative. Birds can't help themselves flying, or fish from swimming or monkeys climbing and we humans can't seem to stop creating.

According to the Bible, the first man was perfect, made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Luke goes so far as to call Adam the Son of God (Luke 3:38). In his allegorical novel, Voyage to Venus (1), C.S. Lewis paints a word picture of the dawn of history. He makes Adam resemble Jesus Christ. This is not far-fetched, for just as Christ, on earth in human form, was sinless, so Adam for a time, was sinless too. Lewis writes,

It was a face which no man can say he does not know. You might ask how it was possible to look upon it without idolatry, not to mistake it for that of which it was a likeness. For the resemblance was, in its own fashion, infinite, so that almost you could wonder at finding no sorrows on his brow and no wounds in his hands and feet. Yet there was no danger of mistaking, not one moment of confusion, no least sally of the will towards forbidden reverence. Where likeness was greatest, mistake was least possible. Perhaps this is always so. A clever waxwork can be made so like a man that for a moment it deceives us; the great portrait which is far more deeply like him does not. Plaster images of the Holy One may before now have drawn to themselves the adoration they were meant to arouse for the reality. But here, where his living image, like him within and without, made by his own bare hands out of the depth of divine artistry, his masterpiece of self portraiture coming forth from his workshop to delight all worlds, walked and spoke, it could never be taken for more than an image. Nay, the very beauty of it lay in the certainty that it was a copy, like and not the same, a rhyme, an exquisite reverberation of untreated music prolonged in a created medium.

In his article, Man in the Image of God, Prof. J Rendle asks what Man in the image of God means in practical terms? It cannot refer to bodily, biological form since God is a Spirit and man is earthly. But while it may be true that the body does not belong to the image, since God does not have a body, yet somehow we would like to see man’s body (which is a very real part of man) included in the image. Language and creativity,—two important parts of the image, are impossible without a body.

We can think of man as placed halfway between God and the animals, possessing characteristics of each. Physiologically and anatomically man is an animal. He even shares the genetic code with them. Evolutionists call him a human primate. Much of his behaviour is controlled by Pavlovian conditioned reflexes. The main impact of the image is that God endues man with some of his divine attributes (language, creativity, love, holiness, immortality and freedom), thereby separating and making him different from the beasts.

According to Arthur Koestler, The emergence of symbolic language, first spoken, then written, represents the sharpest break between animal and man. (2)

Dolphins and whales are said to “talk” and use a type of radar. A sophisticated example of animal communication is the “waggle-dance” of bees. A bee finding a succulent honey flower tells its fellows in the hive the whereabouts of the flower by performing a “waggle-dance.” This imparts two items of information: first the direction. Here the sun is used as a fixed direction point, and the dance made in relationship to it. Secondly the distance from the hive to the flower is shown by the number of waggles in the dance.

Another form of language has been ascribed to Sarah, a chimpanzee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She uses plastic symbols to convey such messages as, “I want an apple.” But this is as far as she can go. Despite large sums of research money, no animal has raised communication above the concrete, here-and-now situation to penetrate the realm of the abstract. Even primates given all possible opportunities for developing speech, including a loving and idealistic human linguistic environment, fail to develop true oral speech. Only man communicates by speech and writing, and this he has done from the dawn of history.

“The acquisition of language is the most brilliant achievement of the human brain,” according to Dennis Fry in his book, Homo Loquens, Man the Talking Animal.”(3) To utter a word, the infant has to coordinate breathing with delicate movements of palate, tips and tongue. Displacement by a fraction of a millimeter gives a different sound. In order to communicate he has to amass information concerning vocabulary, syntax, the phonetic system, grammar, rhythm patterns and intonation.

Animals are not creative. They endlessly reproduce a stereotyped design. A particular spider constructs a web of constant pattern. The song of a bird is species specific, or mimicry of another bird or human. No originality is demonstrated.

Man alone can reason and act upon his original thoughts. John Steinbeck puts it this way:

“The last clear function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—that is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam: to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from the conceiving. For man, unlike anything organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments . . . . And this you can know—fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.” (4)

Footnotes
1. Lewis, C.S., Voyage to Venus. London Pan Books, 1955, p.190.
2. Koestler, A., The Ghost in the Machine. London. Hutchinson, 1967, p.19.
3. Fry, D., Homo Loquens, Man the Talking Animal. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977.
4. Steinbeck, J., The Grapes of Wrath. London. Pan Books, 1936, p.160.

The Goldfinch

It was Easter Friday 2016 when a loud BANG interrupted our family breakfast. A young goldfinch had slammed into the window and dropped. Our daughter (11) rushed to its aid but the bird wasn't moving. She cupped it in her hands and prepared a straw-lined-bed-in-a-box. My wife and I encouraged her but wondered how things would end. Two hours later the bird fully opened it's eyes, turned it's head and stood up. Next thing we knew it was flying around the room and perched on a white love-heart decoration hanging from the ceiling. My daughter held it in her hand for one last time before it flew skyward. 

The whole thing felt like a message from God. It wasn’t just a blackbird, fantail, or thrush,  it was a goldfinch on Good Friday! So what? Read on...

'Our' goldfinch minutes after flying into the window. Only adult goldfinches have the red  face feathers - this one was a juvenile.

'Our' goldfinch minutes after flying into the window. Only adult goldfinches have the red  face feathers - this one was a juvenile.

Ha-lle-lujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah... Check the thorny cross motifs on the love heart.

Ha-lle-lujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah... Check the thorny cross motifs on the love heart.

Life beats death. Every time.

Life beats death. Every time.

Several years back I learnt something interesting about goldfinches in art. During the Renaissance, the European goldfinch became associated in paintings with important theological symbols such as the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The legend tried to explain the distinctive red markings on the Goldfinch’s head, and its diet of thistles and thorns.

This post-biblical legend developed around the goldfinch being a witness to the humiliating march of Jesus carrying the cross to Golgotha. A goldfinch flew above the staggering figure of Jesus and was distressed by the crown of thorns on his head. It flew down and tried to pluck off the thorns and some of Jesus’ blood dripped onto the goldfinch’s head. Hence the origin of its red face feathers.

European Goldfinch

European Goldfinch

George Ferguson (1961:19) remarks: The goldfinch is fond of eating thistles and thorns, and since all thorny plants were accepted as an allusion to Christ’s crown of thorns, the goldfinch became an accepted symbol of the Passion of Christ. In this sense, it frequently appears with the infant Jesus, showing the close connection between the Incarnation and Passion.

These two points about plucking the thorns and being stained in red blood became of interest to Renaissance painters.

Ornithologist Herbert Friedmann (1946) wrote about some four hundred and eighty-six paintings that feature the Goldfinch. While two hundred and fifty-four artists used the Goldfinch in Christian devotional paintings. Among the notable painters are Leonardo da Vinci (Madonna Litta, 1490–1491), Raphael (Solly Madonna, 1502, and Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1506), Zurbarán (Madonna and Child with the Infant St John, 1658) and Tiepolo (Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1760). 

Giambattista Tiepolo,  Madonna of the Goldfinch , c. 1770

Giambattista Tiepolo, Madonna of the Goldfinch, c. 1770

Postscript: A funny thing happened on the way to work (in 1996)

Back then I lived in central Christchurch and most days would walk to work at ad agency, Foote Cone and Belding. One morning, feeling pretty sad (actually sorry for myself) I was walking along when out of nowhere a sparrow flew straight into my foot and dropped dead to the ground! At that instant I was reminded of a Bible verse about God caring for us more than sparrows: “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a cent? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29).

Post Postscript:

Coincidentally my wife just happens to be reading Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch.
On it’s cover is the 1654 renaissance painting by Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch (see above).

Sources:
George Ferguson (1961). Signs and Symbols in Christian Art
(London & Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Herbert Friedmann (1946). The Symbolic Goldfinch: Its History and Significance in European Devotional Art (The Bollingen Series VII. Washington DC: Pantheon Books).