I recently had the opportunity to visit the Akrotiri archaeological site on Santorini island in Greece, along with a couple of museums housing works of art discovered at the site. Observing items that were created thousands of years before the common era led me to think about humans’ desire to make art. The pieces on display were not limited to pottery designed to hold water and foodstuffs, nor to religious symbols. There were elaborate wall paintings and meticulously crafted sculptures of animals and human figures. Like other artists throughout history, these people of the distant past devoted time and scarce resources to producing beautiful objects that served no obvious utilitarian purpose. Our drive to make things that we don’t really need is unique to humans and appears to be deeply ingrained. Why do we do it?
When I drew pictures as a child and adolescent, I did so because I enjoyed the activity, but also because I liked the praise I received. I could create images that resembled real people and things, which impressed people. As I developed as an artist, I became more interested in formal aesthetics: composition, shape, color, spatial relationships. I wanted not only to represent recognizable things, but to create visually pleasing and interesting pieces. An interest in portraiture grew from the fun challenge of depicting the human form as well as an interest in conveying emotion and expression through the subject’s face and body language. At some point, I developed a desire to go beyond creating visually pleasing pieces to convey a message or to portray objects that were important to me. Drawing and painting from observation has always been something of a meditative practice for me as well. By looking at an object for hours on end, I see it as I had never seen it before. I enter a state of flow and concentrate fully on the task at hand, forgetting about everything else. The same thing happens when I write. And with writing more so than with visual art, I seek to better understand my world. Writing brings me clarity and allows me to see connections that were otherwise unapparent.
But the intrinsic value to the creator is not, I believe, the sole reason that humans make art. Most art is made with an audience in mind. At its best, art is a means of communication among strangers, across time and cultures. I love to look at paintings and to read poems and books because I feel connected to their creators, seeing what they saw or what they wanted me to see, having a conversation of sorts. Reading books and essays can feel like conversing with a good friend, as I relate to the author’s point of view and note the commonalities with my own experiences and observations. Art can make us feel understood and less alone.
Creative works can also, in a way, make us immortal, something that I believe many people consciously or unconsciously strive to be. We like the idea of leaving a legacy, some proof that we existed, something through which we can live on in the minds of future generations who never knew us. Could the artists of Akrotiri have imagined that people would be viewing their creations thousands of years in the future? Could Sappho, Homer, Rumi, and others have known that we would still be reading their works and learning from them today? And what will remain of our own creations thousands of years from now? What will be discarded as unimportant, or lost to the forces of time, and what will be preserved and revered over the centuries and millennia?
What are your thoughts: what drives us to create?
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