I examined images of the celebrated Apollo 11 Stones, unearthed from a cave in mountainous Namibia. These seven grey slabs of quartzite depict faded animal paintings, one of which is a curious four-legged creature. I imagined the early human who created this work of art. She is squatting, hand blackened by a chunky stick of charcoal, carefully drawing the animal she admires. It fascinated me to think about the origins of these rock paintings—did the artist intend to draw the animal as a conduit to the spiritual world? Did she create a tribute to one of her most precious food sources? Or was it simply an early human’s attempt to capture the grace of an animal, forever remembered and immortalized on stone?
The class moved on to the next piece, but I couldn’t get the Apollo 11 Stones out of my head. Over 23,000 years ago, before formal written language, we used art to express our perspectives on the world around us—communication without words. If art is as old as humanity, what does the art of the past reveal about our nature? I thought back to my English class reading: Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker has a fairly dark view of the way humans used to be, similar to Hobbesian theory that life of man is “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” According to Pinker, we used to kill each other on a whim, make violent and illogical sacrifices to gods, fight each other to prove honor, and raid villages with no mercy. Though human nature undoubtedly contains potential for violence and evil, this same spirit inspires art, compassion, and creative reflection on the world we live in.
With this duplicity of human nature in mind, I sat next to my towering pile of art volumes in the dark stacks of the university library. As I flipped through the old books, one painting in particular caught my attention: an exuberant Vanitas painting called In Ictu Oculi (In the Blink of an Eye). The painting portrays a skeleton standing on a disarray of riches while he extinguishes the candle of life. The artist, Leal Valdés, conveyed that royalty, wealth, and academic achievement were insignificant, misguided attempts to attain greatness, which could not thwart death. This piece struck me as excessively bleak. What drove Valdés toward such a grim outlook? I explored the historical context of this painting. My research took me through the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War: the upheaval, carnage, and destruction that dominated these European generations. In this light, the piece is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, in its ability to create art amidst devastation. When I finally looked up from the books, it was pitch-black outside. I could have stayed reading in the stacks for hours longer.
Wherever I go, I seek this intriguing interaction with art. One summer day, I entered Cary Leibowitz’s exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Immediately I was struck by a flush of pink walls and candy-colored canvases, each with handwritten witty phrases: “Self esteem, 5¢”; “I’m sick of making art”; and “i’m sorry i’m in love with my misery so i cannot marry you.” I laughed to myself. After looking at the whole anti-pretentious collection, my response evolved to serious appreciation.
All of us, at points in time, question who we are, what we are worth, and what the meaning of life is. When I saw Leibowitz’s paintings, it occurred to me that trends in art over time and across cultures—as diverse as these three examples I have described—are linked. They candidly reflect the state of being human. Regardless of culture or time, humans are drawn to religion, love, wealth, and political power. I want to understand these mysteries through the study of art. Artistic expression, combined with interdisciplinary studies, offers a path for lifelong exploration of what humans were, are, and can be.