A world without art? – Unthinkable.

On the relationship between art and culture

I imagine what the accidental impression of a charcoal-blackened hand on a cave wall must have meant to our early ancestors. A space of possibility must have opened up at that moment – a new level of interaction/communication with the world. And even today, this decisive moment in human history is regularly reenacted in many kindergartens and primary schools.

Handprints were followed at some point by the first depictions of animals and hunters. Even today, people feel the inclination to assure their existence and to record emotional moments for eternity, for example by carving their initials into the bark of a tree.

The cave drawings have outlasted the people who created them by thousands of years. The oldest rock drawing found is probably around 45,500 years old. Since then, humans have never stopped creating things that serve more than mere survival.

It is not only fascinating to realise that our early ancestors were already creators of art, but it is also the works as such that still touch us today. This makes it clear that our aesthetic sensibility is not fundamentally different from that of early humans. These first artists already had a distinct feeling for pictorial compositions that corresponds to our modern standards of beauty. The neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel introduces the term coherence in connection with beauty. Scientists who have intensively studied the architecture of the pyramids have found that certain proportions that can be expressed with mathematical formulae can be found in Egypt as well as in South America. There is much evidence to suggest that there are proportions that people find coherent regardless of cultural differences. (Keyword: The golden ratio)

The first works of art are most likely the result of a collaborative effort. Hunters and gatherers were not individualists who claimed something for themselves. Joint action and sharing were the key to survival. For thousands of years, it was not competition but community-based teamwork that was the impetus for creativity to flourish.

Works of art are always an expression of an engagement with the world and they have the potential to touch people deeply. The prerequisite for this is that they resonate with the viewer. And in a time when we are flooded with external stimuli, this is the greatest challenge for artists. I would like to illustrate this idea with an example.

A few years ago (during the 48 Stunden Neukölln festival) I was supervising a photo exhibition that also included my own pictures. The exhibition was open until late in the evening, but at late hours only a few visitors came. This gave me the opportunity to take a closer look at the pictures in the exhibition. I was particularly taken with one large-format photo. It showed the back of a young woman walking along a park path. A sight that seemed very familiar to me. The longer I looked at the scene, the more details I could make out. Through the bushes and at some distance, other people were visible. After a while, an eerie feeling came over me. I felt as if I was part of the scene and was following the woman. I became a stalker. Over time, I got a sense of how many paths (could) cross in the park and that there was always the possibility of encounter. On my next visit to the park, I was sensitised to the imaginary web of potential encounters.
I am sure that I would not have discovered all this during a „normal visit to the exhibition“.

Through this non-everyday encounter with a work of art, I have been able to experience that certain prerequisites are needed for a work of art to be able to communicate in such an intense way: The time to get involved and look more closely, a certain affinity to the subject (resonance) and the encounter with the original, which usually produces a deeper effect than the greatly reduced image in a book.

Art (apart from literature and poetry) is a non-verbal language that nevertheless tells a story by relating objects, colours and forms to one another and creating moods that can evoke feelings in the viewer. Our knowledge about past epochs is fed on the one hand by the facts and data collected and interpreted by historians and archaeologists, but also by art-historically relevant artefacts that allow sensual access to the respective epoch. Of course, this also includes the musical and literary products of a period.

The terms art and culture are often mentioned in the same breath, as if they were virtually identical. Moreover, the impression is often given that „culture“ is something good per se. In the article „Reflecting on culture and art“, I already mentioned that culture encompasses all areas of life and reflects our ideas, values and norms. Culture provides information about the value we place on individual areas of life. It provides information about the relationship of members of a community to each other, to other communities and to their environment. It is the breeding ground from which art also emerges. And we know from history that the relationship between culture and art is by no means always unproblematic.

Art is often about putting a finger in the wound and growing beyond the existing. For example, by breaking through visual habits. Painters such as Van Gogh or Vermeer, whose works are sold today at prices in the millions, had to gnaw at the hungry during their lifetime. Many of today’s „stars“ in the art scene met with incomprehension in their time. It is significant that they nevertheless did not allow themselves to be deterred from continuing their artistic experiments. They were driven by curiosity and enthusiasm and probably couldn’t help but follow their inner images.

We need artists to recognise the limitations and taboos of our own culture.

Patriarchal societies, which probably make up 99% of the societies in the world today, are hierarchically structured and concerned with the preservation of hierarchies and power-maintaining structures. This becomes very clear when the supporters of authoritarian ideologies (also within Europe) try to restrict the freedom of art in favour of an ideologically coloured world view.

The fate of our culture is that it has developed much more materially than spiritually.“
(Albert Schweitzer)

One of the greatest weaknesses of our culture is the fixation on the material world, combined with an enormous consumption of natural resources that are now running out. The attitudes of our culture all need to be put to the test.

Recently, the slogan „rethinking culture“ has been heard more often. This probably refers primarily to the discourses within cultural institutions around issues such as gender justice, anti-colonialism and sustainability. At the same time, these institutions are funded by bodies that cannot have any real interest in change.

Doesn’t this already set limits to discourse? In the form of self-imposed prohibitions on thought? According to the saying: „You don’t bite the hand that feeds you“.

I am curious to see how the current restriction of cultural life will affect our culture in the longer term and what discourses will arise from it. One thing is certain for me: artists who have the courage to „do their thing“ will continue to exist. The fact that art is often created under precarious conditions is neither new nor surprising. This could only change if culture radically transforms itself – from a culture based on separation and demarcation to an integral or multi-perspective culture.

May the many artists who live and work under precarious conditions console themselves for the time being with the fact that they probably suffer less from self-alienation than many other people and that it should be easier for them to restrict themselves materially because they are already used to it.

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