Over this long weekend I started binge watching a Netflix series called “Civilizations” which “explores the art of cultures around the world throughout time.” I took a few art history courses for my BA major years ago and watching this series has deepened my understanding of the huge impact of art on society and culture and also about how powerful the instinct is for humans to leave an intentional mark of their existence behind on this planet for future generations to witness, ponder and connect.
One of many amazing things I find fascinating in looking at the art discussed and examined over time in this series is the way that it often depicts trading societies before the construct of race. In paintings like “The Kings Fountain” painted during the European Renaissance, people of color were represented in multiple levels of society, from enslaved servitude to knighthood. Of course it was never a perfect world, whatever that is. Wars, imperialism, and nations conquering nations have gone on for centuries. But people were identified for quite some time by their place of origin long before the construct of race was designed for a more insidious form of control, monopoly, violence and oppression.
It’s hard to imagine a time before the construct of race which is why art and historical record and paintings like this are so important. Technology and the need for the commercial machine to churn faster than ever had made time appear to move so quickly that things like CDs and the ipod shuffle will soon be regarded as relics! We need historical record in order to stop time, to examine and learn from it.
It makes sense to me that there was a time before racial construct because I understand that skin color is not an indicator of anything but climate and region. Culture, spirituality, ritual, custom and tradition tell us more about the identities of people over time. But ultimately, even those do no tell us everything about who we really are.
From that prehistoric handprint found in the Chauvet cave in France to the bronzes of Benin, to the great Pyramids of Egypt and the colossal Mosques of Asia and the Middle East, the progress in depth and breadth of our capacity to express ourselves in greatness, might, devotion, fear, dominance and peace are at the core of our need to prove we exist, to immortalize ourselves.
Thankfully, in recent times, we have seen the emergence of artists like Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker just to name a few, who indict, examine and reveal the executors of evil, ugliness and perversion in the form of mass genocide, and violence in contexts that reposition and re-see the oppressed in more complex and connective, celebratory and normative ways. Art is also no longer relegated to that which is collected and selected by trained Museum curators. Art is the voice of the people, is grafitti, subway dancers (Don’t get kicked in the face!) underground performers, sidewalk drawings, Snapchat, IG stories, memes and more! Oh you may not see it that way now but future generations will.
And if humanity survives another thousand years or so I wonder how will they judge us based on what we we are writing on the walls of time now? What kind of future are we setting future generations up for?