Art and the Community

We had my mother to stay last weekend, and very nice it was too. Although she lives alone, she’s very happily ensconced where she is, with lots of friends and a very active social life. The concern for us is that she lives just a little too far away to be easily in reach. As she gets older – she’s in her late seventies now – the dilemma is whether it’s preferable for her to stay close to where her friends are, or else abandon the support network she’s built up over the years in favour of being closer to family members who can provide care on a day-to-day basis. It’s not an easy decision. If she were to move sooner rather than later, it would give her a better chance to make new friends in the community where we live, but even so, and as she’s very well aware, it won’t be the same.
Before she caught the train home, we visited the Beyond El Dorado exhibition at the British Museum which features a selection of the gold or gold alloy artefacts created by the indigenous peoples of Colombia before the arrival of European settlers at the end of the 15th century. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gone if it had just been down to me, but I’m glad I did; it was exquisite. The quality of the craftsmanship was breath-taking and the detail, much of it so minute it could only really be appreciated with a magnifying glass, was incredible. Many of the objects were worn as ornaments in religious ceremonies – masks, breastplates, and nose and ear rings not dissimilar to many of those worn today. For me, the most impressive items, however, were the votive objects in the form of animals, lizards, snakes, bats and birds. These were used to channel the spirits of these creatures thus enabling religious leaders to assume their characteristics – or so it was thought.
What does the creation of art mean for a community? At its most basic, it enables sophisticated or cerebral ideas to be transmitted directly and viscerally to all members of the community ie via the emotions, without any need for the mediation of language. It facilitates the development of a common culture, usually rich in symbolism, which supports continuity and cohesion and can be passed down from one generation to the next, thus building a sense of identity and belonging. Above all, art endows a random, ineffable universe with meaning, bringing it within the compass of human understanding and enabling the community to interpret the past and plan for the future. Although there aren’t too many of us these days who express ourselves through the manufacture of highly crafted metalwork, the communitarian purpose of the indigenous South American people in producing their artefacts is identical to that of most creative artists today. Isn’t the point to try and reach beyond ourselves and find common meaning in our everyday experiences and in our reflections on reality as we perceive it?

On a different note, I wanted to wish a very happy Thanksgiving to all those celebrating it. Although we’ve imported a quite number of American traditions into Britain, Thanksgiving is yet to catch on here. Could it be because the thing the Pilgrim Fathers were most grateful for was the fact that they’d left our rain-soaked shores behind them forever? Perhaps it’s time to move beyond any sense of pique and embrace Thanksgiving; it’s good to count your blessings from time to time.

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