Art First!

It's a nice bit of linguistic serendipity that dropped the letters A-R-T smack in the middle of our word for our planet. But what lessons shall we (pardon the pun) draw from this? Does the microcosm indeed reflect the macrocosm? Are we to distill clues about life by contemplating mere coincidence?

Looking at the Big Picture in general, & human behavior in particular, let us attempt to glean what distinguishes us from our fellow creatures. Not so long ago, the consensus was that tools, or language, or emotions were unique to the human animal. However, studies have since shown that chimpanzees quite deliberately fashion sticks to get at termites -- though let's not be quick to assume such cleverness is limited to higher primates. In fact, certain birds have been found to use sticks as levers, and anyone living along Airport Road here in Boonville can attest to the habit of local Blue Jays using the runway as a kind of gigantic nutcracker. Language? While no other animal is graced with the particular physiology which allows our complicated vocalizations, few among us would deny that animals communicate. Besides the familiar mammalian grunts & growls, dolphins use a kind of sonar-speak in water; bees articulate very precisely the location of specific pollens to their hive-mates. It's further been demonstrated that apes are capable of utilizing American Sign Language, grasping the basics of description, verb tense, & grammar. And frankly, anyone presumptuous enough to deny an animal's emotional life is in so deep a sensory fog that they might as well skip the remainder of this article. Pity the poor bastard who's never had a personal relationship with a good dog...

But in case you're wondering, I'm not about to seriously contend that humans are the only beast to produce art. Evolution, afterall, has endowed the peacock with his extravagant tail, outdoing, through his very DNA, anything that we can produce in pen & ink. The clarity & sweetness of birdsong, the smell of narcissus & rose, the comedy of crazed kittens; none are outdone by our endeavors. To my mind, these typify living matter as art. But while nature has rendered each creature in some way artful, whether it be through chameleon-skin or lavish topknot, I would readily argue that no animal so needs art as man.

But before we immerse ourselves in a strictly human equation, let us ponder the significance of Ruby the maladjusted elephant. Here we have a dazzling array of anthropomorphic dysfunction! Born in 1973 to a mother trained to forestry work in Thailand, Ruby was sold at 7 months & shipped to the Phoenix Zoo. There, still being bottle-fed, she thrived physically but not, it seems, spiritually. Undoubtedly, one major problem was that for seven years Ruby was the zoo's only elephant. Extremely social animals who develop at about the same rate as humans, young elephants are particularly vulnerable to the ill effects of isolation. Aggravating her early situation was a constant turnover of uninspired disciplinarian handlers. It was under these conditions that Ruby developed her odd & disturbing personality.

A favorite pastime was luring ducks & geese into her enclosure with grain from her feed trough. When one got near enough, Ruby would surreptitiously raise a foot & stomp the poor bird into pulp. She masturbated frequently, almost incessantly, & became clinically enamored of large pieces of machinery. A backhoe driven into the elephant area was unceremoniously mounted amid Ruby's excited squeals (& to the dismay of the terrified driver.) Not unexpectedly, Ruby also began to threaten her keepers. She would bump & shove aggressively, causing at least one trainer to quit on the spot.

At the same time, Ruby took to amusing herself with what spectators took for doodling - arranging pebbles in a pile, scratching lines in the dirt with a stick. Not much was made of this quirk until one of her more imaginative trainers heard tell of an elephant in southern California who could paint. Offered the tools of the trade, Ruby took an immediate interest, & within a week had mastered the basic technique. With practice, she became increasingly adept with brush & paint, utilizing colorful elements from her environment (her keepers surmise) as subject matter. (A companion elephant offered the same opportunity has her work summarily dismissed by Ruby: she painted over that feeble, monochromatic effort. Evidently, even critique is not unknown in the animal world.)

No longer isolated from her species, & with an emotionally satisfying outlet, Ruby has undergone a dramatic change. Now cooperative & even-tempered, Ruby regards her appreciative human companions with the same respect & affection that they show her. She has lost her inclination to hump heavy equipment, & hasn't flattened a bird in many a year. Which agreeably illustrates the other side of our equation.

Our premise is this: that human beings, whether cast in the image of their Creator, or, perhaps more accurately, having cast their Creator in their own image, are in either case shown to be inherently creative; that such creativity is a natural function and by-product of awareness (be it animal or otherwise); that awareness is so intimately interwoven with the urge to create that one inevitably augments the other, exponentially; and that conversely the lack of a viable aesthetic can’t help but cheapen intelligence. For Ruby, unable to satisfy certain natural urges in captivity, these desires may be sublimated by flourishing brush across canvas. Whether by chance or design, we maintain that the highest function of this creative impulse is to explore and thereby process the development of the psyche, and that to ignore this leads to varying degrees of neurosis, dis-ease, and psychological decay. According to observers, Ruby's deliberate manner of painting suggests that, like human artists, she is compelled to depict with color & line her feelings about the external world. In so doing, by making her interior views visible & concrete, we can say she exerts her influence & thereby renders her situation manageable. So it appears, & therein lies the lesson.

Back in the world of people, a lack of aesthetics at the very least lends itself to pervasive, debilitating & uniquely human irritations: ugly cities, aggressive marketing of increasingly stupid products, negative food value, noxious interior design. On a more subjective level, we end up with recurrent depression and its' chemically-dependent therapies, galling emotional duplicity and, in extreme cases, the virtual deification of Rush Limbaugh. It would therefore seem to be in our best interests to address this apparent lack.

Unfortunately, in our society the value of creative effort has been largely subverted. We live in a mass-manufactured universe where everything we need can be bought. Or can it? When art is seen as merely another commodity, the power and function of the process behind it is lost. In such an atmosphere the impact of aesthetics becomes obscure, our senses themselves cowered, clouded and dulled. For the greatest crime of our acquired Walmart mentality may be a qualitative one of disuse: of our time, of materials at hand, of patience and dexterity, of elegance and insight. When we dismiss the creative instinct we end up existing in a perpetual vacuum of shallow amusements and distractions; we even speak of "killing time". With most people stuck in repetitive, unfulfilling jobs, less and less of what we do is done with attention and grace. In such a state of aesthetic deprivation, & without reference to our internal source of creativity, intelligence itself quietly dis-integrates. (What goes around comes around, & at this point humanity’s on quite a roll.) Lost on us is the excitement of the unexpected, the inspiration of mystery, the nourishment of exploration. As such our environment, our architecture, our schooling, our society slips into deformity and degradation. We remain in a continual state of vague dissatisfaction: we remain outside of ourselves.

Despite our vaunted capitalist model, the answers to our deepest spiritual poverty will not be found at the local shopping mall. OK, so it's fun to acquire cool stuff. Sure. I'm not proposing or condoning some sort of nihilistic austerity or anything. What I am suggesting is that it is our overall lack of personal aesthetic endeavor which drives us, out of insecurity, boredom, and self-ignorance to the kind of rabid hoarding, intolerance, rivalry and workaholicism that has become a cornerstone of modern society. Like the well-fed but malcontented elephant, whose moods could prove unsavory & dangerous, these characteristics hardly elevate our quality of life. We are trying to fill a void that external accumulation of things cannot rectify.

Paradoxically, however, while wretched excess has the cumulative effect of cluttering up our psyches, it is in the artistic manipulation of things that we may rediscover ourselves. As with the self-taught elephant, there is nothing in the poet or the artist that is not universal, or rather, if there is a difference it is only one of degree. For the intangible quality that allows the artist to find beauty and meaning in his or her material is only one of attention. Simply that. And when we lose our capacity for this, or relinquish its' utilization to others, we renounce and stultify an essential quality of our own nature. How can we speak of joy in such a situation? How can the animal cope?

This is not to say we are all meant to be a Rubens, of course, or for that matter a Ruby. But if we are charmed by one elephant's diligent & unpretentious example, let us take it as an admirable model of the simple practicality of artistic expression. To do so, to create, however humbly, is for a time to make each breath, each movement, a little act of consecration. Some things you just gotta do for yourself, eh Ruby? Conversely, we can probably measure our failures, our jealousies, our stinginess and our stupidity by the very degree to which we are not willing to ennoble our time. And art, more than anything else, ennobles time.

It may be that in taking up the creative process, we uncover our own particular pocket of the vast resource that is (human) Nature. And it may be no small coincidence if in time, like Ruby, we improve.

~ via keller, 1994

This story of Ruby drew heavily from an article in Smithsonian Magazine.
It was first published in Magical Blend Magazine, issue no. 43, & appeared in
the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Sept. 1995

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