Tuesday, March 1, 2011


The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry….
                                                        ~ from To Be Of Use, by Marge Piercy

Over the years I have read a variety of essays claiming that, for example, dance or music or painting or poetry should be considered the first “art.” Although I have my own candidate, I have no argument with these proposals, and I find moving and persuasive the ideas put forward for any of them to be considered the genesis of the aesthetic spirit of humanity. (The following whimsical vignettes are my summaries of some of these anthropological theories.)

Oola is thrilled at Og’s expression of first love, and she spins with delight at the memory of their kiss. This spinning releases more joy, not to mention that Og rather likes watching her primal spontaneous movement– it stirs something in him, too, and he looks forward to seeing it again. Dance. 

Oola rocks their little Oolina in her arms, her cooing takes on a lilt that rises and falls with the rhythm of rocking. Then she replaces the cooing with words from a mother’s heart. The next night she sings it again.(1) Music.

Og and the other returning hunters draw crude sketches of the map of their hunt and their quarry on the cave wall, and – as it develops – some of them have a better feel for this kind of thing than others, and go on to draw and paint on the wall for less practical reasons. Something other than a map is “expressed.” Painting.

At Og’s funeral, Grok says, “Og dead.” But Shak steps forward quietly into the firelight and says,

            Og is in his grave
            After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.(2)

Everyone hears and ponders these words as they turn toward Shak with tear-brimmed eyes. He has spoken the same truth that Grok spoke, and something more. Yes, this death is like sleeping.  And those two words, "fitful fever" (that is, the cave-man equivalent), they slide together well. They blunt the pain. The gathered clan hears both the meaning of the words and the sound of the words. Poetry.

And my candidate, if I had to add one to this proto-artistic list, would be pottery, the ceramic arts. With the dawn of humanity and communal life there was certainly an almost immediate discovery that not only can fired mud be formed into a drinking cup, but that the accidental thumb print can be repeated around the middle for a place to grip – and it looks kind of nice. The twig used to cut away the excess mud also scratches the form of a twig (or a bird) into the cup. Looking up, those bright spots in the night sky must be designs applied to the inside of the overturned bowl that is the heavenly firmament. Og will apply designs inside his bowl, too. And there is this:
 … the cup implies the mouth and the hand, and ...when we talk about a pitcher we refer to its lip, throat, belly, and foot.(3)
And no doubt Og notices the pleasing parallel between the form of the drinking cup he’s working on and the enticing shape of his Oola. Maybe he’ll just tweak the design a little bit – try to bring out a little more of that anatomy…

I guess, as I’ve implied above, you can make a case for any of these. But it’s stirring to think that one of them was “the first art." (Although I don't mean to imply that I've exhausted the possibilities here.)

And then there’s another theory. Lewis Thomas, in his essay, “On Speaking of Speaking,” imagines a primitive scene similar to the ones I’m depicting here. The adults are around the fire communicating through grunts and sign language. Meanwhile,

Somewhere, nearby, there is a critical mass of noisy young children gabbling and shouting at each other, their voices rising in the exultation of discovery, talking, talking, and forever thereafter never stopping.(4)

Thus, Thomas’ thesis that language is a product of the development of the brains of children and the communication between them; so much more facile and open than stolid, already-formed adults.

So, with apologies to Lewis Thomas: Perhaps, as poppa Og stoops before the fire to craft a utilitarian drinking mug, “somewhere nearby there is a critical mass of noisy young children,” young Ogbert making a cup like dad, and  holding it up to the other kids to show the big smiley face he’s carved into it; little Oolina delighting in the twirl of her buckskin skirt as she spins; and a gaggle of girls discovering that their shrill screams harmonize and meld until they become the Oolettes.


(1) Some claim the origin of song
      was a war cry 
      some say it was a rhyme
      telling the farmers when to plant and reap
      don’t they know the first song was a lullaby
      pulled from a mother’s sleep... (from Song, by Alicia Ostriker)

(2) Adapted from Shakespeare's lament for Duncan in Macbeth, the poet A.E. Housman says that these lines are an example not of "high poetry" but of the essence of poetry.

(3) From The Poem in the Rock, Joel Froehle, Masters Thesis, U. Mass. Dartmouth. It is through my son-in-law, Joel's, eyes that I have an unfolding appreciation not only for the beauty of the potter's art, but its primal and literal earthiness.

(4) From Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, by Lewis Thomas

Image above: Untitled ceramic sculpture by Joel Froehle

1 comment:

Warren Hanson said...

It is interesting to muse about the genesis of the things which now are so ingrained in our culture. I've often wondered who baked the first pie. Was it an accident with tasty results?
As I recall, the movie "Quest for Fire" poses some interesting possibilities. When the distance of a mile or two was enough to separate cultures, it shows a pre-verbal tribe meeting a tribe with language. Pure speculation, of course, but fascinating food for thought. I gotta see that movie again.