Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The idol and the axe

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Barnett Newman

Undoubtedly the first man was an artist…It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need. In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before any desire to discover the unknown…

Man’s first cry was a song. Man’s first address to a neighbor was a cry of power and solemn weakness, not a request for a drink of water. Even the animal makes a futile attempt at poetry. Ornithologists explain the cock’s crow as an ecstatic outburst of his power. The loon gliding lonesome over the lake, with whom is he communicating? The dog, alone, howls at the moon. Are we to say that the first man called the sun and the stars God as an act of communication and only after he had finished his day’s labor? The myth came before the hunt. The purpose of man’s first speech was an address to the unknowable. His behavior had its origin in his artistic nature.

Just as man’s first speech was poetic before it became utilitarian, so man first built an idol of mud before he fashioned an axe. Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin. Archeologists tell us that the axe-head suggested the axe-head idol. Both are found in the same strata so they must have been contemporaneous. True, perhaps, that the axe-head idol of stone could not have been carved without axe instruments, but this is a division in metier, not in time, since the mud figure anticipated both the stone figure and the axe. (A figure can be made out of mud but an axe cannot.) The God image, not pottery, was the first manual act. It is the materialistic corruption of present-day anthropology that has tried to make men believe that original man fashioned pottery before he made sculpture. Pottery is the product of civilization. The artistic act is man’s personal birthright.

Barnett Newman, “The First Man Was an Artist”

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2016 at 7:30 am

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