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Timeline: Art And Civilization

U.S. Public Domain
This hand-stencil from Gua Tewet (Tree of Life) in Borneo, Indonesia is thought to be over 10,000 years old.

Originally aired December 10, 2018...

Art is everywhere and always has been. It lines the walls of museums, buildings and caves. It fills our halls and ears with sound and music. It captures the eye with beautiful movement and imagery. Art doesn’t just express our passions and history; it defines, influences and shapes culture and civilization.


In most major cities, graffiti marks walls, buildings, train cars and subway stations. There are names and codes to these markings that we don’t all understand and we aren’t meant to. Some of these “tags” though can be strikingly beautiful in their execution. They draw the eye,at least mine, much in the same way that a painting in a museum does. You can call it urban decay or destruction of property; however, there’s nothing new about humanity drawing on walls.

Deep inside a series of caves in Santa Cruz, Argentina we’ve found paintings dating back at least 9,000 years. These ancient graffiti artists took bone pipes filled with pigment and spray-painted on the walls, using their hands as a stencil. The “Cueva de las Manos" or “Cave of Hands” is covered with these silhouettes; hundreds of hands paper the walls of the cavern like an ancient, choral ‘hello.’ This isn’t the only example either. We’ve found similar stencils in the deep, ancient caverns of France and the caves in the district of Maros, Indonesia bare hand paintings that are around 40,000 years old.

We don’t know much about these ancient people who wave at us across the millennia. Their politics, disputes and customs are lost to time. We don’t know their deeds. We don’t know their language or their words. But just seeing those familiar fingers offering an open hand, it feels like a gesture inviting us to join in. It feels like art.

The Victorian-era art critic, John Ruskin wrote this in his book Mornings in Florence in 1875, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.”

Dr. Didier Maleuvre, a professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, takes this idea a step further. In the book The Art of Civilization, Dr. Maleurve states that art not only reflects culture but influences it, creating the forms and ideals that shape society. Art doesn’t just tell the story of a people. Art establishes and reinforces the patterns of beauty, power and expression that a culture then inhabits. To put it simply, “Art has civilized us.”

In what ways has art shaped your life? What paintings, symphonies, theater or films have influenced you personally? Let us know. We'd love to hear from you.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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