The outstanding St. Louis art museum just opened a new wing, which we had a chance to explore on Wednesday (and OF COURSE we tried the new restaurant...). The whole place is so huge and labyrinthine, there are still areas to which i've never made my way! On every visit i TRY to blaze trails to the far corners, but frequently end up visiting favorite areas at the expense of the unexplored.
As i stood marveling at the rich teal glaze on an ancient bowl from the Far East, i began to think about the trade-offs of "civilization." The gorgeous shapes and colors all around me -- the patterns brushed and incised on dozens of different materials -- were the products of GOK how many years of how many brilliant and talented hands and minds. Only specialization, concentration of resources, undisturbed handing-down of esoteric knowledge can bestow this kind of benefit on society.
Art IS a benefit. Feasting my eyes on all that beauty, i DID feel "fed" at some soul-level. I reveled in the peace, contentment, harmony that traditional art tends to bestow. (There was more of mental excitement and intellectual involvement in the modern galleries, but that's a whole 'nother subject.) No, the rooms full of cases of ceramics, beautiful pictures and graceful artifacts of daily living were about enriching the surroundings of human beings whose lucky positions in the world allowed them the leisure to appreciate them.
Centuries ... millenia ago ... the nasty serf-whipping classes dribbled some of their ill-gained riches into the hands of artists, who long after their deaths are still giving delight and awe to anyone who takes the time to wander into an admission-free public gallery, and stand in front of these works, and merely gaze.
Art exists in primitive societies, too, but not at this level; nomads can't set up workshops of the kind required to produce what i saw the other day. Experimentation with minerals and plant matter is likely to get interrupted by the need to follow the antelope herd or flee approaching winter. Among hunters, the flint-knapper and fletcher are probably the crafters most valued, and the potter who makes a solid product which resists breakage is a better contributor than one who puts the prettiest pattern on its surface....
So is it worth the trade-off? The grain-based civilizations which allowed for that pale-celadon bowl (with the painted phoenixes cavorting about under its glaze) to be produced are responsible for some pretty nasty effects through the last few millennia. Inquisitions and pogroms, crusades, slave- and rape-cultures, child-labor sweatshops ... there are plenty of bad things that happen in a world where people compete for wealth. There are also literature and libraries, cuisines, theatre, the kind of music which cannot be performed on a pan-flute, and all those decorative arts on display in that big building in Forest Park. The graceful little phial some Egyptian lady kept her perfumed oil in, the delicately-tinted bowl that sat on a table in Korea a thousand years ago, the imposing marble statue which originally adorned a temple in the Hellenic world, the memorial from the grave of a much-beloved and long-forgotten beauty -- i don't know how to BEGIN to measure the gains and losses that "civilization" has brought.