Art & Basic Survival

June 8, 2021

I was visiting the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco earlier this year with my wife, eight-year-old niece, and her dad, when I stumbled upon something that inspired me to write this article. It happened at the Human Odyssey exhibit where there was a large touchscreen map of the world's archaeological sites. Out of curiosity, I tapped on the European continent and a few art images, dating 40,000-17,300 years ago, appeared on the screen in front of me. The image from the Lascaux cave (shown at the bottom of the page) also appeared on the screen, along with these words.

Images in caves are the earliest known art. Why these sophisticated paintings are created during periods of basic survival is not fully understood.

When I first read this, I started thinking to myself: why wouldn't art be created during a time of basic survival tens of thousands of year ago? I did not have an immediate answer either. It was truly perplexing, but as time went on, it eventually occurred to me that perhaps art is a basic survival need, too, just as food, clothing, and shelter are. That would help explain why early man and woman were inspired to create elaborate paintings on the interior walls of caves amidst their busy days gathering food, making clothing, and searching for shelter, while trying to survive in a seemingly uncertain and precarious environment.

In fact, one could argue that without art and satisfying our innate desire for creative, human expression, we would not have survived and evolved as we have. In other words, artistic forms of self-expression not related to our regular work securing food, shelter, and clothing, such as picking up sticks and leaves and applying colors to a wall to create an image, are equally important and necessary to both our physical and emotional well-being, as is picking up a stone to sharpen a stick to be used as a spear to hunt for food.

You may even be wondering whether....

Modern man and woman's situation is any different from their prehistoric ancestors, or if we truly solved the problems associated with food, clothing, and shelter so that we can pursue artistic endeavors?

I would argue "not likely," as art projects are low on the list of priorities for families working to pay rent or a mortgage and put food on the table. There is hardly enough time or energy at the end of a long day, not to mention during the day, for creative, self-expression for the average working person.

So, what will become of us? Can we evolve like our ancestors did or will we continue to survive on food, clothing, and shelter alone? Well, judging by the rampant homelessness, which exists here in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, and the grave state of our political, social, and economic systems, whose mission is to profit off the labor of others, instead of helping to feed, clothe, and shelter them, it would seem that excluding higher artistic understanding from our basic, essential needs is simply not working.

Ok, so then how do we integrate the arts more deeply into our daily lives? The simple answer is to take the time to be creative in any area of your choice that excites you and provides you with a sense of joy and fun. Ideally, you would take this time during your normal day, whether you have a job, are in school, are unemployed, or doing something else. In other words, just as our ancient counterparts took the time to paint, even though they were occupied with finding food, we can also take the time during the day to draw, paint, write, dance, or sing, even though we, too, are occupied with making ends meet.

You may be thinking to yourself, "that's all fine, but my employer does not pay me to do's not part of my job description." That may be true, but I am willing to bet that more employers would allow time for artistic expression if more of us asked for it. This is especially true during Covid, when many of us are working from home and so have more flexibility during the day to do activities not related to our normal job roles or work routines.

In fact, taking a few minutes each day to disengage from your work and do something completely different will actually make you more productive--even playful, if you will--and better at your job. Playfulness is a highly underutilized skillset in the workplace, largely because most employers have not figured out how to tie it to well-being, not just financial well-being, but physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being as well. This reminds me of the below quote from Steve Jobs:

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.

It's interesting to note how early man and woman understood this idea, and yet, a myriad number of years later, we are not able to implement it in our daily lives. Instead, most of us seem to believe that the arts and technology -- the tools we've developed to help us survive -- are somehow divorced from one another, when they, are, in fact, one and the same.