Carved in Stone
by Matt Bynum
Artists should create Art that is well crafted, so that it withstands the test of time, and is able to speak to many generations
An English country estate inspires awe because it stands firmly and with authority. The estate has housed and protected many generations, and it will continue to stand, serving generations to come. But how is this estate able to withstand the passage of time, when all around it is in constant change? Snow, ice, rain, heat, and cold - all of these erosive elements place their demands upon all that the builders erected. There are also the changing demands of enterprise, as new businesses are established, some failing, others prospering. And there is the master of the estate, who bears the title for a few decades, but must eventually pass the title to succeeding generations.
The estate's architects knew that many types of change were inevitable. So, the estate's design and construction not only reflected the needs of the original master, but also incorporated knowledge gathered through the centuries, concerning architectural design, agriculture, the region's climate, the finest building materials, and excellent workmanship. The needs of future generations were anticipated as well; the estate's design did not merely reflect the whims of the original master, but considered the needs of all those, throughout the centuries, who would consider the estate to be their home.
Traveling in the city, you might discover buildings that have been in use for a century or more. If the building is on the city's square, the building might have first been used as a tavern, hotel, theatre, music school, bakery, or hat shop. And now, the building might be used by a graphics designer, coffee shop, Internet provider, or massage therapist. The building silently affirms the foresight of its original builder, as it proudly displays, carved in stone, the year of its completion. In the older neighborhoods, you see many homes large and small, still standing solidly after many years, treasured not just by their owners, but by every passerby. These old buildings will be preserved and cherished, standing year after year, while lesser buildings, poorly designed and built with inferior materials and workmanship, are left to decay and are swept away.
Most buildings that are constructed today, both residential and commercial, will not survive the passage of time. These buildings are not designed to stand firmly for centuries as an inheritance for future generations - and the building's residents and visitors are affected by this lack of constancy. These structures represent a philosophy that lacks vision, that places little importance on the past and shows no regard for the future. The resident's lives can not help but reflect this. Instead of knowing that they are part of a grand tradition, they will feel anxious and restless, and their own lives will lack focus and vision.
But it is not only buildings that can communicate a lack of vision. Consider the modern automobile. Is it expected to last 50 years, or is it considered "old" after only a few years? Modern automobiles loose their luster soon after they are purchased; it is as if they are designed to be disposable. Contrast these with some of the "classic" automobiles - the LaSalle of the 1930's, the 1948 Cadillac, and of course, the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. When these cars take to the road, all others are put to shame. These cars represent a standard; with their sturdy construction and innovative design, and they will continue to be treasured for decades (see the article "The Earl of Detroit" in the Fall 1998 issue of Invention and Technology at http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1998/2/1998_2_10.shtml). But as for the modern automobile, it has no future.
The same could be said concerning the world of "fashion". What is the life-span of today's clothing? Is the life span measured in "years" or in "months"? Again, you can compare today's clothes with clothing seen in old movies or photographs from the 1930's and 1940's. But unlike classic automobiles, it would be difficult to wear the "classic" style of clothing today, unless you are prepared to respond to "Where's the funeral?"
Clothing should be designed with a purpose, for our clothing is actually our "costume" that is worn as we perform our life's roles. There are times when we do understand this. At weddings, the bride, groom, priest, attendants, and guests are appropriately dressed, and their "costumes" reflect the roles that they are performing. But what about at other times? How should dinner guests be dressed? How should we dress for work, for the theatre, or for travel? We need clothing that reflects a proper understanding of life's roles. We need clothing that can be passed on to our children - gloves, hats, robes, jewelry, or a wedding dress.
Aside from clothing, some things we pass on to our children may become "obsolete". For instance, a radio from the 1930's has only few of the functions found in a stereo system of the 1990's. But the 1930's radio is still valuable because of the exquisite design of its exterior, carefully crafted as is any piece of fine furniture, whereas the 1990's counterpart is usually housed in a black plastic box. The 1930's radio is desired by interior decorators, whereas the 1990's radio is hidden in a corner.
Will the books that we own be valuable to future generations? In the film Sense and Sensibility (1995), the Dashwood ladies must vacate the estate where they reside, because the ownership of the estate is being passed to a relative. The estate included a library, which is filled with books. These volumes are considered to be just as much a part of the estate as are the buildings, grounds, furniture, and paintings. Would books that are published today ever be part of an estate? A book should be durable, well- constructed, with high quality paper and inks, and with fine bindings. The contents of the book should also be durable, the words and illustrations should be those that can be appreciated both by current and by future generations. Even technical manuals, whose content will eventually become obsolete, can be valuable; first, as historical reference, and second, as an object of beauty.
Works of art, such as music, painting, and sculpture, should be even more durable than items such as automobiles, clothing and books. A painting does not have a practical use as does a pair of shoes. When the needs of a shoe wearer change, then the design of old shoes are replaced by new designs. But not so with paintings, and other examples of fine art. Paintings are treasured, not for their practical use, but strictly for the beauty they add to their surroundings, and the pleasure they give to their viewers. Creators of fine art should have an eye towards the future, anticipating that their artworks will be cherished by many generations that will follow.
But artists who are short-sighted, who do not have an eye towards the future, can not help but create artwork that lacks in depth, durability and inner vitality. When artworks such as these define the cultural climate, art appreciators become art consumers - those that devour but do not digest, those that lack refinement and discernment. But there is one event that interrupts the feeding frenzy - it is death. It is the death of a friend or family member that awakes sensibility, that revives interest in eternity. No expense is spared to create remembrances of the departed, including a gravestone, upon which is carved name, dates, and an epitaph; a solemn reminder of our own mortality.
But the gravestone need not be our only reminder of ultimate reality. Whether we are artists, artisans, managers, technicians, caregivers or bookkeepers, the fruits of our own labors should be able to withstand the test of time, testifying to future generations with commanding authority, as time allows the fruits to ripen, becoming deeper, darker, and richer. And when we partake of the labors of others, our tastes should be highly developed and finely tuned, so that our senses and appetites are fully satisfied, and we can return to our labors inspired and renewed.
The Artist's Hand.
Updated by: Matt Bynum