What, after all, is Art?

Paleolithic News Item

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Uncle Tok tends to think of himself as an artist, or maybe that’s an artiste (they’re both pronounced “ugh”, but the enunciation is different). We all know he’s a great inventor — look at his barkless birch log canoe, and I’m pretty sure he’s the first proto-hominid to come up with the idea of making your arm longer by tying your shale knife to the end of a branch — but we were less convinced of his artistic capabilities. Sure, he’d spent weeks drawing pictographs of birds on the desert floor the last time we visited Far-South Beringia. And sure, when we visited the Old Country by walking around the east end of the Mediterranean he’d spent a whole summer piling up blocks of stone to prove that it was possible to make a cube that came to a point. But what was the point? Was it really art?

Well, this year we were back at the west end of the Mediterranean. It was our first time back since Uncle Tok had the smart idea of cutting a notch at the top of the Gibraltar Dam to make a thousand-foot waterfall as a tourist attraction.* This year he was feeling artistic as well as entrepreneurial, and he had this wonderful idea about carving the faces of all our tribal elders in the rock that was all that remained of the dam.

Aunt Ja said it would never work. She said the rock was too hard, and that he couldn’t get enough goat’s intestines to let him hang down far enough to do a proper job. Uncle Tok said he was plenty stronger than that rock, and that he’d just find a bigger goat. They argued about it for hours, until Uncle Tok got fed up and wandered off to party with the locals down at the beach. They had this really potent spirit that they made from grapes. They’d put them in a big haggisbag and stomp on them until all the bad tasting juice ran out. Then they’d tie it up until the grapes inside started leaking through, at which point they’d get together and have a ro’tgu’t party.

The next morning Uncle Tok was feeling bad, and crawled off to an un-used cave. We didn’t find him until later that afternoon, when we heard this rhythmic scraping coming from inside. We all dashed up, and discovered him working on an inscription, describing his Rock of Gibralter idea and saying how certain reactionary elements had kept him from accomplishing it. Of course, being proto-hominids and not having a proper written language (the elders were still arguing over whether or not to require a special symbol for a subjunctive clause), he’d had to simplify it. But it was there for everyone to see.

All us kids thought it was great, and that it would really make Aunt Ja sorry she mocked his ideas. But that was not to be. She came in and glanced at it, told him it wasn’t very artistic, told him his supporting arguments were shallow, told him his handwriting looked like a Neanderdude’s, and finally, asked him why he’d written it on the floor of the cave instead of the wall. Uncle Tok looked at her, a little bleary-eyed, then looked around the cave. “Floor? Wall? Tok can never remember which stands up and which lays down.”

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*Aunt Ja never forgave him, but I thought it was a good idea to have an inland sea between us and some of our relatives in the Old Country, even if it did mean we had to walk all the way around to visit them.

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