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What Is Art, and an Artist?

Martin LeFevre:  “Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it.”“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered.”  Rilke

There’s a strong correlation between the beginnings of art in prehistoric times and the emergence of what anthropologists call “fully modern humans.” However just what is art, and what is an artist?

The cave paintings of animals at Lascaux in France are as exquisitely rendered as the portraits of the great masters during the Renaissance. We don’t know why the people of the Upper Paleolithic lovingly and skillfully drew horses, deer, aurochs, ibex and bison on cave walls, but the sensitivity with which they painted these and other animals reverberates in the heart of every artist today.

That attests to the truth that whatever human nature is, in all its creative and destructive aspects, it was fully formed when Cro Magnons encountered Neanderthals in Europe about 50,000 years ago. They were as fully human as we are.

Human consciousness has not evolved, and cannot evolve. In total attention to cumulative consciousness, one leaves its shallow, muddy stream and enters the limitless ocean.

To my mind, art facilitates the great transition, even though art is always done, in whatever form, for its own sake. Clearly, one doesn’t have to paint or sculpt to be an artist. Indeed, one has to be an artist inwardly before one can give expression to beauty in one’s life.

Borrowing a term from athletics, I walked on in my early 30’s as graduate student in philosophy at one of the few Continental Schools in America. I needed to prove to myself that I had the chops to make it in academia as a philosopher, and after a year, I had earned the respect of the professors in the large department.

So I was taken aback when my best friend in the department said to me one day, “I see you as an artist.” When I asked what he meant, my normally precise, very rational friend couldn’t give me a satisfying explanation. So I chalked it up to a lack of understanding of where I was coming from philosophically.

It wasn’t that I thought philosophers were superior to artists, but that I never considered myself an artist and wanted to be considered a philosopher. They were totally different vocations after all, weren’t they?

It took me a while to realize that while artists aren’t necessarily philosophers and don’t generally philosophize, true philosophers are artists in an essential way. How?

Artists don’t feel the need to explain themselves or their art, but philosophers do. So there’s a bit of a contradiction here. For me it’s resolved when words and concepts dissolve in the silence of the mind in meditation.

I feel art, in whatever form, is a relationship with the beauty of nature, which is within us when the mind is quiet. The essence of beauty goes beyond the line, form and color in nature. Beauty isn’t necessarily expressed as landscape paintings, or in any artistic production at all.

All human beings growing in insight are sensitively aware, drawing upon the senses of the body, the feelings of the heart, and the faculties of the mind. In that sense we can all be artists. Therefore art is in our relationships and work, and reflects intimations of that which cannot be tangibly expressed.

What is the relationship between symbolic thought and art? Let’s take this passage from a recent National Geographic article, “What were Neanderthals really like – and why did they go extinct?”

“A breakthrough was the discovery that Neanderthals may have been capable of symbolic thought. In 2018 researchers announced they’d discovered evidence of cave paintings from 65,000 years ago – the oldest artworks of their kind. But the abstract nature of this art continues to fuel debates among scientists about complex their mental capacities were.”

This strikes me as funny. Are there really scientists who think that the crude and childlike sketches and hand stencils that Neanderthals apparently drew demonstrate that they were capable of abstract art arising from “complex symbolic thought?”

Despite misguided attempts to blur the distinction between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, they were not our cognitive equals. That isn’t to say our species was morally superior to Neanderthals. We drove them out, killed them off, and occasionally interbred with them until they ceased to exist as a distinct species, much as colonizers around the world have done with indigenous peoples whenever they encountered them.

On one hand, the National Geographic passage displays a misunderstanding of what symbolic thought is, mistakenly attributing it only to the latest and sole surviving hominin species, Homo sapiens. On the other hand, the passage rightly links “complex mental capacities” with highly developed art.

Neanderthals appear to have had a primitive capability for art, just as their tools and hunting abilities attest to a rudimentary capability for symbolic thought. However the cave art of Cro Magnons – the Homo sapiens that encountered Neanderthals — foreshadows that of the Sistine Chapel, indicating the presence of fully modern humans, possessing and possessed by complex symbolic thought.

“Whatever their cognitive abilities, Neanderthals were ultimately doomed,” the National Geographic article concludes. They weren’t doomed by some natural event, but by Homo sapiens, we humans, who are now driving to extinction so many other species with which we are meant to be sharing the Earth.

The great paradox, and contradiction, is that our cognitive abilities, turning on complex symbolic thought (also known as ‘higher thought’) have both given us the capacity for the highest expressions of art, and led to the decimation of the Earth.

That means the consciousness arising from complex symbolic thought must be superseded by a consciousness that transcends thought if the human being is to grow, rather than shrink and become extinct as well.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.