Why do humans make art?

There are many ways to answer this question. We can ask ourselves, other human beings around us. We can take brain imaging scans to try and trace neural patterns associated with the desire to paint, write, or sing, and we can look into our history to reveal ourselves.

Looking at humanity in ancient times is like stripping off the clothing of centuries of society and culture off of our beliefs and interactions, exposing the basic driving forces of humankind. Genetically speaking, we are basically the same kind of animal that we were 25,000 years ago.

If you could momentarily abandon thousands of years of social conditioning, what kind of insight would you have on your pure raw existence as a human being? What could we learn if we were able to speak with one on one with the first authors of the Torah, or listen to have a little chat with Vedic priests of ancient India?

Through the marriage of art and archaeology we can do just that!

How did it all begin?

The debate on when and why human beings began to make art, music and language will likely never be resolved – but due to the fascinating nature the topic, we have an increasing amount of knowledge on the chronology of human creativity.

Modes of communication are common among all animals on this great planet – and not unique to Homo Sapiens, though we can see that somewhere, somehow and at some time we crossed a line into the realm of what we call ‘language’ . Were we imitating the sounds of animals to warn our tribe of a predator?

Did we begin by codifying verbal emotional exclamations among family groups to communicate things like, “hey get out of my cave!”?

We can see from the cave paintings of Blombos that 50,000 years ago we were painting pictures of our surroundings, then we see in the Vinca Scripts of 6,000 BCE that our drawings began to be symbolic of ideas and thoughts, not necessarily just the visual stimulus. As we move into Mesopatamia around 4,000 BCE we begin to see that our symbols are representing words and morphemes, and utilizing syllables – eventually leading to the advent of the Alphabet around 1000 BCE which allowed us to write with a collection of less than 30 symbols what used to take 400 – 600 symbols.

As we continue to excavate and study ancient and prehistoric artifacts, we learn with increasing evidence that art was communication and inherently linked with survival.

Vinca Script.

Vincan symbols

One of the oldest artifacts of written language are the Vinca Script remnants found from tribes around the Danube river in Europe from 6,000 BCE. These symbols are indecipherable to us – though we can conjecture at their purpose. Some say that they were used in spiritual and religious rituals, to mark territory, and to unify tribes.

Human beings achieve their strength through cooperation- unlike a great whale, or bald eagle, we don’t thrive alone, in fact, solitude and isolation means death. Imagine that we had no written language. Our tribes could only reach a minimal population before our spoken language would splinter off into such different dialects we wouldn’t be able to organize amongst ourselves. So what do we see with the advent of written language?

Societies, cities and large highly populated communities. What were the first things that were written down? Did we write down advice on the best ways to kill a bear? Did we press survival tactics into clay tablets with earliest proto-types of Cuneiform and Heiroglyphics? It seems like we started by counting things and telling stories.

Telling stories.

An ancient tablet describing the epic of Gilgamesh.

The epic of Gilgamesh was first written around 2000 BCE, and later rewritten and combined into the Epic we know today. The story is about a former king of the city of Uruk who lived around 2700 BCE. Uruk was a powerful force in ancient Mesopatamia, excercising hegemony over neighboring tribes. These people were capable of sophisticated architecture, music and mathematics.(in ancient Uruk there were over a dozen differing numeric systems)

The Epic of Gilgamesh was written by many scribes over hundreds of years, and included not just Gilgamesh, but an account of the line of kings from which he desceneded. Why was it so important to write down the story of a King who lived 700 – 1500 years before you; and not to just one scribe, but to many scribes and poets?

These stories connect us on a level other than the physical plane. Such art allowed us to share ideas – values, beliefs, questions, and more – with each other. With it, we began the quest of trying to understand our lives, our very existence together.

If this is in fact the basic impulse of creating art – to understand, connect and share, how does that translate into our entertainment world of today? Do we remember how basic and fundamental making and receiving poetry and paintings are?

So why do you think we make art?

We’ve looked here at a few examples of poetry and storytelling – how might these relate to other forms of art, like music and dance?

Angela Cross

Author Angela Cross is a vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. She’s also a passionate and ever-curious soul – learn more about Angela at her artist page !

And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out her latest album, Songs from the Girl .

Enjoy the article? Consider leaving a tip  : )

Your support keeps Waistcoat & Watch up and running ad-free – and keeps our writers well-fed and well-caffeinated!