The caves in Lascaux - Rediscovering the aesthetic being in cultural policy

In the caves in Lascaux one can see wall paintings and imprints of hands, which are dated to be between 15,000 and 17,000 years old. The images express the life and imaginary world of the people of that time and contain a beauty and poetry that appears extraordinary vivid despite the very long distance in time. The paintings remind us that it has always been an integral part of being a human to express oneself and understand one’s world through aesthetic practice – to share one’s observations, one’s stories and thoughts through painting, music, dance and narratives. Man’s artistic manifestations have in all probability been of crucial importance for the collection and transmission of human experience – for human survival – and a confirmation of the importance of community. This integration of human life, community and artistic practice is still central to many societies in the world.

In the West, however, artistic creation and practice today is primarily a matter for the professionals and certainly not for everyone. We train professional artists who create works that we – the audience – experience and enjoy in the public arenas we established in the 18th and 19th century and onwards; in the theater, in the concert hall, at the art museum, in the cinema, at the festival etc. The development in our part of the world has made space for a powerful development and unique works of art. But in the meantime, our exposure as individuals and society to the original human aesthetic capacity for expression has been weakened. Most so-called ordinary people today, when asked directly, will refuse to be able to sing, to have a sense of color or think they can write a decent story. The professionalization of art creation and practice seems to have, to a certain extent, dismantled our self-esteem as aesthetic beings.

Cultural policy and art education today are largely based on this separation between the professional artist and the audience – between those who create and perform the works and those who experience them.

Cultural policy is primarily concerned with creating a framework around this model. We build – and not least operate – the institutions where the works of art are disseminated, and we employ a large number of artists and art professionals – either in permanent positions or on freelance terms – to create, develop and disseminate their works. The obvious right rationale behind the effort is that artistic experiences help to shape people and society. We are formed as independent and insightful citizens in the encounter with art. And it creates communities and shared experiences and insights that bind our society together. It provides quality of life and meaning.

Art and culture in society is supported by the education of professional artists and art professionals. Art education gradually became public through the 19th century alongside with the emergence of the bourgeoisie. The purpose has since been to train employees for the professional artistic labor market – for this part of the experience economy.

At the same time, an art education market where ordinary citizens can learn to sing, dance, paint, play, etc., has emerged. The teaching is typically handled by professional artists based on the professional art education – often using the master-apprentice model – whereby the amateur is, so to speak, socialized into the professional premise.

But what about our own aesthetic expression as individuals and in our communities – what cultural policy and art pedagogical efforts right now support this original human need and competence as a non-professional citizen to express oneself aesthetically? I can barely see it. I can easily see that a small privileged minority of us ‘go to art’ in some publicly funded cultural institutions for the few but targeted efforts that activate us all as the aesthetic beings we also are – where are they really?

We who work professionally as artists, art professionals and as art educators have a great responsibility right now to ‘break the chain’ and to renegotiate the role and potential of art and culture in society. We are, so to speak, sitting with a monopoly of expression that we quite easily could break up. We also have a deep knowledge of how to express ourselves through aesthetic practices that we could share with others – not only in order for other people to learn how to dance and paint, but also to contribute more broadly to the community. Perhaps artists’ deep knowledge of expressing themselves and grasping the world aesthetically can inspire others in their professions? Artists’ working methods, which are often holistic, where goals, methods and meaning stand in a mutually dynamic relationship, can perhaps inspire the way in which we work in the private and public sector? Perhaps the ways in which public and private companies organize their work can learn from how artistic communities work? But most importantly: Artists can inspire all of us to rediscover the joy of expressing ourselves artistically – to rediscover ourselves as aesthetic beings. Not only to make us happier, but also to form ourselves as even more insightful and empathetic people.

The cave painters remind us that it is a part of human life to express oneself artistically; that we are all aesthetic beings or even artistic citizens.

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