I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with bumper stickers: I love reading them, but also, generally find the nature of bumper stickers a bit obnoxious.
As Shakespeare claimed, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and I do appreciate the cleverly worded turn of phrase so often found on a bumper sticker—The more you know, the less you need; My Karma ran over my Dogma. However, these amusing aphorisms are also indicative of what I see as an increasing problem that distorts many of our biggest political and social issues today. From the infotainment of Fox News and The Daily Show, to the 140-character microcosm of the Twitterverse, to the blogoshpere's admonishment of “tl;dr”—so many huge, complicated, nuanced socio-cultural discussions have been reduced down to sound bites and empty sloganeering: Creativity before consumption; Free markets, not freeloaders—preventing us from engaging in any sort of meaningful conversation about them.
My favorite sticker that I have been seeing lately on bumpers all around Baltimore proclaims, The Earth without Art is just eh [eARTh]. To me, it perfectly sums up so much about what it means to be a human being in such a precise and clever way. I can’t even imagine what life would be like without Art—without the interrogative freeze-frames of painting and photography, the penetrating insights of narrative and essays, the uniting spirit of music and dance—eh, indeed. Great Art emits an extraordinary power that is able to transport us to a higher, almost metaphysical realm, where connection and understanding between human beings becomes truly possible.
However, after having seen this bumper sticker over and over again now, I have finally become desensitized to the seduction of its wit and have been able to really give some thought to its proposition.
Wait… Is it saying that until roughly 40,000 years ago, when a human first painted on the walls of a cave, or danced in worship around a fire, or whenever/whatever the first act of “Art” happened to be, the Earth was just eh? So the breathtaking expanse of the Grand Canyon, the “Dance of Spirits” of the Aurora Borealis, the 1.2 billion acres of biodiversity in the Amazon Rainforest, the unusual and awesome creatures inhabiting Australia, or the sublime power of Niagara Falls merits no more appreciation than an underwhelmed, monosyllabic grunt? Although I am sure the intention of the author was not to say that the majesty of Nature is entirely insignificant compared to what human beings have created, does that not seem to be what this sentence is suggesting?
Unfortunately, it seems to be unknown who first coined this phrase or what the original intention behind it was. However, when I googled it, I did find a plethora of people featuring the quote on their blogs, Tumblrs, Facebooks and Pinterests. One post I came across was especially explicit in portraying our confusedness about this situation: In a post celebrating Earth Day entitled with this phrase, there was a picture of a beautiful virgin forest with the words, “The Human spirit needs places where Nature has not been rearranged by the hand of Man” scrawled across it. But doesn't, The Earth without Art is just eh, imply that “the hand of Man” is the only thing saving these places from utter banality?
Despite its best intentions—and my general agreement with it—this is a perfect example of how in our attention-deficit, 140-character world, all that seems to be left are empty slogans where thoughts are supposed to be. There are just so many problematic assumptions underlying this little statement that we no longer recognize. And I believe that this lies at the heart of why we can no longer have a productive dialogue in this country: both sides of the debate have such an incredible amount of inner cognitive dissonance that it has become impossible to have a reasonable discussion about anything.
These days, when the battle lines are drawn and the caricatures and straw-men enlisted, this dispute usually gets divided into those for Art and Nature on one side, and those against Art and Nature on the other—the Liberal/Bohemian-types on the Left, and the Christian/Businessmen on the Right. But this is actually a false and incredibly distracting dichotomy—the real alternative that we as human beings must face is not Left or Right, but Art or Nature. And I think that if we were to frame this discussion as such, we may actually be able to find a middle ground where we could have a civilized conversation.
There is actually a lot more in common between Art and Business than we typically realize. Art, in its broadest sense, can be defined as anything which is created by a human being; or anything which is not a product of Nature. This is not to say that there are not very important distinctions between Art and Business, but rather to emphasize the similarity between them in the context of our relationship with Nature. Whether it’s a Dalí or a Nike, the fact of the matter is that both were created through the appropriation of natural materials, filtered through the lens of our imaginations, then manipulated and repurposed for the beneficence of humankind.
And on the flipside of this, there is much more harmony between our concepts of Nature and God than what we recognize anymore, as well: both are sources of awe that we revere, and both are external sources of laws to which it is preached that we should conform.
While I am not trying to claim that Art and Nature are mutually exclusive, they do seem to be pretty agonistic impulses—the tension of which we now entirely ignore when thinking about our Self and how we relate to Nature. Art says do; Nature says be. But which should take precedence: creation or appreciation? There is no clear-cut answer to this question because both are rooted deep within our instincts. Our current means of dealing with this dilemma in America, though, is to pretend it doesn’t exist and distract ourselves by declaiming the opposing side as a bunch of ignorant, ill-informed idiots—but the true battleground is within.
As an attempt to reconcile this war—or to at least reach a détente, in the external one—I have come up with a slightly modified version of this aphorism, which I believe could be quite fruitful in helping us rethink how we relate to and use our natural resources. Perhaps, if we can begin to think of everything that we create as “Art” and recognize that all Art is created by using products of Nature, then we will try to really make our each and every creation count—to make it worthy of that piece of Nature that was sacrificed in order that we could fulfill these most basic of human needs. Then, instead of Art separating us from Nature, it becomes the bridge that connects us to it—we appreciate while we create.
Because the Earth without eh is just Art.