Edward Abbey commenting on art

I’ve been reading a chronicle by Edward Abbey (1927 – 1989) who wrote about his experiences in the Arches country or southeastern Utah while he was a park ranger. He lived a very solitary life while there and shared his reflections on his time in Desert Solitaire, A season in the Wilderness. It’s a very powerful, sparely written book. I’m enjoying it immensely.

If you are looking for it in the Library or the Book store, it’s a Touchstone book published by Simon & Schuster in 1968.

I was especially interested in this passage which discusses petroglyphs and pictograms. The first are carved into rock (petro- Greek for rock, glyph – a drawing) and pictograms are painted on rock. The discussion in the book is a few pages long, but it was this item that I thought worthy of sharing with you:

Whether crude or elegant , representational or abstract, very old or relatively new, all of the work was done in a manner pleasing to contemporary taste, with its vogue for the stylized and primitive. The ancient canyon art of Utah belongs in that same international museum without walls which makes African sculpture, Melanesian masks, and the junkyards of New Jersey equally interesting – those voices of silence which speak to us in the first world language. As for the technical competence of the artists, its measure is apparent in the fact that these pictographs and petroglyphs though exposed to the attack of wind, sand, rain, heat, cold and sunlight for centuries still survive vivid and clear. How much of the painting and sculpture being done in America today will last – in the physical sense – for even half a century.

His commentary on the durability of art is an idea to spend some good time thinking about.

He goes on to say.

The pictures (to substitute one term for the petroglyph-pictogram combination) are found on flat surfaces along the canyon walls, often at heights now inaccessible to a man on foot. (Because of erosion.) They usually appear in crowded clusters, with figures of a later date sometimes superimposed on those of an earlier time. There is no indication that the men who carved and painted the figures made any attempt to compose them into coherent murals; the endless variety of style, subject and scale suggests the work of many individuals from different times and places who for one reason or another came by, stopped, camped for days or weeks and left a sign of their passing on the rock….

They could be the merest doodling – that is an easy first impression. Yet there’s quite a difference between scribbling on paper and on sandstone. As anyone know who has tried to carve his name in rock, the task requires persistence, patience,determination and skill. Imagine the effort required to inscribe, say, the figure of a dancer, with no tool but a flint chisel and in such a way as to make it last five hundred years.

It’s on page 101 in the chapter called Cowboys and Indians Part II in the copy I’m reading if you should wish to look up the book and read more. I don’t know if I’ve properly credited him in this blog to avoid copyright issues, but I don’t think any publisher would complain about such a short excerpt being reprinted in an laudatory manner to encourage others to read his work.

The passage made me think about the longevity of some art forms. Various types of stone and metals seem to offer centuries, even millenniums worth of durability. Fresco seems more durable than other painting mediums although works in fresco often run into difficulty if there is a problem of humidity. Oil paintings are quite durable in smaller forms, and on wooden, especially mahogany, panels. Oils on canvas are more fragile both to the elements and to damaging. The jury is still out on acrylics. By some, it’s hailed as the miracle discovery for painting of this century; but only time will tell. Anyway, some of the problems of acrylic on canvas are the same as for oils by reason of the support – the canvas is affected by humidity levels and is easily torn. Watercolour and pastels are fragile, only being supported by paper grounds.

Since much of art production throughout the ages has not been cast in stone, I’m very grateful for the museums of the world. They provide an optimal environmental condition with controlled humidity and temperature to preserve the collection of all ages of art work. I’ve spent countless hours of my spare time haunting their halls and absorbing art work that was produced before (and after) I was born.

There are petroglyphs and pictograms in many regions of the world. I’ve never seen any in real life, just through books, but I marvel at the ability of the artists to produce such interesting imagery. It reminds me of Rhoda Kellog’s research on children teaching themselves to draw (without the interference of adults telling them what to do). The similarity of man’s drawing, of man’s need to draw, of the archetypal patternings we use are all subjects of interest to me. It is, I have decided, one of the main things that distinguishes man from the other animals in the Animal Kingdom. We feel compelled to draw. As far as I know, there is no other animal that does that.

What do you think?

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