Sunday, January 9, 2011

A few thoughts on art in culture

Terra cotta oil lamp - early 6th Century BC
I wonder a lot of things. Like: Why do we have a need to leave some lasting mark on the world? A record of our existence? I don't know why this is true, but I do know that it is. Evidence of the need is all around us - it is the book that you are reading, the sculpture on your table, the graffiti on an overpass, the music you are listening to, the tombstone that marks a grave. Humans have a need to leave something behind - it is a part of culture. I know that entire books have been written on this topic, but I will share only a few thoughts from the two cultural experiences that Katherine, James, and I had today from the Museum of Archaeology and a Whirling Dervish performance. Both were exceptional examples of human-kind leaving their mark on the history of existence.

Glass vases - early 6th Century BC
Istanbul's Museum of Archaeology has a extensive collection of artifacts from as early as before 2,000 BC. A few that I especially loved were everyday objects that had been embellished in some way -- a terra cotta oil lamp that had been stamped with a design before firing -- a spoon carved from bone with little details carved into the handle -- glass vases with colored pieces wrapped around the neck -- a pottery water jug painted with vines and flowers. So many objects that were merely functional and didn't require any artistic additions to serve their intended purpose had beautiful details added to them. These little "unnecessary" additions turned a daily object into not only a record of that civilization, but also a work of art. Observing these pieces made me glad to know that people since the beginning of time have loved beautifying things. I come from a long tradition of artists in this human race who want to bring as much beauty to the world as possible! My need to create is a need that has been around for a long, long, long time. Something else I wonder: who first figured out that they could make designs in their pottery before firing them - and how did they discover it? Did they accidentally drop the leather-hard clay onto the ground and a leaf left its impression? If I had done that I would have thougtht, "Cool! Let's do that again."

One of my favorite pieces in the museum was an early cuneiform tablet from the Sumerians from around 2,039 BC. As you can see in the photo, it is the earliest record of a love poem. My hopelessly romantic self loves this piece. For one thing, I love poetry.... especially love poems. I am also very happy to know that people over 4,000 years ago were using language in an artistic form to express their love for each other -- and thinking that it was important enough to write down. Also, I am glad that the museum curators felt it was worth putting in the exhibition. Another wondering: how excited was the archaeologist who excavated this piece when they realized it was a love poem? Could they read Sumerian cuneiform?

There were so many wonderful artifacts at the museum; each one has importance and weight in the record of human civilization. But tangible objects are not the only way we leave our cultural mark on the world. Dance is another way culture is identified.

Tonight we went to a live performance of Whirling Dervishes. I had no idea what the Whirling Dervish was all about before I read the website of the cultural center before going to the performance. It is a religious ceremony that is very highly revered in the ancient Turkish tradition. I won't try to explain the symbolism of everything - I'll put a couple of links at the bottom of the post where you can read about it - it's quite extensive. I will say that the ceremony and the music are mesmerizing. And I have no idea how the dancers (the Dervishes) don't get dizzy! They twirl in circles for about 10 minutes at a time, then stop suddenly with no stumbling or swaying. The basic idea behind the dance is love, tolerance, and closeness to God. I am also putting a link to a YouTube video of a Whirling Dervish ceremony - it is not as beautiful as the one we saw tonight, but you will get the idea of the dance.

Click here for the YouTube video.
Click here for the description of the ceremony. This website is the actual venue we went to - it is a renovated Turkish bath that is now a beautiful cultural center.

Maybe I am biased, but I think that art is one of the most important records of the cultures of our world's civilizations. There are so many different groups on this planet with many varied cultures, but one of the things I love most about traveling is seeing the similarities that we share as a human race.

Here's to art!

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