Artistic Traditions, Handed Down Generations

Last Updated by Nikos Fyodor Rutkowski on
Photo by Nutopia Ltd
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author. 

I have always had a very intense interest in the History of Art, going so far as to take tentative tip toe steps into graduate level Art History courses after receiving my BFA in painting. As someone suggests in this episode the History of Art is the History of Humanity; it may be the singular thing that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. My entire life I have felt that being an artist is my “calling”, that my facility and talent was “a gift” bestowed upon me. Odd terms those, for someone with no faith or religious background to employ such spiritually tinged phrasing. But that is the point, even though I make art, driven to create, I ultimately cannot explain why. I can explain my aesthetic choices, conceptual underpinnings for individual works, but I cannot explain the spark that ignites my creativity.

For me this episode lays bare the fact that we have no idea where this drive to create comes from, or when or why our ancestors developed this quality that differentiates us from other species. Or sadly, our species desire to destroy. I remember watching footage of ISIS members destroying invaluable antiquities years ago and feeling such rage and sadness. I remember thinking at the time that 200 years from now we'll all be dead and buried, statistically most likely forgotten by history no matter the circumstances of our passing... but these antiquities have lasted for centuries, millennia even, and by all rights should have lasted longer as a legacy for humanity. Until watching this episode I had missed the story of Khaled al-Asaad, and can only revere him now as a hero and martyr to the importance of art, whether we truly comprehend it or not.

As a college Freshman I remember taking an Art History survey course and looking at cave paintings from Spain and France and wondering where earlier examples were. To me there was clear evidence that these were not self-taught skills. Much like any other art, there was tradition behind it. Knowledge passed down from mentors to their successors. I've read many scholars debating what the purpose of these cave paintings was, some claiming that they were used for religious rites, or sort of symbolic practice hunts. To me it's not so important to ask why they did it, but to understand that it was important enough for them to take time out from simply surviving and sustaining to do it. There will never be an absolutely verifiable reason for the why, but we need to recognize that there was a need for our ancestors to pass down these skills, the same as they would pass knowledge that was necessary for the survival of our species: tool making techniques, hunting tactics, midwifery, etc.

It's nice to think that there may be traditions handed down that tie us to the first ape that picked up a piece of charcoal from an earlier night’s fire and started making marks on rock.

Discoveries in Africa, like the shell with manmade pigment featured in this episode point toward the origins of this need for us. Refining the procedures for creating pigments, using binders, and the other scientific/alchemic materials employed in artistic creation also signify longer traditions handed down generations. To me it indicates that there has been so much of the story lost to time. Much like the fragments of bone used to extrapolate models of our forebears, I feel like we are so often guessing the whole puzzle based on just one piece- no matter how educated the guess may be.

I like to think of myself as being pretty well versed on archeological and scientific discoveries, especially when they relate to my interest in art, however this episode surprised me with the revelation of the Sanxingdui civilization. Somehow this discovery made over 30 years ago never registered on my radar. It's an absolutely incredible discovery. I know that art cannot be analyzed in the same way as species evolution, but to me it looks like a bridge from African traditions to Polynesian traditions and even Mayan or Aztec art. I suppose it’s more likely these sorts of stylizations and abstractions of form have a primal or archetypal significance for our species- much like the occurrence of hand outlines formed by blowing pigment that pop up in different civilizations around the world. It's nice to think that there may be traditions handed down that tie us to the first ape that picked up a piece of charcoal from an earlier night’s fire and started making marks on rock.

It's something I feel sometimes when I step foot in my studio, when I pick up some tool or other and start laying down marks. There is something non-verbal to this act, resistant to being tethered and entangled by descriptors. There is purity to the act- making a line, dashing another one, then more and more, overlapping and forging something that has never existed before. It is in those moments that I feel tied to that first industrious primate. I can visualize the awed reactions of the others around the mark maker- demonstrating the closest thing to real magic that humanity had after mastering fire. Sometimes I feel that power of creation and I comprehend for a minute why we do it. 

In a dark turn, one that I hate to admit to, it also makes me understand that urge to destroy. Look at graffiti: so often labeled a destructive act, marring, scarring a pristine surface. The exact same thing is happening in the artist's studio. The destruction and alchemical transformation of substrate and materials into art, or the violent chipping away of material bending to the artist's will. But that is the thing about art, you can embrace the dichotomy of creation/destruction that is so often a part of the artistic practice because in the end there is ART. However when art is destroyed, there is nothing but a tear in the soul of humanity. Another void is left in our collective history.

Nikos Fyodor RutkowskiNikos Fyodor Rutkowski is an abstract painter based in Columbus Ohio. In that capacity he is represented by the gallery Contemporary Art Matters. He is also a special effects artist and co-owner of Cave Bear Studios, making monsters and such. He often hopes that the two authors he was named after have had no effect on his temperament, and to that aim has never finished any of their novels. He is married to a brilliant hospice social worker. Together they have three beautiful boys. 

Related | Learn more about Nikos and his work in the WOSU series Broad & High

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