Art is History’s Storyteller

[July 2020 | By Kathryn R. Burke, Publisher]

Art and history—it’s where we shine at the Silver Stage as we use the first to share the second. Art in its many forms—written, spoken, visual, musical, performance—is history’s storyteller.

Our ancestors wrote it in stone, literally, carving out a bas relief record of how they thought and lived in cave paintings, Egyptian and pre-Columbian hieroglyphs, petroglyphs, and megaliths (like Stonehenge). Rock art dates back to more than 6300 BC.

Medieval minstrels wandered the countryside, telling their stories and singing their songs for a meal or a place to sleep. Children learned from parents and grandparents then passed on those learnings when they themselves became elders. In civilizations where recording history was reserved for only a privileged few (usually religious leaders, royalty, or “paid” artisans, and always male), art was the basis for pictorially and verbally describing ongoing cultural developments for future generations. A song sung, story told, poetry recited, live performance, picture painted or chiseled, or form sculpted of a lasting material—these were the ways each culture shared its history. Many, like the colorful totem poles of the North American native cultures or maypoles of ancient Celts and Germanic European cultures, or the hand-made, hand-decorated Native American musical instruments combine several forms of artistry in their storytelling.

The combination of sound and visual art has long been a driving force in perpetuating spiritual beliefs. Shamanic dancers and singers, by practice and performance, interact with a spirit world for guidance ranging from healing to making war. Ancient religions weren’t that different from religious practices today of Islam, Buddhism, Judaisim, or Christianity; all employ singing and chanting, writings, and visual depictions (like paintings and stained glass art) as artistic tools to perpetuate spiritual beliefs.

Regardless of its purpose at the time, art—as history’s storyteller—has traditionally relied on patrons to support it. From ancient gods to medieval (and present-day) royalty to modern cultures where the wealthy want to support the arts (and probably welcome the charitable tax write-off), art in all its forms depends on patronage. Somebody has to pay artists because they rarely earn enough to be self-supporting during their lifetimes. (Perhaps that’s the origin of the term royalties?) By whatever its name, the percentage payments to artists, writers, and musicians represent a mere fraction of what their original work earned for their publishers and patrons.

One thing is clear from telling history through art: When civilizations are fearful and faced with exceptional stress (usually due to war or health issues), they turn to art, especially music, for comfort. Equally clear is that “art” is synonymous with “creativity.” When the need to make or share art is curtailed by difficult circumstances, artists and their patrons will find a way to overcome it and create a new path. The more dire or difficult the situation, the more important it is to use artistic expression to record its historical significance.

That’s exactly what we are seeing today with Covid down the “normal” ways to share art, to tell our stories visually and vocally. Embracing technologies that were mostly foreign to us only a few years ago, we’ve discovered and mastered new ways to show and tell, to listen and learn, to gather without “physically” gathering. Shared art for us today is s comfort in troubled and uncertain times. It’s also our responsibility to support our artists and artisans so they can continue the human perspective of using art to tell our history for future generations. Our progeny and their descendants depend on us to share the past in the hope that they will learn from it.