Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (1512); Shell Silverstein, My Beard (1974)
Humans were naked for a very long time (we have probably always been shy in comparison to other primates - unusual in our desire to mate privately, but typical in our interest in watching others copulate). Predating cloths it appears our species long enjoyed a peculiar variety of accoutrement. In Bill Bryson's book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, he tells a story that confounds the anthropologist Ian Tatersall:
Sometime about a million and a half years ago, some forgotten genius of the hominid world did an unexpected thing. He (or very possibly her) took one stone and carefully used it to shape another. The result was a simple teardrop-shaped hand-axe, but it was the world's first piece of advanced technology.
It was so superior to existing tools that soon others were following the inventor's lead and making hand-axes of their own. Eventually whole societies existed that seemed to do little else. "They made them in their thousands," says Ian Tattersall. "There are some places in Africa where you literally can't move without stepping on them. It's strange because they are quite intensive objects to make. It was as if they made them for the sheer pleasure of it."
From a shelf in his sunny workroom Tattersall took down an enormous cast, perhaps half a metre long and 20 centimeters wide at its widest point, and handed it to me. It was shaped like a spearhead, but one the size of a stepping stone. As a fiberglass cast it weighed only a few ounces, but the original, which was found in Tanzania, weighed 11 kilograms. "It was completely useless as a tool," Tattersall said "It would have taken two people to lift it adequately and even then it would have been exhausting to try to pound anything with it."
'What was it used for then?'
Tattersall gave me a genial shrug, pleased at the mystery of it. "No idea. It must have had some symbolic importance, but we can only guess what.'"
This means that over a million years before we began to speak, we were carving stone for the sheer joy of it. Physical, not linguistic, dexterity is therefor at the root of our humanity. Among all the species on earth only spiders have invested as heavily as homo sapien sapiens in fine-sensory motor control. But as Tattersall explains, these things were the Humvee of stone tools, taking two individuals to even lift the thing. A mechanic once broke the news to me that my car would never run again by blunting telling me: "Its art." Over a million years before automobiles became stand-ins for our status (or lack there of) it seems humans were already over compensating. Because these were "completely useless as a tool" so its not a stretch to further assume they are the very first examples of George Kubler's "useless objects" - art.
The heroic evolutionary story I grew up with was that we were hunter/tool makers like the spiders, but it appears that we more closely resemble the domestic preening of bowery birds than the deadly engineering of arachnids. As an artist I find this idea particularly attractive. Turns out the nursery of our species was a sculpture studio not a munitions factory. But beyond professional self-justification, I also find it agrees with my own experience of the curious brand of pleasure I receive from the things I am most intimate with - the erotic life of objects if you will.
The pleasure I get from things often surprises me. It often comes to mind when I find myself am putting away my shoes, tidy up my bookshelf or unloading my pockets at the end of the day. The pleasure I sometimes experience in relation to the object I live with most intimately is not unlike what I feel when I am looking at myself in the mirror: always interesting, but mysterious. Who can say why our own reflection makes for such compelling viewing? Like most people I really enjoy looking at beautiful people. I don't find myself to be particularly handsome, but all the same, just like most every other human on the planet I am fascinated with my reflection. It is much the same with the things I am most intimate with. I have no illusion that they are valuable to anyone else (I don't own that kind of stuff), but I am really happy to have them.
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (1512); Shell Silverstein, The Giving Tree (1964)
My favorite pillow is a dense heavy under stuffed thing. I have had for as long as I can remember. My mom used to play a cat-and mouse game on hot summer days. As a very little boy I figured out that if I put my pillow in the freezer, it would stay ice cold long enough for me to get to sleep (I still love a cold pillow). I remember my mom repeatedly busting me; explaining that it was not sanitary to put a pillow in with food. I can't blame her, it is a particularly gross pillow, but I love it, and the game of freezer-pillow-cat-and-mouse only ended when I moved out on my own and got my own freezer. There is obvious nostalgic (a term originally used to describe mental illness that suits this particular relationship perfectly) value to an object like my pillow that partly explains my attachment to it. In my defense however, it worth saying that every lover who has shared my bed has both teased me about it but also fought me for it.
Lincoln was right to hold those over 40 responsible for their faces, but even babies can be judged by the things they love. The same is obviously true about our species. (Continue Reading Part 5)
Shell Silverstein, The Giving Tree (1964); detail of recent Tree of Life