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June 17, 2003

Half Baked Notions, Redux


A paragraph from your recent posting, Some Half-Baked Notions I Couldn't Figure Out How to Fit in Other Postings, prompted some rather half-baked notions of my own. (These notions are based on several ideas I’ve come across recently; the half-baked element no doubt arises from how I’m stringing them together, assuming I’m understanding what I’m reading in the first place.)

You write:

The American commercial-art world is often amazingly proficient and impressively dynamic. It's also, or so many people find, scarily aggressive. Its values, it seems to me, are basically the values of money, technology and business, with even sex and art put at the service of them. Plus, if you're a creative person making a living there, the chances that you'll ever be able to do much of your own thing are pretty slim. You'll be putting your talent and energy to work selling business values instead.
My half-baked notion is that you may be mistaken in assuming that there is a contradiction between art and commerce, because—at least in their origin—art and commerce seem to have shared the same root. I had this thought yesterday when reading an article in the July 2003 Scientific American by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, “Uncovering the Keys to Lost Indus Cities.” Professor Kenoyer summarizes some of the findings of archeological studies of cities in the Indus Valley (in what is today Pakistan), which was the site of one of the four early urban cultural centers (the others being Mesopotamia, Egypt and China’s Yellow River.) Much less is known, admittedly about this culture than the other three, because nobody has yet found an Indus-valley Rosetta Stone that would permit scholars to read the voluminous preserved writings of this culture.

Nonetheless, certain elements seem well established. While the economics of the Indus valley cities appear to have been pretty much like those of the other ancient riverine civilizations, there appears from the beginning to have been a very significant role for trade:

The Indus cities established their economic base on agricultural produce and livestock, supplemented by fishing and hunting. Both the common people and the elite classes derived additional income from the production and trade of commodities, including cotton and woolen textiles as well as a variety of craft items.

During the oldest, or Ravi phase of the city-state of Harappa (approximately 3300 B.C.E. to 2800 B.C.E.), the locals were cranking out, and trading, a considerable amount of, well, art:

Specialized craft technologies spread among the early settlements along trade networks, which likewise disseminated a shared set of religious symbols and artifact styles throughout the region...In the limited exposed areas of the Ravi-period Harappa, investigators have turned up signs of the production of both terra-cotta and stone beads and bangles. The terra-cotta items were probably worn by children or commoners, or both, whereas the more exotic stone and seashell ornaments most likely adorned local upper-class populations. Through careful analysis of the raw materials and comparison to known source regions, archeaeologists have shown that some of the raw materials used by the ealy Ravi craftsmen arrived at ths site from 300 to 800 kilometers away.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the origins of commerce in this early urban civilization seem to have been in the trading of art/craft production and their associated raw materials.

Moreover, the intercourse between culture and commerce ran both ways. The original writing system of the Indus Valley civilization, the Early Indus script, which emerged in 2800-2600 B.C.E., seems to have been developed to document commercial trade and ownership of trade goods.

Stamped Glazed Seal of an Indus Valley Merchant

A significant amount of the surviving use of Early Indus Script writing is preserved in the form of clay seals:

Merchants employed seals to indicate ownership of storefronts or bundles of goods by stamping clay tags, or bullae, over a cord or a secured door. These square seals, carved in intaglio with geometric or animal motifs, served as economic documentation.

Interestingly, what is oddest about the Indus Valley culture is the absence of organized military activity. This, unlike the other three early riverine centers of civilization, appears to have been a culture built primarily around trade, not conquest:

The fully urban phase of Harappa…began around 2600 B.C.E. and continued until around 1900 B.C.E. For seven centuries Harappa was one of the largest and most powerful economic and political centers in the Indus Valley, despite the seeming lack of an army. During the spring and late-summer trading seasons, the city would have hosted hundreds of traders who attracted thousands of people from the surrounding rural areas.

Turning from the Indus Valley to Mesopotamia, where the Sumerian writing system (apparently the earliest still extant) was developed, we again find the same connection between the invention of writing and the need to document commerce. According to one account, which you can read in full here:

It is actually possible to trace the long road of the invention of the Sumerian writing system…[B]efore the appearance of writing in Mesopotamia, there were small clay objects in abstract shapes, called clay tokens, that were apparently used for counting agricultural and manufactured goods. As time went by, the ancient Mesopotamians realized that they needed a way to keep all the clay tokens securely together (to prevent loss, theft, etc), so they started putting multiple clay tokens into a large, hollow clay container which they then sealed up. However, once sealed, the problem of remembering how many tokens were inside the container arose. To solve this problem, the Mesopotamians started impressing pictures of the clay tokens on the surface of the clay container with a stylus. Also, if there were five clay tokens inside, they would impress the picture of the token five times, and so problem of what and how many inside the container was solved.

Subsequently, the ancient Mesopotamians stopped using clay tokens altogether, and simply impressed the symbol of the clay tokens on wet clay surfaces. In addition to symbols derived from clay tokens, they also added other symbols that were more pictographic in nature, i.e. they resemble the natural object they represent. Moreover, instead of repeating the same picture over and over again to represent multiple objects of the same type, they used diferent kinds of small marks to "count" the number of objects, thus adding a system for enumerating objects to their incipient system of symbols.

In short, it appears that commercial accounting systems were the root of all written literature, whether ultimately dramatic, historical, or religious.

Looks Like Art to Me: A Sumerian Signature Seal

This may well be less odd than it might at first appear. I remember being struck by a statement which I read a few years ago that the movement of goods is not enough to constitute commerce; the movement of goods must be accompanied by a corresponding flow of information, in the form of invoices, credit balances, etc. In other words, if trade is to evolve beyond simple barter into a system involving many different human actors across significant distances, it needs a way of keeping score, of interlinking and signaling what’s going on in the overall system to the various players. It’s hard—for me, anyway—not to see commerce as a sort of prototype for human culture in general, all of which works as a sort of signaling or information processing system between and among multiple human participants.

Moreover, this appears to have repeated, on a social level, a form of evolution that apparently occurred billions of years earlier in primitive life. According to Matt Ridley’s 1999 book, “Genome,” the earliest known ancestors of life were apparently RNA molecules:

Back before the first dinosaurs, before the first fishes, before the first worms, before the first plants, before the first fungi, before the first bactyeria, there was an RNA world—probably somewhere around four billion years ago…These [RNA-based] organisms had a big problem. RNA is an unstable substance, which falls apart within hours. Had these organisms ventured anywhere hot, or tried to grow too large, they would have faced what geneticists call an error catastrophe—a rapid decay of the message in their genes. One of them invented by trial and error a new and tougher version of RNA called DNA and a system for making RNA copies from it, including a [molecular] machine we’ll call the proto-ribosome…And so was born a more sophisticated creature that stored its genetic recipe on DNA, made its working machines of protein and used RNA to bridge the gap between them.

This suggests a (possibly half-baked) analogy to me. Just as RNA is fragile and quite temporary, so are people and their memories. Just as DNA is able to store information in a more stable form than RNA, so writing and other forms of symbolic representation are able to store information in a more stable form than the individual human mind. Just as RNA turns the information stored in DNA into working proteins, the human mind can convert the information stored in writing into valuable actions. Just as the size and environmental limitations of RNA creatures were overcome by creating a more stable information storage system, so were the size and environmental limitations of human societies overcome by creating a more stable information storage system.

And, it appears to me, accounting systems and art are both, in their way, stable information storage systems. And thus, in essence, from the cultural point of view the very same thing.

Any thoughts on this no doubt tenuous string of (half-baked) notions?



posted by Friedrich at June 17, 2003


That was all very interesting. The thought occurs to me that if you crossed a work of art with an accounting spreadsheet you would perhaps end up with a musical score, which is quite close to being both at once.

Posted by: Graham Lester on June 17, 2003 2:43 PM

Fascinating posting, thanks. (I loved Graham's notion too.) I suspect we're really on the same side, though I may have been unclear. I don't think it's a matter of art vs. commerce myself -- in fact, I'd highly recommend, to anyone who does think art and commerce are necessarily in conflict, Tyler Cowen's firstrate book "In Praise of Commercial Culture." What I'm probably doing a lousy job of is taking note of the way fine-art values and business values often seem to be in conflict in America. People experience them that way. It's business values vs. art values, the businessman vs. the artist and vice-versa. Like I say, whether I personally think so or not. So I wonder, Why is this such a pronounced pattern in our culture? I come up with a variety of halfbaked possible explanations. I guess the one I favor most at the moment is simply that our commercial culture is so damn successful, so damn aggressive, and so damn all-consuming that it can be scary -- art values, or at least subtlety, may tend to flee from it, or see it as monstrous and want to demonize it.

But by no means do I think much of my own explanation here. Got any better ways to explain the perpetual American art-vs-commerce wars?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 17, 2003 5:45 PM

Thanks for your idea, Graham, I'm going to have to chew on it for a while (it seems to have some serious intellectual juice.)

Michael--I know you're not really an art vs. commerce guy, I was just using that one paragraph to hang my musings off of. If my intuition is correct--that art is actually a form of commerce, or both are forms of cultural exchanges--I would say that the perception of the two as different lies in the fact that high art presupposes a small scale, two-way interaction, whereas as a result of mass market advertising, commerce (and commercial art, its handmaiden) seem like an oration, delivered by a corporation with a bullhorn, silencing the consumer and rendering him or her a passive participant. I mean, I may catch a glimpse of Steven Spielberg around L.A., but I'm not going to go up to him and argue about the approach he took to his latest movie. Whereas, I can very easily imagine an educated Florentine in the early 1500s getting in Michelangelo's face with opinions on the David. The artist of that time (to say nothing of artists or craftsmen in the era of Harappa) had neither the social standing nor the corporate muscle to blow off his audience/customers (Granted, it's possible Michelangelo would to tell you to go to the devil, but that's a more normal human interaction.) So the biggest problem in modern America to a dialogue between the average American and the fine artist is probably the intimidating nature of contemporary high art. Isn't it sad; that very stance was almost certainly adopted in order to get noticed in the first place!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 17, 2003 8:59 PM

Ah, I get you now, thanks for the explanation. I'd run across the writing-was-invented-to- keep-track-of-accounts fact too, and was also struck by it. Many arts materials have very non-arty origins, and it's something I'd love to see more arts people try to digest. There seems to be something about people (some people, anyway) that makes them take something that has some utilitarian purpose and just start to toy with and mess with it. First computers, and now blogging, I guess.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 18, 2003 1:39 AM

A minor point I might make is that while writing was invented to facilitate trade, storytelling has been a part of the human experience much longer. It's when the two intersect that the art is created.

Posted by: Deb on June 18, 2003 9:22 AM

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