The Impulse to Create

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jul 24, 2019 6:50PM

Thinking Prehistory on a Dallas Street.

Over the course of human history, handmade tools have nurtured our well-being and helped us to survive. Of these, the handaxe—archeologists and art historians maintain—is the longest used, and perhaps, the most venerable. A handaxe is a prehistoric stone tool, and the overwhelming majority that have been found are essentially ordinary objects, which were likely used for tasks such as digging, cutting, scraping, chopping, piercing, and hammering. But some are exceptional, as the exhibition First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone demonstrates, raising new questions about aesthetics and intent: What prompts the maker of a handaxe to create an object that is exceptional, and that perhaps transcends its utilitarian function, becoming sculpture? At what point does an individual decide to make art?

The ramifications of considering the handaxe as the first sculpture are profound, not only as it relates to our understanding of art, but in the way that it undermines conventional ideas about what art is and can be. In so doing, it also compels us to rethink the idea of the museum in its ever changing role in the contemporary world.

Mary Ellen Mark photographs on The Stewpot, Park Avenue, Dallas, October 2017. Photograph by Alan Govenar

While I never thought about the handaxe when I conceived The Museum of Street Culture in 2012, I can now see its relevance to the work I was then undertaking to energize new interdisciplinary perspectives to focus on areas of art, history, and ideas that had been marginalized, neglected, and overlooked. I had been approached by a group of volunteers from the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas to help them organize exhibits and public programs related to the history of the 508 Park, a building they had acquired to expand the services and outreach of The Stewpot, which offers a safe haven for homeless and at-risk individuals, providing resources for basic survival needs, as well as opportunities to start a new life.

The challenge of linking these social services with the history of 508 Park building was daunting. 508 Park was built by Warner Brothers in 1929 as a film exchange, where in the mid-1930s, 843 recordings were made of African American, Anglo, and Mexican music. While I had written extensively about different styles of vernacular music as distinct art forms, I realized that if the blues singer Robert Johnson, for example, had not been a musician, he might have been homeless, like so many others during The Great Depression. Historically, African American blues, Western swing, and Mexican conjunto music had such a great appeal because they gave voice to the voiceless—they spoke to the hardships, joys, and aspirations of people on the street. The street is a place where people of all cultures, faiths, and socioeconomic backgrounds coexist, and sometimes come together in unexpected ways.

The Museum of Street Culture at Encore Park, in the heart of a historic area of downtown Dallas—flanked by the Farmers Market, City Hall, and the Main Street District—validates the history and everyday experience of people in public places through diverse forms of art, education, and new ideas, activating social change and building community. It is on the street and about the street. Over the next year, the photographic exhibition Looking for Home: A Yearlong Focus on the Work of Mary Ellen Mark, which opened in October 2017, will engage all areas of Encore Park, including The Stewpot, the 508 Park building, the 508 Amphitheatre and Community Garden. Through education programs, docent tours, and film screenings, The Museum of Street Culture hopes to involve artists and the public at large in an unprecedented dialogue about the experience of people who are often ignored, dignifying what is often seen as unimportant and irrelevant and breaking down stereotypes of both museum and homelessness.

Mary Ellen Mark photographs on The Stewpot, Park Avenue, Dallas, October 2017. Photograph by Alan Govenar

The parallels between the First Sculpture exhibition and the mission of The Museum of Street Culture are significant, especially as it relates to the importance of little-known, or completely unknown, makers of art forms that defy generalization—whether they are handaxes, drawings, paintings, or sculpture, or, for that matter, other artifacts of material culture, both utilitarian and decorative. Walking sticks or canes, for example, have likely existed since the need for them was identified, and perhaps their use dates back to prehistoric times, although, given the organic nature of the wood, roots and vines out of which they were made, they have not survived.

Individuals who live on the street recognize the fundamental value of tools. Handmade spoons and knives are like handaxes to the extent that they are functional, although some are more ornate and elaborate. The origins of the spoon are unknown, but archeological findings can date the use of the spoon to as early as 1000 BC. Spoons, unlike forks or knives that are hand-crafted or manufactured, can be found, usually without handles, in naturally occurring forms, such as seashells or shaped stones. Like the handaxe, the spoon was not merely functional, but could have exceptional characteristics. Spoons made from ivory, wood, flint, and slate might have decorations that were carved, shaped, or painted with an aesthetic intent for social and cultural purposes. Over the course of the Greek and Roman empires, spoons made of bronze and silver were commonplace among the wealthy, and this tradition continued for centuries. In the Middle Ages, the coronation of every British king included a ritual where the new monarch was anointed by a ceremonial spoon. During the Tudor and Stuart periods, it became customary to give an Apostle Spoon as a christening gift.

The impulse to make functional tools into aesthetic objects is universal, whether it is evidenced in a handaxe, a spoon, or perhaps a combination tool that was and remains relatively easy to use. The so-called “hobo knife” dates back to the 19th century, when companies began to manufacture a utensil designed for eating when traveling, a compact tool that included a fork, knife, and spoon. One of the earliest was a slot knife, mentioned in Joseph Smith’s 1816 book Key to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield, but the design continued to evolve, and during the Civil War, the fork, knife, and spoon combination grew in popularity in the military, but also among the population at large, especially sportsmen and itinerant tramps and hobos. Are spoons and “hobo knives” art? Not necessarily, but they do point to the ways the ordinary can become extraordinary. Certainly, individuals who are displaced or itinerant do make art. We are only beginning to understand the complex relationship between creativity and survival. The Art Program of The Stewpot, for example, has demonstrated that providing training and a studio space to work can help homeless and at-risk individuals better their lives.

Hobo Knives, ca. 1960s. Courtesy Museum of Street Culture. Photo: Alan Govenar

Aside from the potentially therapeutic value of making art, the aesthetic possibilities are immense, even if the artists are not fully aware of the enduring impact of what they have created. For artist Jean Dubuffet, Art Brut was the raw expression of visions or emotions unfettered by the conventions of academic training. In La Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, Dubuffet amassed works by the criminally insane who, during their incarceration or confinement in psychiatric institutions, felt compelled to create paintings, drawings, graffiti, and three-dimensional objects without necessarily seeing themselves as artists. Like handaxes and spoons, works of Art Brut can challenge assumptions about cultural context and the gender of the individuals who created them. How can we know who made them? Women? Men? And are our suppositions and interpretations more about us than them?

Exhibitions such as First Sculpture broaden our appreciation and knowledge of the interplay of art, history, and ideas, and catalyze new conversations about inclusion and exclusion — about trained and untrained artists — and the urgency to place them side by side in the canon of art history.

Mary Ellen Mark photographs on The Stewpot, Park Avenue, Dallas, October 2017. Photograph by Alan Govenar

Written by Alan Govenar

Nasher Sculpture Center