This letter is dedicated to all those artists, historians, and humanitarians who find themselves in this quandary of deciding what is important and what is not. I certainly do not have the answer. I do not believe there is one, only questions about the role history plays in the life of our planet Earth.
Does preserving material artifacts and records of our historical achievements and failures have a lasting effect on the living? How important is it to preserve our art and historical and cultural history? Is it worth losing a life over? Many lives? Like I said, this is not an easy question to ask and impossible to answer, but, if we do take a moment to think about it, it may help us get past our own limited abilities long enough to feel we have a path forward that make sense because we took some time to think about our actions and our reasons to care.
Let us start at the beginning, or the beginning of history as we know it. How do we know it? We look at the ancient material things that were left by earlier civilizations and we ascertain much about how they lived on this earth. But, we do not actually experience any of these physical realities. We rely on “expert” humans who claim to know what the bones of dinosaurs mean. We rely on scientists to explain would they suspect happened when observe the remains of these civilizations and the physical pieces of what is left to indicate they existed. Few of us will ever see any of these articles in person or visit the ancient world and if we do we are not “educated” to understand what we are looking at…
For those of us who revere history and feel embolden by its lessons this raises all kinds of problems that are becoming more apparent as we dive into the digital age. Few non-religious people would have questioned the science behind the stories up until now. Now that we see how easily humans are tricked into believing what they want to believe, it becomes more difficult to know who and what to trust. That has to include the history that we are trusting to be true. There is not way to know for sure that the forks and spoons and knives we see were used on meat or plants, and what the quality of the food was that sustained people at the time they were eating out of those broken pottery shards. At some point, we all must decide who and what to trust as reality. How do we decide this?
Up until recently we thought we were all looking at the same data and trussing the experts to tell us what it means, but with the new strange universe we are delving into we must wonder, how do we know who to believe. All of the science cannot be true. We must use our judgement to determine which scientists to believe. How we determine that will be largely based on our education and our understanding of history, but we just realized we don’t really know anything for sure about what happened before us.
I did not live through the American Civil War, World War II, the Korean War, or much of the Viet Nam War, yet, I feel like I know things about them. Not everyone agrees on what happened and how. What colors my opinions? How do I arrive at my view of history while others arrive at a different one?
As it appears our education system is shifting, along with our values, how will this color the history we leave behind us? Does this make our contemporary art more important than ever to bridge the gap or does this change the course of human history in a way that nothing we do will leave a mark because no Thing is sacred and deserves preservation?
This is the beginning of the quandary I find myself in as an artist activist. Do my writings and artistic expressions make any difference at all? Will our books be preserved I the digital realm to be found centuries later and appreciated or are we living in the age of automatic destruction of all that is human that takes up space, uses resources, and deprives other humans from their “share”? How does one determine what the “share” of resources is or should be?
I started this quandary thinking about our friends who are taking extreme risks to preserve both human life and human history and culture in countries that do not protect either. Just thinking about how humble of an experience it must be for those who are risking their lives to protect other humans and cultural treasures gives me pause over what my meager efforts can accomplish as long as I hold onto my own precious life and the reality I have built around my beliefs of my own importance.
As I consider the effects some lives have had on others, I must think about how my life may be viewed by some future civilization and what is important to leave behind. One of the first questions one comes to is the question of the future generations and what will help or hinder them when we are gone. Humans, as they now exists, will not live forever, but the pyramids might. Anything other than the living might last as long as the planet allows, and that could be a really long time. If one thinks about time and the continuum of history that way, it might make more sense to be a preservationist, simply because it is physically possible to preserve things but not people.
This is my want of starting to understand how I reach the point of becoming a preservationist, much like my earlier relatives did. There is no way to ask my late parents or relatives why they were so attached to preserving their piece of history and their memories in their communities, but, I can begin to explore my own feelings and emotions when it come to my decisions and actions. I can also consider what I want to leave behind, and somehow the digital world does not seem like a very good choice of monument. The digital world is not secure or real. The digital world depends on resources to exist. The digital world may be the first thing future humans jettison when faced with the question of dividing up the resources.
Physical things, like bridges, buildings, and dams, art and books may be the only thing we leave that lasts. How should one choose to leave a personal stamp or legacy and does it matter? I leave it up to the real philosophers to continue this quandary that is part of the human condition regardless of your religious beliefs, or your choice of science and history.