What is the meaning of art? Why is it created? Where does its value lie? How has the answer to those questions changed throughout time? It’s one of the few things that pulls humans together across languages and cultures, breaking barriers that have been harbored throughout history. Is any of it real though? Is there more to its meaning that we continually ignore or is it simply a facade that endlessly keeps our minds occupied with some perceived escape from reality?
These are questions that have mingled throughout my mind quite often in the past couple years and I recently stopped by a park where 4,000 year old pictures still decorate cavern walls in an attempt at finding some answers.
Clouds heavy with a rain that would never come hung low in the sky. An endless desert of rock reached out for miles in every direction as I drove down a lonely highway further away from any semblance of life. A drab slate grey peppered with white filled every inch of my view while the call of a raven echoed throughout the atmosphere enveloping the world in an aura so ominous only those that dared to face an apocalypse commenced on the adventure.
Minutes turned to hours as I began to question if traversing this far into the abyss would lead to any sense of discovery. It’s out in the far reaches of the world that I find most of my moments of reflection yet getting there often leads to an absence of any anchor that keeps me attached to reality. The further I push into the void, the less I feel like I am really here. That in itself is such an apt description of exploration and if I think even deeper an analogy for my entire being. Luckily, there is always something that can pull me back and just as I felt like I was loosing it, a sign appeared pointing me to a visitor center and back into the world of humans that I knew.
I immediately set off for the canyon rim, eager to explore the area that was inhabited by some of the earliest know people. The Pecos people lived throughout this area as a unique set of hunter gatherers, having turned what was now a desert into a farmland full of onions, persimmons and other plants. Hunting was more rare but deer were the prime source of food and also thought to be the source of fat used for the paintings the left behind. This has led some to speculate that the pictures held some sort of meaning to the people if a food source was used in their production opposed to having been eaten. All throughout western Texas there is evidence of these people but here along the Devils River.
As much as the wilderness grasped at the fibers of my soul, I had come here to see the ancient art that had lived throughout the millennia and the only way to do that was through a tour. The thought of having to explore these depths with other people gnawed at my stomach like a tapeworm ravenously consuming all the nutrients intended for myself. Over the years, I have become so detached from the average person, so accustomed to going where I wanted on my own terms, that a selfishness had overtaken my person. Realizing this, I felt a slight wave of disgust at who I had become. Everyone that had come this far into the wilderness was an explorer within themselves. They had more in common with me than a cursory view would ever expose. I could learn from them just as I could learn from the world. This is a lesson I constantly have to remind myself of.
A ranger took us down to the canyon floor offering as much knowledge as he could about the Pecos people that originally lived in these walls. To try and understand this civilization, we had to forget everything that we knew about Texas and ignore everything we saw with our own eyes. We look at this area today and try to empathize by imagining how we would live here today but in reality, thousands of years ago the world would have been completely different. The Ice Age would have recently ended and todays rocky deserts were yesterdays oceans and forests. The wasteland that we have a hard time fathoming how to live in would have been indescribably different to the point that attempting to truly understand their world was almost an exercise in futility.
We climbed up the walls to a rock face where drawings still decorated the walls and the group tried to make sense of what we were seeing. Faded red dyes told a story but of what we could only guess. The most common picture was of a human like figure with a bull like head accompanied by a raven. In each picture its arms were outstretched as if it was welcoming something greater than itself. Worm like blobs pervaded the empty spaces repeating this single pattern throughout all the separate walls. Deer with gorgeous antler prancing through most scenes. My mind kept returning to the thought that this must be symbolic of whatever religion they created for themselves. Or was it?
When we look back at history, we do it through the lens of the present. In doing so, a bias is put towards viewing their world as if it was our world when in fact, we usually have a completely different context than the people of the time. To truly understand the past, we have to view the world through the lens of the past. So what were these pictures about?
The ranger informed us that any interpretation would only be speculation. These drawings were created so long ago that there was really no way to put any of it into context. I examined the paintings as closely as I could thinking about what value they held if we could never understand. Did it lie in us attempting to think that even through time and cultures, as humans we would still have the same nature and make art to represent our passions and beliefs? Was it as a relic of the past, simply existing and reminding us that even thousands of years ago humans were still here? Or was there no intrinsic value left to these? All answers are probably yes and no. I slowly wandered back to my car, deep in thought.
There was no sunset that evening as I slowly returned to the comfort of Interstate 10 and the culture that I had grown up accustomed to. A gradual fade into the darkness of night brought a tranquility to the world that blanketed my soul like a warm comforter on a winter evening as my mind ran wild with introspection on the days events.
I had found no answers, only more questions. My ignorance was becoming ever more pervasive as I realized more how little what I thought I knew mattered. My insignificance became ever more apparent the more I learned, the more I thought. What did any of it matter anyway. In 1000 years these discussions were sure to continue on while the current population analyzed the past with the blinders of their present. Just as I tried to understand the Pecos they would try to understand me but just as I couldn’t truly learn while being so far removed, they would face the same problem.
There was a subtle beauty to this though. Although upon creation the art primarily held meaning to the creator it was the new interpretations that kept it alive throughout the annals of time. Then the question became not “does its value lie with the creator or the consumer” but “has the artist been able to achieve immortality through their vision”. If they have then a thing more than beauty has been created.
Closest Supercharger Ozona TX (91 mi)
1307 Ave A, Ozona, TX 76943
Seminole Canyon State Park
US-90, Comstock, TX 78837