G.K. Chesterton said, “Art is the signature of man.” Some believe men rose from monkeys. But let the record show, monkeys have no interest in sketching men. It is precisely our urge to sketch monkeys, which separates us from them. As the apologist wrote, if man was “an ordinary product of biological growth, like any other beast or bird, then it is all the more extraordinary that he was not in the least like any other beast or bird.” When ancient man first dipped his thumb into the blood of berries and scraped that red swath across cool granite, he distanced himself from elks and orangutans.
Human history is one of composition. Of course, we’ve come a long way from dancing reindeer and stick men on blackened cave walls. Today, the cave walls are digital and the stick men dance in cyberspace. But whether it’s Mozart or 50 Cent, Rembrandt or Warhol, Aesop or Spielberg, the urge to compose—to create new beings and worlds, new stories and songs—is unique to us. We write, paint, carve and mold; we sit hunched over parchments and tape recorders, laptops and canvas, searching for the right word, the right sound, the right image, yearning to rise above our earthly origins and distance ourselves from elks and orangutans.
Yet the creative spark reveals more about us than just our dissimilarity to animals. In a way, all composition is really decomposition. The word “decompose” simply means “to separate into components or basic elements.” It is to categorize, quantify, sort and stack; it is to break something down to its lowest common denominator.
In reality, we never really create anything: we reassemble existing parts, cut and paste objects and ideas from the known world, reshuffle the deck. Even abstracts are just extracts of the ordinary. I mean, when was the last time a new primary color was invented or a missing musical note discovered? Genuine originality, it’s been said, is rare. I’d venture to say, it’s extinct, dead with the first chisel strike or quill stroke. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” King Solomon said, without crediting his source. Maybe this is why plotlines follow the same basic patterns. Prime time TV is a constant karmic retread of new faces trapped in the same tired tales. Even Hollywood, the summit of artistic inclination, cannot rise above the remake. Musicians are judged by who they sound like (part Bob, Beck and Bruce), actors by who they look like (she’s got Jessica’s hair, Nicole’s eyes and Angelina’s lips) and books by how they read (think Harry Potter with a dash of Steele). Even fantasy worlds look like ours and superheroes like us—with a little tweaking. All our creations are re-creations, omelettes whipped up from yesterday’s leftovers.
For all our ingenuity and technical advances, no matter how many edits and remakes, we cannot rise above the Story Board. We are as fixed to its laws as Frodo is to Middle Earth. We stitch and sketch, dream up and hammer out, but we cannot transcend.
“In the beginning, God created …” He composed. He assembled parts ex nihilo, “out of nothing.” He spread out the canvas and drew His thumb across the celestial swath. We live in that Composition, on that Canvas; we are the parts He assembled. Herein lies our glory and our deficiency.
We create because we are like Him, but we cannot create like Him.
Unlike God, we cannot make something from nothing. Everything we shape, form, order and arrange requires something else. Like a celluloid hero, the laws of the medium bind us. Poets need language and its laws, for without it their craft is made moot. Some musical forms may push the boundaries, but sour notes are not tolerable—even by the most sophisticated. Architecture can be innovative, as long as the foundation is solid. Characters can be fresh, as long as they are believable. Art must correspond to Reality—in fact, it cannot do anything but that.
If art is the signature of man, as Chesterton suggested, then man is the signature of God. And every film, song, poem or novel, no matter how tired or twisted, is an echo of His original act. So let us borrow, bleed and recast the old, tell the Tale a thousand times over. Let us crush the berries, raise the chisel and strike up the band, for tonight we decompose.