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Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune 25 September 2005

Monkeys with Car Keys

A couple of years ago, someone gave me a rubber stamp that says:  "Without Art, we are but monkeys with car keys."  I've tried to track down the author of this brilliant little bon mot without luck (if you know, I'd love to hear and give credit).  Obviously, I support the sentiment behind this phrase - that it is our artistic impulse that makes us human.  Yes, more than our opposable thumb or vaunted intelligence.  More than our ability to delude ourselves that chess and NASCAR are sports.  And more than the illusion that the type of car you drive matters.  It is creativity in all its wonderful and varied forms, but most especially in the thing we call art, which separates us from all the other species which share much of our genetic material.  Other primates - even some birds - will exhibit some decorative instincts.  But we're the only ones who love art for art's sake.

That does not mean that you must love all art in order to be human.  Some folks just go in for pretty pictures of flowers.  That's cool.  Some folks like abstract painting, or sculpture.  Some enjoy interpretive dance, or minimalist music, or even the novels of Salman Rushdie.  Great.  There's no real distinction that I make between these, except in terms of personal preference.  I don't tell people that they're "wrong" to like "Cypher" (the sculpture by Albert Paley outside the library) any more than I would tell someone that they are "wrong" to like vanilla.  Sure, I think that "Cypher" is one of Paley's least successful works for a number of reasons, but that doesn't mean that you're not human if you like it.  Quite the contrary.  If you can find joy in something like that, then even if we disagree on the details, we've got a lot in common.

And, really, I wouldn't say that those who have no appreciation for art are less than human.  I'd just say that they've been left out of one of the most wonderful aspects of their birthright.  They've been deprived of the richness, the fullness of experience which comes with being human.

Mark Twain said that the man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.  Likewise, if you choose not to enjoy art when you have the opportunity, then you're poorer for it.

Today is the last day of the City's annual Fall Festival of the Arts.  Take some time this afternoon and go down to the Courthouse Square and check out the offerings there.  There are still 15 scheduled live performances of music and dance, and five different literary readings.  There are some 50 visual artists, offering everything from the lush pastels of Nora Othic to the brilliant watercolors of Frank Stack, Paul Jackson's popular prints or glassware, jewelry, ceramics, photography and a lot more by artists local and regional.  Your kids can create their own artwork, play in the art mazes, interact with others on the magnetic poetry wall, and find out that many recyclable materials are quite useful for creative endeavors.

Also be sure to spend some time with the "Visions" exhibit at First National Bank, one of the Midwest's premier shows of photography.  The Columbia Art League's annual Boone County Art show at Boone County National Bank is something you never want to miss, and will give you a sense of how lucky we are to have so many talented artists here in the area.

So, attend the Fall Festival of the Arts today.  It won't cost you anything (though supporting the arts by like actually buying something from an artist isn't a bad idea, and will help keep your karma clean).  Celebrate the fact that you're not just a monkey with car keys - go enjoy some art.

ADDENDUM, 24 February 2010:  I was contacted by Valerie Shakespeare with information that the quote "Without Art, we are but monkeys with car keys" comes from Tery Fugate-Wilcox, circa 1989.  In 1993 this became the motto for this art gallery in SoHo:  Shakespeare's Fvlcrvm.

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