Australian war illustrator Ivor Hele painted jungle fighting in New Guinea during World War II. One day, three men in his unit were killed. Their bodies were left sprawled in the mud while the remaining troops scrambled to dig foxholes. Hele, who felt the tragedy must be recorded, crouched by the bodies to draw them. The soldiers watched him in grim silence.
Then it began to rain.
Without a word, several soldiers left the safety of their foxholes to build a makeshift shelter over Hele with sticks and a tarp so he could finish the precious drawing. These soldiers, who were in the midst of battling for their own lives, felt that Hele's drawing of their fallen comrades was so important that it was worth the risk. Hele later recalled their gesture as "my most moving event in New Guinea."
I would guess these soldiers did not have highly refined taste in art. They would probably flunk a quiz on the difference between modernism and postmodernism. Yet, Hele's experience shows how important and meaningful art can be to human life.
Art used to matter a lot. It is sometimes hard to remember art's original honesty and purpose over the din of today's petty rivalries and internecine squabbling between patrons, collectors, critics and artists.
Art first appeared with the Cromagnons who were barely surviving in the midst of an ice age. They had no spare time for cultural luxuries. Yet, to make their paintings, these prehistoric artists would crawl and climb as far as a mile into dark caves carrying charcoal and the red earth which they used for color. The only light came from flickering grease lamps and pine torches which didn't cast enough light to detect the bears and other dangerous animals living in the caves. It was a very risky occupation to be a cave painter, yet something compelled them to do it anyway.
Art of this vitality and relevance seems pretty remote from most art today.