A little while ago I was in a situation where I was introduced as an ‘artist’. It triggered the onset of impostor syndrome and I completely freaked out. So I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I don’t see myself as an artist. I paid zero attention during art class at school. I mean, I don’t even know how to define art. When my daughter asks, ‘What’s art Dad?’, I don’t know where to start - how does a thing even earn that label?

You see ‘art’ used to describe things all the time, you find it in book titles and headlines. Books like ‘The Art of War’, or Donald Knuth’s ‘The Art of Computer Programming’. Wait a second. So conflict and working with computers can be art? If I follow certain guiding principles? Shieeet. Maybe my life is one kooky piece of performance art.

The first rendition of the mandelbrot set from 1978, and a modern rendition of the julia island.

Even abstract computation gets labelled as art, take a set of complex numbers. You remember those from school right? Those wacky numbers that consist of a real number and an imaginary unit. Yeah imaginary numbers, because how the hell else are you going to solve x2 + 1 = 0? Sorry, I got distracted by linear algebra. Anyway, take a group of complex numbers and plot them. Robert Brooks did this first in 1978 and came up with a rendition of the Mandelbrot set on the left. Sprinkle in a few decades of improvement in computer hardware, zoom in a little and you get the rendition on the right.

Yeah, all those common uses of art as a label didn’t help me much either. I am still pretty clueless when it comes to understanding art. Simply because the number of things that can be categorised by the label art is huge.

So here I was fumbling around in the dark like your average philistine when I read about a lion-human figurine carved from the ivory of a wooly mammoth. The Löwenmensch is a 35,000 year old sculpture that was found inside a German cave in 1939. I think it is kinda cool, and often gets labeled as one of the first indisputable examples of ‘art’.

The lion-human 'lowenmensch' figurine. A 35,000 year old carving that was discovered in a german cave in 1939.

The human who made this lived in a very different time. They probably lived in a small tribe of hunters and gatherers. I imagine they spent a most of their time scrounging for food and trying not to get their arses eaten by lions. Yet despite these challenges, they managed to find the 370 hours that historians have estimated it took to carve the Löwenmensch. That is over nine weeks of full time labour. I like to imagine that this was their job, as the world’s first professional ‘artist’. That they didn’t scrounge for food and worked out a way to get paid in mammoth steaks for their carving efforts. Or maybe it was more of a hobby? Something they chipped away at during the evenings around the coals of the fire before they settled down for a snooze?

But reading about the Löwenmensch helped me understand a definition of art. It isn’t even that wanky or scary. Art is just the physical manifestation of things we can imagine. The ability to convey to others what exists only in our imaginations. It’s also kind of what makes us human; to daydream and to create. But just because we all can imagine and convey ideas doesn’t necessarily make us ‘good’ artists - I think that is going to be a much harder question to answer.

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