Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Knife That Cannot Cut

A knife, that cuts, is a valuable and appreciated practical implement, and has been for millennia. A knife that cuts, and cuts extremely well, is treasured as a craft taken to the level of art. And a knife that isn't even useful for the purpose of cutting, but has been totally infused and transformed by pure imagination, can become sought after as a royal treasure and symbol of sheer power and authority.

Business end of Karamojong
spear (about 6 inches)
A friend and I were recently discussing the interrelationship between functionalism and art. I was describing for him some African weapons I possess– a nine-foot spear in particular– that are so beautifully and expertly made, with so little resources available, that they are surely wondrous examples of functional art. The function of these weapons (to intimidate and to kill) has so directed their design and fabrication that a spare and elegant aesthetic has floated to their surface.

The combination of dark steel head and tail (glinting with silver highlights where worn and polished), with amber wooden shaft and hard rawhide edge sheath is a study in contrasting materials. The tapering steel tail is perfectly balanced visually with the curving razor edges of the point. And the art to be appreciated in this spear is not visual only.
Joinery of hand-forged steel
socket and wooden shaft, secured
with hot-melt animal glue

The heft of the spear's mass is satisfying but surprisingly light. The balance is exceptional as gripping the wooden shaft in its center so verifies. The feel of the wooden shaft is incredibly smooth, yet it is hard to imagine it slipping out of the hand, as the diameter perfectly suits the encircling fingers and palm. Shaking the spear activates the weapon system's substantial flexibility and toughness. This is a sculptural work of the highest order. And it can defend and disseminate justice to boot.

North American scraping knife
and simple arrow point,
(circa 18-19th century?)
This kind of art sprouts out of the ground of necessity, but when taken to its final conclusion becomes art of yet another level. I spoke to my friend about another colleague who had become enthralled with amateur archeology. Along the way, he began learning the art of flint knapping– the skill of percussively flaking and shaping a chunk of hard, brittle stone into a useful, sharp-edged tool. This is the craft utilized in the making of stone arrowheads. I once borrowed from him some magazines devoted to the modern revival of this art. On the cover of one of these journals was the photograph of something the likes of which I had not only never seen before, but never even imagined was possible.

A gentleman was holding up a large (10-12 inches long) stone object that apparently had been recently made by himself. As I looked at it closely, it was clear that the object had been made by some flint-knapping technique. But, Oh, WHAT technique! <<Note: I have searched for a photo of this creation but come up empty, so it is not represented here.>>

"Tiny" piece of the Mandlebrot
fractal set
The stone piece was some kind of "knife," but I use the term "knife" with definite reservation, as this "knife" could never be used to actually cut something. Instead of a smooth, continuous and gently curving blade, there was a "blade" that had been totally interrupted by curves within curves within curves. The "edge" had the overall effect of something akin to the Mandelbrot "fractal" set. The detail and complexity of the edge alone nearly took my breath away. And how could something like this possibly be made by the difficult-to-control process of breaking rocks? It seemed close to impossible for a human being to actually make something like this– let alone conceive it in the first place.

Some years after seeing this astounding piece of art, I came across what was probably the inspiration for such a work. There are many (dozens, maybe hundreds) of examples of Mayan archeological artifacts that have been referred to as "eccentric flints." These objects are knife-like flint-knapped ornaments (I hesitate to call them tools) that almost defie description. Many of them possess the same doubly (or even triply) detailed edges like a fractal pattern. One of the most interesting I have come across is in the possession of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Eccentric flint: sacred blade (tok')
© Dallas Museum of Art
This piece is referred to as "Crocodile Canoe With Passengers." The work displays a known Mayan creation myth wherein the first beings ride into existence in a canoe formed from a crocodile-god (presumably, the Milky Way). Knowing some of the highly skilled processes necessary, I cannot even imagine how the artist first approached the creation of this piece centuries ago. And how many attempts were either fatally flawed or even totally destroyed before completing the example the Museum now has? What kind of high-flying imagination and optimism did it take to think that such a thing was even possible?

This kind of art has totally transcended any notion of functionalism. These flints were most probably prized by kings and priests as representative and declarative of their positions of power. These were treasures no longer useful for the practical purpose of cutting something, but instead, were so highly valued simply because they were so rare, so beautiful, and so improbable. The extraordinary difficulty of making such a piece guaranteed that it possessed some power of its own, and perhaps could even bestow some of that power upon its owner.

This brings us back to a central question of "why art?" Perhaps part of our appreciation of and desire to own art is that we, too, desire to somehow have "rub off" on us the power of the art that we so admire– that somehow the beauty and attraction of art can become our own personal attributes as well.

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