Today I find myself thinking of how as the year 2000 approached there was lots of talk of the Greatest X of the 20th Century or the Most Important Y of the Millenium.
When talk came around to the Greatest Artwork of the 20th Century, I certainly had to respect folks who went with Guernica or Le Sacre du Printemps or Seven Samurai. But for me, it's no contest.
For what, other than art, can you call a human being standing on the surface of the Moon? Whatever other explanations one might offer, we went to the Moon not because it was useful, but for the same reason we do all art. We felt at some deep human level that it was simply too compelling an idea not to take the effort to make it happen.
What could be more human? We are curious monkeys. We will risk our lives to know something more about the world. Then, unsatisfied, we will risk our lives again to see it for ourselves. Then, unsatisfied, we will risk our lives again to touch it.
What could be more emblematic of the 20th Century? It would have been impossible before: the integral role of technology, that great force of the century, is obvious. And with that there is also the role of technological hubris. The 20th Century political order gave us governments able to gather the resources ... and driven enough by rivalry to invest those resources into it. Global communications meant that half a billion people could participate in it as it happened.
And to that last point, when we talk about it, we ordinarily say that “we went to the Moon.” Not those three astronauts, not NASA, not the United States of America. We went, all of us. In part as witnesses, yes, but also truly as participants, because doing it took just about everything we had. Everything we knew about nature, and technology, and the human frame ... the wealth of the world providing the resources to build the machines, and to support and train the people who did the work ... the wit and skill of people from around the world ... and everything our ancestors did to bring us to the place where we had enough to work with. All of us, even people like me who were not yet born, as the future witnesses who would make the act immortal.
What will be the greatest artwork of the 21st Century? It's easy to say the next step, but that seems wrong to me. I like the idea of the Clock of the Long Now. But the century is young; it's more likely something I cannot imagine. Whatever it will be, it has a tough act to follow.
Space exploration is art, but we have to keep this secret. We must not say in public that it’s how humanity in a technological age reaches outside itself, how we find a mirror distant enough to see to our edges, how we face the void. Shhh.So people see space exploration as part of the military-industrial complex. And it is. Kind of.
Power wants what it doesn’t have, and it can’t have art. Art needs power’s materials and protection, but fears its responsibilities. Even when they come to terms, power never owns art, only a contract, and art is never safe, only sheltered. High on the cathedrals, the stonecarvers make satirical gargoyles. Space exploration is art, but we have to keep this secret. We must not say in public that it’s how humanity in a technological age reaches outside itself, how we find a mirror distant enough to see to our edges, how we face the void. Shhh.
We have grown some of the great monumental art of our time right on the institutions of fear and violence, like a bromeliad on the saggital crest of a rogue ape. We made a lot of awful compromises to do it. But we did it.
Update: As one would expect, on this subject Carl Sagan brings it.