Truth and Power: Art from the Brexit Era – through the Eyes of Brendan Pickett

Foreword from Listen To The World

Brexit has been one of the foremost issues in today’s political and economic climate. Large numbers of us often forget that economics, along with politics, are a few “products” of culture. Therefore, they should not be treated as a singular entity, but as an integral part that interconnects with other variables; much like what Brendan realised in his latest exhibition (which is discussed in further detail further on). Furthermore, LTTW also conducted an interview with Brendan to discuss in further detail his views on current socio-political climates, arts, technology, patterns of thinking and behaviour, science and spirituality, etc.

Humans define and seek Truth based upon their own cultural terms (norms, ideology, philosophy, science, etc) and this is also the case with Power. As part of being human, we never stop our search for meanings of life, and finding truth is certainly a fundamental aspect of this. As we see the world today become increasingly polarized, conflicts still exist today due to our lack of understanding in the diversity of Truths as we see them.

Serrano Sianturi; one of Sacred Bridge’s founders kept reminding us that “Human is still, by nature, a territorial being; when the territory is felt threatened, response is taken in many different and sometimes irrational ways. The territory itself is not just physical, but also in abstract forms like science, economy, technology, ideology, etc. In these abstract territories, domination and dependency “co-exist”; the unproportional weight between these two has been the fundamental reason behind the tensions, conflicts and wars among us.”

The great political divide between globalist and nationalist has become the central theme of global politics today. All humans still share important experiences, values, and interests with no individual or race inherently superior to others. Organising intercultural dialog in order to find a collective concern and taking the necessary actions to realise these are more practical and rational solutions than conflict and war.

Some of us see diversity as a threat because of the fundamental human instincts; preference to dominate when one feels threatened rather than to use differences as a way to enrich other’s and the world around us. History teaches us that establishing mutual understanding and respect are two fundamental steps to move beyond “Self-Interest” and “Culture Wars”. The Arts have been powerful vehicles that have successfully broken barriers of uncommon grounds amongst us, which have allowed humans to live in peace and harmony.

Truth and Power reminds us not only about breaking the barriers but also about empowering the diminishing role of arts in society and its relevancy to respond to current issues (social, economic, political). Brendan’s exhibition is certainly a rare platform today that can perhaps give us clues and perspectives into finding solutions to our problems; not only for the future of the United Kingdom but also for the global world. The exhibition took place at the Ringcross community centre in The London borough of Islington.

Truth and Power: Art from the Brexit Era – through the Eyes of Brendan Pickett

By Jason Noghani

Brendan Pickett and I went to a Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition at the Tate modern in 2017, and although we were initially impressed by some of his work (particularly the abstract landscapes realised through his extensive use of photographic techniques), the most recent work of his did not leave the most positive impact on us. In the immediate aftermath of Britain’s EU referendum vote in 2016, Tillmans response was an evidently pro-remain propagandist series of works, making his feelings clear in the work he created. Although I myself voted remain and have considerable apprehension about leaving the EU, I found Tillmans work antithetical to the true function of art. No two people ever experience anything alike, and this is particularly the case with abstract art, of which every artist should take heed of at the onset of a creation. This openness to interpretation is subsequently thought provoking, teaching us to think independently in the process, and the various interpretations of any work of art underlie the potential art has to unite people. Politics on the other hand is inevitably divisive, which emphasises the important role art plays in overcoming these differences, something of which Tillmans failed to observe in his 2017 exhibition, and something of which was the driving force behind Brendan’s magnificently exuberant exhibition in London this month, aptly titled Truth and Power: Art from the Brexit Era.

Brendan is one of the most brilliant and vibrant minds I have met, and during the years of our friendship, we have regularly had stimulating and inspiring conversations exploring a variety of subjects, particularly concerning the sociocultural and political upheavals of our time, and how to respond accordingly as artists. Deeply philosophical by nature, Brendan’s inquisitive and rigorous approach to his work leaves no stone unturned, as he examines the cause and effect behind every decision he makes, and how they bear significance to the bigger picture. This rationalistic and unbiased approach qualifies Brendan as a modern-day classical liberal, enabling him to observe world affairs from a stoic perspective, whilst simultaneously upholding the noble values that made the UK the progressive and visionary country it became over the past few centuries.

Ruminations on Power and Anti-Power

Truth and Power catalogue cover

True to his time, Brendan’s art is a transfusion of old and new, and addresses the recent backlash against post-modernist thinking – namely, how we can continue to create art of intrinsic meaning and value without succumbing to the nihilistic tendencies that we have somehow somnambulated into. The result is an art that could not exist without the various innovations of the 20th century, yet has the depth and consideration that earlier art is still revered for. Brendan personally advocates the notion that “all art is collage,” something of which is perhaps unavoidable at a time where we seemingly “know everything,” although Brendan’s take on this approach shows that innovative and forward-thinking results can be achieved if one is still daring in their approach. The majority of the paintings in this exhibition were inspired by Cubism, tinged with cartoonish elements (Brendan is also a brilliant illustrator and writer of comic books), and a richly psychedelic colour palette that propels the mainly gritty subject matter into transcendent realms of experience – perhaps the glimmer of hope in these times of uncertainty!

The work touches on potentially controversial subject matter, although this is more a reflection of how hysterical political correctness has become rather than the issues Brendan addresses. The paintings were curated into five groups which were interrelated with one another, each containing bold distinguishable qualities that captivated the attendees and drew their attention to particular points of focus. The first group of paintings, simply called Brexit, observed one of the most controversial political issues of our time from an evocatively universal perspective, which in itself renders its necessity for making this work known to the wider public (particularly in Britain!). In Fear of Being Called Racist and Working Class Man Walks Home, issues concerning misrepresentation and stigmatisation of the working class are addressed, reflecting the persecution mania and hardships many typically associated “leave” voters have had to contend with, despite only acting with their best intentions at heart. Satan Loves Politics and One of Two Satanic Choices Does Not a Democracy Make reflect the darkness at the heart of the political sphere, which perhaps could be summarised as the inevitable division that arises as a consequence of having to decide between two equally bad choices – something frequently found in modern day politics! The latter painting also pays homage to The Matrix as Satan is seen holding a blue pill and a red pill in each hand; a popular recurring theme in today’s online culture of “woke” folk being “red-pilled” and all that. It should be noted that these were the only two paintings on display that did not follow a Cubist format, although the anomalous quality Luciferian beings possess made these works perfectly compliment the others, and made them stand out – Satan’s glaring snarl could certainly be felt whenever he caught our eye!

“Soldier Waves Goodbye” | Painting by Brendan Pickett

The second group of paintings are of Conceptual Portraits, all conceived within the Cubist framework, which include portraits of controversial figures such as Russian president Vladimir Putin and provocative right-leaning online philosopher Stefan Molyneux. Soldier Waves Goodbye consolidates the political influence of this particular group, conceived from the contrasting perspective of those on the receiving end of today’s politically instigated decisions, and the poignancy of this particular painting illustrates the grief and despair many soldiers have to endure as a result of these disastrous decisions. This latter painting and Self Portrait of Depression serve as a link to the third group: Male Empowerment. The works in Male Empowerment explore the currently controversial theme of masculinity in today’s world; namely, the perceived notions of “toxic masculinity” in climates of extreme gynocentricism, the plights of despair and depression that afflict many young men today, and the assertion of the importance of a resurgence of the divine masculine archetype that would serve to empower young men who currently feel that odds are stacked against them. The themes in this group explore masculinity from concrete (Liberal Guilt and Male Loneliness) to symbolic perspectives (the male archetype depicted in shapes and representations such as Atlas and Janus), and the contrasting stances intently express the current plight of masculinity with fervent conviction. The content in this group serves as a link to the fourth group: Divine Truth & Power.

Divine Truth & Power takes the exhibition into the esoteric and philosophical realms of thought, which clarifies the rigorous breadth of the explorations undertaken by Brendan. A stunningly elegant Dionysus depicts the Greek God through the Cubist lens whilst still retaining the qualities of Ancient Greek design and architecture, and this painting is framed alongside two paintings of the Venus archetype. These three paintings are perhaps the most outwardly spiritual of the exhibition, given the Deistic themes and elusive qualities apparent in them, and this sense of freedom and aspiration can be discerned in the vibrantly abstract qualities of these works; each imbued with a rich array of colours and elegant attention to details, subsequently demonstrating a commanding prowess and craftsmanship.

The final group consisted of some of the most recent work of Brendan’s, and was titled Will to Power after Friedrich Nietzsche. This group contained what I feel was the masterpiece of the exhibition, a vast montage of contrasting themes and images called Allegory of Power. Brendan’s Allegory can be interpreted in innumerable ways; much like everything else on display, and the bold and confrontational infusion of subject matter is impossible not to be captivated by. Incorporations of images such as the England flag could stir rage in one and feelings of hope and aspiration in another, and the considerate assimilation of such criteria addresses the importance of provoking uncomfortable questions through art in our time. The two most recent works were Gaslighting and The Process of Epistemology, which were completed over the past year, and are testament to the continual evolution and progress of Brendan’s art. Gaslighting develops the function of Janus, in this instance representing the mass confusion induced through the uncertainty of information reliability in the age of “fake news,” and The Process of Epistemology is a brooding somewhat introspective work, quite unlike anything else at the exhibition, and one which I feel looks towards the future; something of which was realised through a renewed approach to Cubist practices after a short hiatus. Coupled with the paintings in this group is a flow-chart called Diagram of Power, which overviews the intricate thought processes that went into this extensive project. When one takes the time to examine the content of this diagram, the brilliant mind behind the work can be seen clearly, and something of which should not be hidden given the riches that were on display!

“Allegory of Power” | Painting by Brendan Pickett

The multitalented Brendan not only exhibited his paintings to the public, he also recited excerpts from his latest novel Clickbait Rats, accompanying the recitations on the piano. Clickbait Rats is a tongue-in-cheek dystopian reflection of our time, exaggerating the behaviours commonly associated with tendencies attributed to the decline of Western values. The vernacular of the text evokes qualities seen in the work of William Burroughs, whilst the jazz-infused harmonies on the piano drew inspiration from the readings of Jack Kerouac, also providing a light relief from the sardonic nature of the text, and giving the performance a tinge of black comedy – perhaps a reflection of how ridiculous our modern-day malaise actually is in the grander scheme of things! It is also interesting to note that Brendan’s approach to writing reflects his approach to art in that his treatment of Beat-inspired literature in Clickbait Rats is examined with equal authenticity to his use of Cubism in the exhibition.

The audience who attended the final night of the exhibition were an intimate gathering of mainly close friends and family, all of whom are distinctly unique individuals in their own right (Brendan’s open-mindedness and fascinating personality have drawn a wide variety of people within his circle) and all of whom bonded through the shared experience of this wonderful event. This reinforced the unifying power that true art possesses; that shared experiences overwhelmingly overcome the petty differences we endure in daily life. I had the honour of sharing this creative journey with Brendan over the past few years, as he continuously shared his thoughts and creative process with me, and therefore I was fully aware of what I was to experience at the exhibition, although seeing these works on display for the first time has had a lasting impact since. To conclude, this is art that needs wider exposure due to its relevance, beauty and imagination, and I truly hope that Brendan receives the recognition he deserves in the foreseeable future! This really is art of our time – a feast for the eyes and mind!

Click here to purchase the exhibition catalogue.

In the Search for Renaissance Men

by Bramantyo Indirawan

Renaissance, derived from the French word that means ‘rebirth’, was an age of ideas and culture taking place in Europe between the 14th and 17th century. According to Renaissance and Reformation (2007), it was an age of artistic splendor, a turmoil on humanism and religion, the birth of new knowledges and paradigms, and an age of war that forge modernity.

This age became a bridge between the middle ages and the enlightenment. From the decay left out by the collapse of Roman Empire since 5th century, a process through hardship in Europe called Renaissance eventually advances into the age of enlightenment in 18th century, illuminating the dark ages with science, culture, and even politics—paving the way for the modern world.

When the west was going through its “dark” time, the east, or Islam in particular, were enjoying its golden age (8th-13 century) where education and culture were flourishing. In the Iberian peninsula intellectuals gathered to learn and understand more about the world. This spirit was aligned with the renaissance concept and we can argue that the golden age of Islam had inspired it. According to Sacred Bridge Foundation (SBF), both ages has the triangulation of arts, spirituality, and science—united and achieved greatness.

Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba (Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral); one of the inter-faith manifestations from Islamic Caliphate period in Cordoba, Spain. | Source: Sacred Bridge Foundation

The term ‘renaissance man’ is founded on the basis of an age where great minds challenge the world they live in. It simply indicate a person that has many abilities or at the very least embrace every knowledge and try to develop greatness in multiple areas. Astronomy, architecture, arts, philosophy, and geometry can be seen as the core knowledge that make someone a renaissance man. wrote that it was Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) from Italy who coined the term. Uomo universale, universal man, or renaissance man means that “a man can do all things if he will,” said Alberti, asserting that man as the center of universe must push their capability to the fullest.

Leon Battista Alberti (left), Leonardo da Vinci (right) | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci  is the perfect example of a renaissance man. Born on 15 April 1452, Da Vinci was a polymath who painted The Last Supper and Monalisa, tackled anatomy by creating the Vitruvian Man, and dwell on other areas such as mathematics, engineering, and astronomy. Throughout this period, there are others who has this multiple expertise, such as Michelangelo Buonarroti who was an architect, a sculptor, painter, and writer, Galileo who put interest in multiple areas such as astronomy, mathematics, physics and philosophy, Alberti was an architect, artist, and priest. From the east we have Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar from Mughal empire outside of Europe whom can be easily considered as a renaissance man from having so many expertise: an architect, an artist, a carpenter, and a writer.

Before the term exist, renaissance men have been around the world for long time. A polymath like Aristotle (384–322 BC) was an expert in many subject areas such as physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, and art. In the east there are Imhotep (2650–2600 BC) from Egypt and Zhang Heng  (AD 78–139) from China who are both considered as personas with multiple abilities.

Head statue of Imhotep (left), A stamp of Zhang Heng issued by China Post in 1955 (right) | Source: and Wikimedia Commons

When age of enlightenment finally arrived, great minds still challenged and made breakthroughs that eventually shaped the future—our present. Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin are primary examples of renaissance men or polymaths in this era.

Take Albert Einstein for example, can the scientist be called as a modern renaissance man? | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Flash forward to the modern world, do we still have renaissance men who learn multiple knowledges? Having values such as those polymaths of the past by being persistent, critical, and keep on challenging all that goes around them for the betterment and further advancement of the world.

If the notion that people master only one subject to fully understand and be the best in that area, then we are ignoring the fact that all subjects are interrelated. Once one masters a subject, he or she will see that it is connected to other areas of knowledge. We must be willing to explore it, just like a renaissance man would.

Another problem arises when people try to do a lot of things without  bothering to understand the basic principles. For instance, a self-proclaimed painter who can sculpt and write doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is a renaissance man. The same goes for other subjects such as physics and architecture.

Renaissance was about process, being great at multiple subjects seems the very least. The modern men must thrive throughout their own time, pushing boundaries and their own limit to create or try hard at creating something more advance—making a betterment for the people and the world.

The question is, does modern renaissance man exist? Do we really need to understand about the world we live in today as a renaissance man would do? Share your thoughts about who you would consider as modern renaissance men in the comment page below.



Animal “Rights” or Human Obligation

by Pradiva Sawarno

Animal “rights” has been a debatable issue for decades. It covers wide areas of animal-human relationship: hunting, animal experimentation, over-fishing, humane slaughtering, factory farming, pets, to animals used for entertainment. Last year, the issue extended into the art world in an incident where The Guggenheim Museum was urged to pull down artworks that allegedly violated animal rights. Artists argued if Guggenheim should conform to the demand or keep the artworks in display. Guggenheim eventually did pull the artworks down due to pressure and threats of violence toward its staff, visitors, and participating artists.

Along with these arguments, one question comes to mind; what exactly is animal “rights”? To start with, the rights of animals should not include domesticated animals (including pets).  To set the groundwork for this discussion, one must think of the whole ecosystem because this is what actually at stake when humans do not contribute to the well-being of (wild) animals.

But, is there such a thing as (wild) animal rights? Do animals have (or demand) rights, as humans do?


While the concern of animal suffering is not a new idea – many ancient religious scriptures observe vegetarian diet for ethical reasons – animal rights activism in the West have only started in early 19th century. In the modern world, the movement gained traction in 1975 when philosopher Peter Singer published a book titled ‘Animal Liberation’. Singer popularizes the term “speciesism” as comparable to racism or sexism; where it questions why can’t other species have rights just because they’re members of different species? It became the starting point of animal rights activism in the 20th century, paving ways for the establishment of Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Farm Animal Reform Movement, and so on.

One clear point here is that there is no such thing as animal “rights”; what must stand is human obligation. Humans have to do the work to defend animals. Even without the existence of animal rights, there are no justifications for humans to inflict pain on animals. Equipped with a more developed brain, humans have the capacity for critical thinking to establish their own rights. Animals on the other hand, live by the laws of nature. But with a more evolved brain, somehow almost all people have developed a sense of superiority or supremacy over other species, that human is special. When in fact, humans are merely a small part of nature that must, in the words of Sacred Bridge Foundation, co-habitate with other living beings (including vegetation).

Why don’t vegetation have “rights” while animals do?

Once equipped with the confidence in superiority over Earth, humans have continuously disturbed the nature’s order while the ecosystem should not have been interfered in the first place. One example of human intervention in nature is domestication. Its sole purpose is to fulfill human basic need efficiently through the available technology, with a secondary (or tertiary even) hope that it would prevent further abuse of wild life. The quantity has gone massive and required an enormous land area as the technology advances. When it started thousands of years ago, domestication already began to strip wild animals of their natural instincts and put them at the mercy of humans, animals’ new “pack leader”. Meanwhile, humans feel that they have given the animals shelter and protection. It was said earlier that the groundwork to discuss animal rights should not include pets and domesticated animals.

Why? Well, it shouldn’t even be questioned whether pets and livestock animals deserve better, because their “right” as (wild) animals have already been violated when they were domesticated thousands of years ago. So, by default, they should be treated well for their sacrifice.

Wildlife is a Part of Ecosystem

Having intentionally disrupted the ecosystem, everything humans do to nature has its consequences. This is where the Butterfly Effect – the term that was coined by Edward Norton Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist – takes place. It was first used as a concept for meteorology, where it is impossible to accurately predict a large system such as weather because there are too many unknown variables to account for. The name itself comes from the suggestion that the subtle flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one place could affect the weather condition somewhere in a different place. However, this concept applies beyond weather. This describes how the smallest change even only a fraction to a condition can affect large and complex systems.

People living in big cities might not feel that they’re directly impacted by the change in environment due to their ignorance toward nature. Most people, particularly those who live in urban areas, do not even seem to care so long as they can carry on with their daily lives. There are many things that serve as evidences indicating environmental changes of their surroundings. Extreme weather, intensify wildfires, heavy rain, and flood are a few examples that often cost lives. On the other side, indigenous people living in the wild are most likely to be affected by the changes. People living in the forest depend on sounds and conditions of their surroundings for cues to go about their daily lives. They listen to sounds ranging from insects to bigger predators for their survival; to hunt for food, to read animal behaviors looking for changes in the seasons, and to avoid being preyed upon. Because in the wild, the hunter can become the hunted. While Indigenous people rely on the nature to live, people in big cities may not even  aware of or care when a bulbul greets them every morning outside the window.

Another impact of nature exploitation is excess waste. In a pure ecosystem, nothing is wasted. Everything produced by plants or animals will eventually return to nature. Plants are consumed by omnivores, smaller animals are eaten by predators, carcasses are eaten by scavengers, even droppings are consumed and serve as fertilizers, and the cycle goes on. With excess waste piling up in the environment, nature is left helpless, creating various complications that eventually affect many traditions forged long before mankind began to try to ‘modify’ nature.

One example of inter-dependency of human and animals when it comes to zero waste is the relationship between vultures and the Parsi community in Mumbai, India. This community traditionally exposed the deceased to the vultures in the Dakhmas or ‘Towers of Silence’. It follows a 3,000 year old tradition from the Zoroastrianism of disposing of the dead by exposing it to scavenger birds. However, approximately 97-99 percent vultures have disappeared in the last few decades. Today, the Parsis are desperate to figure out how to continue their 3,000-year old ritual and respectfully take care of their dearly departed in a world with no vultures.

Just like the Parsis, many traditions have a long history of relationship with animals as part of their rituals and sacredness – either wild or domesticated ones.

From Butterfly Effect to excessive waste mentioned above indicate that wild animals existence are very much impact our life.

“Who” is the Animal?

Nature has its way of “responding” to things. Anything that happens within the order of nature will be ‘recycled’ in its own way to sustain its sound ecosystem; anything outside of the order will not be recognized. Today’s climate change is one of the ways the nature responds to unnatural and imposing changes. Like it or not, we are caught in the process because we are the ones making this disturbing change. Humans have created such massive disturbance toward nature’s order, and this is nature’s way of reacting. Inhabitants of the Earth are intrinsic parts of the order of nature, so it must be in compliance with the ultimate common system in which all parts “created” and maintained over millions of years. In this system, no single part functions as the commander in chief as in the military. So, what will happen if we keep dictating nature even after knowing that no single part can ever be the ”pack leader” in the system?

When we talk about wild animals as a part of nature, human’s emotion doesn’t need to play its part, but logic does. Without them, we die – plain and simple. It is our obligation to sustain everything operates within the order. “Animal Rights” on the other hand is just a label (slogan), because it’s impossible for them to fight for their rights. The terms “rights” are human invention only for humanity. Why? Because for us, life matters. And if life matters, do we really think our species would survive on our own? And if we cannot respond to this question, is it still relevant to call our species “Homo Sapiens”?



Stephen Hawking: Returning to the Universe he called Home

[Jakarta, LTTW] Recently the world lost one of the most beloved men of science who constantly questions the universe. Stephen William Hawking passed away at the age of 76 in Cambridge, United Kingdom. The cosmologist was known for his work on black hole, furthering general relativity, and quantum gravity.

Perhaps one of his biggest contributions to mankind is how he successfully reintroduces natural and formal science to the “ignorant majority”—making black hole and big bang as parts of the popular culture. In 1988, A Brief History of Time was published to the world and placed itself as one of the bestselling book of all time. In the book that stood for 237 weeks on Times of London bestseller list, Stephen Hawking explains numerous concepts such as universe, space and time, black holes, and even time travel.

Hawking concludes in the 256-page book; that by principle everyone including philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people can be able to take part in the discussion of why we and the universe exist. He was indeed an author; tackling universe, inviting us to question and answer it together. An “artist” who shows us the wonders of physics and what it can bring to the world.

One of the best minds of our time, Hawking had an exceptional ability to visualize complex concepts and ideas of physics into his head and simplify it. As a scientist he held the honorary Fellow of Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the U.S.A, and was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematic (a position widely known to scientists as the Newton’s Chair, supposedly the most prestigious “chair” in the science world) at the University of Cambridge. He also had several other publications, with The Grand Design (2010) as one of his last books he co-authored.

Behind the brain there is the persona of a man. Sitting on a wheelchair with his head slightly tilted, he spoke with a speech-generating device to verbalize everything in his mind and answers any questions. A Briton who had to suffer amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) from 1963 at the age 21 that progressively paralyze him. The doctor even predicted that Hawking would only have two years to live since the diagnosis, but as we all know, he had lived and contributed for decades before finally passed away. The iconic scientist was also known as a loving family man with a penchant for humor. He once said that it would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love. Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert, and Tim remembered him as a man with inspiring brilliance and sense of humor .

Some others will also recall him from his humor, which he also acknowledged. “I have developed a desire to make the most of each an every minute. Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival. As has been maintaining a sense of humor,” said Hawking in the documentary Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Mine. Becoming one with popular culture, Hawking also arrange a time traveller’s party, transformed into a cartoon on the popular television show The Simpson, and even played poker with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The man who was born on Galileo’s death and died on Einstein’s birthday was all that he can be; a cosmologist, theoretical physicist, an author, a family man, a husband, a dad, a grandfather, a brother, a teacher, a student, a curios and critical character, a persistent person, and a humorous man who try to make sense of the universe. Farewell Professor Hawking, we wish you a thrilling journey into the eternal that perhaps would lead you to countless amazing discoveries.



The Writing on the Wall

Did humans speak through cave art? New paper links ancient drawings and language’s origins.

Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

When and where did humans develop language? To find out, look deep inside caves, suggests an MIT professor.

More precisely, some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa.

A key to this idea is that cave art is often located in acoustic “hot spots,” where sound echoes strongly, as some scholars have observed. Those drawings are located in deeper, harder-to-access parts of caves, indicating that acoustics was a principal reason for the placement of drawings within caves. The drawings, in turn, may represent the sounds that early humans generated in those spots.

In the new paper, this convergence of sound and drawing is what the authors call a “cross-modality information transfer,” a convergence of auditory information and visual art that, the authors write, “allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking.” The combination of sounds and images is one of the things that characterizes human language today, along with its symbolic aspect and its ability to generate infinite new sentences.

“Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing,” says Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. “You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual.”

Cave artists were thus not just early-day Monets, drawing impressions of the outdoors at their leisure. Rather, they may have been engaged in a process of communication.

“I think it’s very clear that these artists were talking to one another,” Miyagawa says. “It’s a communal effort.”

The paper, “Cross-modality information transfer: A hypothesis about the relationship among prehistoric cave paintings, symbolic thinking, and the emergence of language,” is being published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The authors are Miyagawa; Cora Lesure, a PhD student in MIT’s Department of Linguistics; and Vitor A. Nobrega, a PhD student in linguistics at the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil.

Re-enactments and rituals?

The advent of language in human history is unclear. Our species is estimated to be about 200,000 years old. Human language is often considered to be at least 100,000 years old.

“It’s very difficult to try to understand how human language itself appeared in evolution,” Miyagawa says, noting that “we don’t know 99.9999 percent of what was going on back then.” However, he adds, “There’s this idea that language doesn’t fossilize, and it’s true, but maybe in these artifacts [cave drawings], we can see some of the beginnings of homo sapiens as symbolic beings.”

While the world’s best-known cave art exists in France and Spain, examples of it abound throughout the world. One form of cave art suggestive of symbolic thinking — geometric engravings on pieces of ochre, from the Blombos Cave in southern Africa — has been estimated to be at least 70,000 years old. Such symbolic art indicates a cognitive capacity that humans took with them to the rest of the world.

“Cave art is everywhere,” Miyagawa says. “Every major continent inhabited by homo sapiens has cave art. … You find it in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, everywhere, just like human language.” In recent years, for instance, scholars have catalogued Indonesian cave art they believe to be roughly 40,000 years old, older than the best-known examples of European cave art.

But what exactly was going on in caves where people made noise and rendered things on walls? Some scholars have suggested that acoustic “hot spots” in caves were used to make noises that replicate hoofbeats, for instance; some 90 percent of cave drawings involve hoofed animals. These drawings could represent stories or the accumulation of knowledge, or they could have been part of rituals.

In any of these scenarios, Miyagawa suggests, cave art displays properties of language in that “you have action, objects, and modification.” This parallels some of the universal features of human language — verbs, nouns, and adjectives — and Miyagawa suggests that “acoustically based cave art must have had a hand in forming our cognitive symbolic mind.”

Future research: More decoding needed

To be sure, the ideas proposed by Miyagawa, Lesure, and Nobrega merely outline a working hypothesis, which is intended to spur additional thinking about language’s origins and point toward new research questions.

Regarding the cave art itself, that could mean further scrutiny of the syntax of the visual representations, as it were. “We’ve got to look at the content” more thoroughly, says Miyagawa. In his view, as a linguist who has looked at images of the famous Lascaux cave art from France, “you see a lot of language in it.” But it remains an open question how much a re-interpretation of cave art images would yield in linguistics terms.

The long-term timeline of cave art is also subject to re-evaluation on the basis of any future discoveries. If cave art is implicated in the development of human language, finding and properly dating the oldest known such drawings would help us place the orgins of language in human history — which may have happened fairly early on in our development.

“What we need is for someone to go and find in Africa cave art that is 120,000 years old,” Miyagawa quips.

At a minimum, a further consideration of cave art as part of our cognitive development may reduce our tendency to regard art in terms of our own experience, in which it probably plays a more strictly decorative role for more people.

“If this is on the right track, it’s quite possible that … cross-modality transfer helped develop a symbolic mind,” Miyagawa says. In that case, he adds, “art is not just something that is marginal to our culture, but central to the formation of our cognitive abilities.”

Reprinted with permission of MIT News