John Howe

Of Human Bonding

Or Why Art is the Key to the Survival of Humankind

Every now and then, I have the honour (and the pleasure, as it offers me a fortnight’s reprieve) to have a guest writer for the space of a newsletter.

Amanda Hemingway is a fantasy writer who is also known as Jan Siegel, and a few other names besides.
In her own words:
“Looking for more information on fantasy novelist Jan Siegel? Want to know the low-down on the comic mind behind the novels of Jemma Harvey? Or whether or not Amanda Hemingway is any relation to Ernest? You’ve come to the right place, because these are all pen names of Amanda Hemingway (except Ernest). Amanda lives in a county town near the south coast of England, eats, sleeps, rides horses and writes novels.”

I discovered Amanda’s work a decade or so ago. Alan Lee had done the cover artwork for first of a trilogy called “Prospero’s Children” while he was living in New Zealand – working evenings and weekends, and when Tome II came along the following year, he didn’t feel he could manage it. So, the commissioning editor at HarperCollins called me up and asked if I could work in Alan’s inimitable style. It was the first time I’d been asked to do a fake Alan Lee, so of course I promptly turned it down. The editor came back, and I turned it down again (but a little less promptly this time). I accepted on the third try, and am very glad I did.
The borders and frames Alan did remain the same. (They took me ages to figure out and reproduce, since they had been tinkered about with to make them fit the spine width.) Armed with a layout from the editor, I filled in the blank bits, trying my best to do, if not a fake Lee, at least something in the same spirit.
My only regret: standing in front of the “Alan Lee Originals” drawer in HarperCollins’ London offices and upon being asked if I’d like to borrow Alan’s original for reference, I foolishly replying (stupid me!!!) “No, a colour photocopy would do just fine.” What WAS I thinking? it could be on my wall now…

Amanda has a new book coming out soon, so is immersed in rewrites, corrections and proofing, but somehow found the time and kindly dashed off a text. (In her own words: “Any excuse to pontificate.”)

Of Human Bonding

Where does art originate? In the human brain. Nature can present vistas of extraordinary beauty – sunsets, waterfalls, landscapes of ice or sand – and exquisite details – the heart of a flower or the magnification of a snowflake – but these are fortuitous, the hand of chance, or God.  The deliberate creation of beauty for its own sake is a human concept. We take nature and superimpose our inner vision on it, twisting, tweaking, colouring and discolouring. Effectively, we take on God’s role – or chance’s – making our own worlds in the image of our thought.
We see beauty in many strange things, notably ourselves. In fact, to an animal, or an alien, the human body must appear a bizarre piece of design, unattractive when naked and deeply impractical.  Most of our hair is only on the top of our heads, possibly protecting our brains – but then, why would Darwinian jungle law not deselect baldness? Our skin keeps the rain out and the blood in, but that’s about it. It burns in the sun, freezes in the cold, and is easily punctured, offering no protection whatsoever against enemy attack. Our genitalia are upfront and exposed. We need to steal skins from other creatures to keep warm and decorate ourselves to attract a mate. In short, our anatomy is a canvas, on which we imprint our artistic ideas. Fashion, cosmetics, hair-styling, jewellery, tattoos and body painting – all this is art. We use it to express our personality in ways which may be individualistic, eccentric, socially conformist, or merely practical.
But forgetting art for the moment, let’s look at what the human physiognomy is actually for.  Nature never does anything by accident, and even with humans, who take none of Nature’s gifts on trust, she has given us a model that, despite its oddity, is the best for the job. Working with us, when we chose to stand on our hind legs – a reckless move at the time – she tapered our bodies and helped to perfect the dexterity of our hands. She also realised that as top competitors in the evolution race we had one major problem. Having left all the other species pretty much on the starting line, we were forced to compete with – ourselves. While this is healthy it is also hazardous, and could have led to species annihilation, as indeed it still might.  But alongside competition our survival depends on cooperation, and there our sensitive, fragile epidermis comes into its own.  In our touchy-feely society skin makes the slightest contact far more intimate than casual gestures between creatures covered in fur or scales. The handshake, the kiss of greeting, the caress, whether sensual or merely friendly – all these things create bonds and transmit multiple messages. And our faces, those funny faces with their forward-staring eyes, short noses, random tufts of hair in unexpected places – they too are all about one thing: communication.  With forty-two facial muscles and an incredible variety of sizes and shapes in the layout of bone and feature, we immediately focus on the face of an opponent or companion in a way that does not happen in the animal kingdom.  Where an animal has markings, we have expressions – expressions that are sometimes graphic, sometimes subtle and minimalist.  A tiger will snarl and bare his teeth in threat; a human may merely narrow his eyes. Those pointless eyebrows can be lifted and wrinkled and kinked (although the use of Botox has done much to limit this ability). Nostrils can flare or pinch, noses twitch, lips shape not only words but smiles, pouts, sneers, grimaces.  We have the perfect design for our own survival – everything we need to reach out to each other and create a society of multi-level collusion.
It is a function of art – if art has a function – that it, too, contributes to collective understanding.  When we look at a painting, we can see through the artist’s eyes, share his vision. He can bring our dreams and fantasies to life, show us the big picture, or the smallest detail, which we might not otherwise have seen. Whether we are looking at dragons and demons, pickled sharks, or formless surfaces of colour and texture, the artist has opened his mind to us and through the chink his world and ours meld. The earliest paintings would tell the story of the hunt to those who hadn’t been there, and for those who had the picture made memory more enduring.  Later, the artist portrayed historical events, giving them the required political spin. Legend grew from fact, religion blended with authenticity, beauty was truth, truth beauty, and gradually art shaped the way we see ourselves and our whole society. God reached out to touch the hand of Man, and Michelangelo Buonarotti captured the moment. Art gave us an identity, a culture, a united vision. The vision has grown infinitely more complex as new forms of media evolve and we become more sophisticated, but though the definition of art has expanded its role has not changed. Art isn’t just about who we are, it is who we are. It binds us together: one species, one world, and a million million imaginations.

Amanda Hemingway, London, June 3, 2009

Have finally begun collecting my thoughts on the whirlwind trip I made to China two months ago. (Or perhaps gleaning is a more apt word – my thoughts were scattered far and wide.) Since things in threes are so popular nowadays, I’ve broken it down into three parts (and put in lots and loads of photos). Starting June 30th.

Guillermo del Toro will be signing at the Weta Cave on June 17th, and my earstwhile colleague Alan Lee will be doing the same only three days later, on the 20th.

Also, people staring intently at something that’s been covered up so you can’t make it out… More information (but not a lot more) on the latest news at the Weta Workshop web site.