A lost world of culture

The idea of extinction got me thinking. What if extinction affects domains outside the animal kingdom. 

Could there be extinction of scientific work? I used to work at a NASA Library where every so often I’d find a researcher searching a very old part of the collection. He was looking for plastics research from decades ago when the research team hit a wall as it came up against technological realities of the mid-1960s and the work had to be mothballed. As technology in this area caught up with the ideas of that long-ago team, the researcher was interested to see if he could go back to see if he could restart this once lost work.

In this case, a once cutting edge project was saved fifty years later from extinction by a curious researcher. Does this idea of pulling out dead projects work in the cultural sphere? We know that languages can become extinct, and it continues to be a growing problem.

Could certain art styles also die out? Painting aesthetics can slowly lose adherents, but are they extinct if interested scholars still have the ability to dissect the oeuvre for academic purposes? Probably not.  

What if there are styles that remain relegated to the dustbin of history? Could a very minor school of painting disappear from art history forever? This probably goes against how art works. Let’s say a half dozen painters lived in a fiercely private mountain valley in Italy and created a new painting style radically different than all painting before it. Radical art, even if it is bad, usually attracts someone — other artists, critics, sponsors — even if they want to piss on it. People are interested in the car crash quality of radical art. Chances are quite high at least one rubbernecker is going to try to move this radical style on step forward. 

That is Darwin’s Natural Selection in the art world: adaptation as your own as you compete with original and other art species.

While a school may be hard to permanently erase from the entire history of art, an individual would be quite easy to reduce to zero. 

The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly by James Hampton. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.

I used to spend a lot of time at the Smithsonian Art Museum staring at the Throne of Third Heaven of the Nations Millennial General Assembly by James Hampton. The Throne is a huge sculpture, seven feet high (2.1 meter) and perhaps 25 feet long (6.4 meter), which Hampton built over the years by covering old furniture, lightbulbs and other bric-a-brac (kitchen jars, flower vases, etc.) in aluminum foil. The centerpiece of this literal throne is a cushioned easy chair with the Biblical term “Fear Not.”  

Hampton moved to Washington DC for work after serving in World War II and began working on the Throne  in 1950 in a rented garage. The Throne wasn’t found until after his death in 1964. 

While the Throne gives me a thrill every time I view it, I don’t know its impact on art. Perhaps Hampton’s story of a self-taught artist energized some other lonesome artist; perhaps his ability to create an entire new world out of found objects influenced artists since the Throne was displayed at the Smithsonian. 

Regardless, his vision would have easily been lost if his garage in NorthWest Washington would have burned to the ground. Or, the owner of the garage threw the work out in a dumpster. The art world would have suffered, of course. Dots would not have been connected. The glowing traces left by Hampton would have silently burnt out. And, yes, his vision would have become extinct.