I am in an art gallery. I am looking at a sculpture. It's a sequence of delicate blown glass bubbles and tubes, suspended from wires so thin they are nearly invisible.
It is hollow, and a trickle of water runs through it. The glass has been allowed to flow organically, and sometimes the tubes are wide and sometimes narrow and the water backs up at the pinch points and collects in the bottom of the bubbles. The tubes twist around and melt into each other. The sculpture as a whole flows towards the floor. At the end is a wide shallow glass bowl and the water is pumped back to the top again.
I find this sculpture relaxing, in part because it is abstract. It's got the meditative quality of a prayer wheel or wind chimes. The water ripples through and although the water changes the levels remain the same - there's always the same amount in the big bubble, and it is always backed up two inches here and flowing fast here. The same way the actual water in a river changes constantly but the river itself - the ripple by the large grey stone, or the eddy by the reeds - never changes.
One can imagine philosophers watching something like this in ancient China and coming up with some elegant and fatalistic epigram on the mysteries of life and death.
It always seems to me that one of the greatest mysteries of humanity is why we feel the need to be creative. The object in front of me is fascinating and beautiful but serves no purpose, in an evolutionary sense. Beethoven, Stephen King, Vivienne Westwood, Einstein and Rembrandt don't help us survive on a day to day level. Neither are seared scallops wrapped in bacon any different from tinned mac and cheese, when your body starts breaking them down for energy.
However, what's the point of being alive if you are just going to be squatting in darkness eating cold mac and cheese out of a tin? Creating and decorating is satisfying. It's more than satisfying, it makes you feel complete somehow. Cosmically in touch with something.
When you look at really old things, sometimes there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between art and utility. Inuit bone combs with carved patterns flowing along them, for instance, or wine jars from Greece or Rome painted with pictures. As a society, modern Britain has lost the knack of that. We have cheap ugly things for utility, or expensive beautiful things which are status symbols. We all have far too many possessions to love any of them. And the shops are loaded with more and more possessions clamouring to be bought, things you didn't know you needed but now you know about them you have to have them. In order to be complete. And then you buy them, and you stuff them in a drawer, and they never get looked at again.
I would imagine that whoever it was who made the bone comb I'm thinking of, I believe it is currently on display in the British Museum, had to go through a process we as modern people would find nearly impossible to comprehend.
First you decide you need to make a comb. Perhaps the previous comb has broken, perhaps a special event is coming up and you want one to put in your hair, maybe you trade them, maybe it's a gift, maybe you just fancy making one. Then you would have to find a suitable flat bone of the right size. Not too hard to find, perhaps a seal or polar bear, but it might take a little while. Then, you would have to dry it out and strip it down, I guess. Perhaps you would boil it to get all the marrow out before you used it, because food is precious and can't just be thrown away. Then you would spend hours whittling away at the bone, patiently carving it into the right shape. You would be very careful, because if you fuck it up you can't just take a quick walk to the bone shop and buy another one. You'll have to start the whole process again.
When you're done whittling, there would be something else you would do to make it smooth and polish it. I don't know what; I don't think Inuits had sandpaper, but maybe you have some sand or a special piece of leather, and it takes another few days to get the bone smooth and shiny, and then it's done.
Do you love your comb? Fucking right you do, after all that time and investment. You're proud of it. It's a treasure.
And that's how we lived for millions of years. The way we live now, with our plastic bags and crisp packets and instant gratification, our wardrobes stuffed full of clothes which get worn once or twice a year, the piles of unloved and useless crap we continually accumulate around ourselves, it's enough to make me sick. We don't even notice our combs any more.
It's hard to live meaningfully. To have nothing in your life that doesn't serve a purpose, whether it's useful or beautiful or both. To notice your comb. But the alternative is too terrible to contemplate, so I walk out of the room and into the art gallery shop. I see pretty things. I don't buy them.