It is, at least in these parts, common, ubiquitous and typical, except for that famous red underbelly. It is small, and it weighs only a few ounces, except, maybe, for those chunky, bulbous redbreasts you see every now and then who look like they’ve traded in their diet of invertebrates for a Krispy Kremes binge.
It is not awe-inspiring to view a robin, the way it is to spy an eagle or a hawk, but it is always nice to see one on your lawn – it means that spring must be near, or that summer’s still with us, and that the ground must be nicely worm-aerated. More snazzy than a sparrow, less showy than a cardinal, it’s a fine avian neighbor, and an urban pleasure.
But, now, consider the robin’s nest.
We’ve had the opportunity to do so recently. Here’s a photo of one of them:
Beyond its surface beauty, it is perfect, not only as an object but for its function; a human craftsperson would kill to be able to blend together all the disparate twigs and string and mud and end up with a gorgeous basket of such lovely proportions of width to length to depth while creating the illusion of smoothness and motion. And robins do it without hands – you go and try making one of these with just a beak and a couple of three-toed feet. And then, once the raison d’etre for the whole shebang – little robins – are hatched and all have flown away, this awe-inspiring bit of work is abandoned, left only for us to admire, and for the elements to ultimately disassemble. Place created, place appreciated, place left for discovery, place left to mutate and disappear. Arslocii.
But – and here begins the questions-without-answers portion of today’s sermon – is it art? If the robin has not entered into this project with the thought of creating a work of art – and, to complicate matters, we don’t know that it hasn’t, but let’s say it hasn’t – can it be classified as a work of art, as much as it seems to us to be art? Is intention a necessary element of art? Or is the determination up to the perceiver alone? Is a spider’s web art? If not art, then “artful”? Or does there have to be intent for something to be “artful”? (And, then again, of course, we can’t know that the spider isn’t loaded with intent, and even artistic analysis.)
Then, we have to ask: Does it matter? Does it really matter to anyone but an artist who needs identification and validation and aggrandizement, that what has been created is art? Does the robin make its nest for ego strokes, or to attain the title of “artist”? Unlikely. So, then, another question: Why does the robin do what it does? Making a nest is certainly hardwired into its massively interesting and complex little brain, but making such a perfect one, and one so beauteous? What is gained if it is perfect? What is lost if it is not? Does the robin even know that its nest has beauty; did it even have the desire to make it so? Does “art” and “art-making” play any part in the life of a robin, or a bee, or a cat? And, of course, that submerges us into the definitional discussion of “art.” Let’s not forget: To 99.9 percent of the creatures who live on this planet, the Mona Lisa is something to crawl over or chew on – it is only to us humans, one of whom painted it, that it is something called “art,” and something called “representational,” and something we hold in a value known as “esteem.” History is always written by the winners, and “art” is defined by the dominant species.
So, let’s agree: the robin does what it has to do, and we look at it and say it is beautiful and art. But: Is there anything we humans have to do – not want to do, or like to do, but need to do – that we call “art”? On first glance, the answer would be “no.” Most of us go through life doing nothing that could be seen as art-making; for most of us, art is something we perceive, not conceive, if indeed we even perceive. Most of us don’t seem to have the time, or the inclination, to make art, or even to go to look at it, or to know it when we see it; art isn’t what we’re after, but rather distraction. As someone once said, “Anything will make us look, but art will make us see.” Truth is, most people just look, and don’t care to or want to or know how to or even know that they have the capacity to see.
On second glance, though, it seems clear that we humans are just as hardwired to create as are the other creatures on this planet, of whom we are a small part. From the start, it has been a need to draw. The cave paintings are evidence of that. And, after recently seeing the wonderful documentary “Playing for Change,” it seems clear to us that making musical sound is something that we are meant to do; we hum, we manipulate objects to produce tones and rhythms and subsonic vibrations – some will say that that is the most basic hardwired “art-making” we do, and maybe they are right: babies sing, after all. But performance seems something strong within us – go to just about any part of this country, perhaps the world, and wherever there is a settlement of moderate size or larger, the people there will have established a theater group, so that they can combine all those other arts – painting sets, singing show tunes – and also find themselves by pretending to be somebody else.
But maybe all these urges are simply subsets of what seems to be a human narrative imperative. That what it all is, really, is the need to tell our story, personal and cultural, through whatever natural or near-natural means we can. To produce something that says we were here, see what we are, and who we are, and what we can do. And, now that we’ve put it out there, and left it behind, it’s yours to do with what you want – live in it and with it, or appreciate it, or let it be. What’s hatched has flown away, leaving behind shards of our inspiration, and placeness, and magic.