They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I say that’s a damn good lo-fi compression algorithm. I mean, think about it – you can sometimes save yourself a lot of explaining, and describing by simply scribing some misshapen stick figures on a piece of paper. It’s amazing. In fact my personal theory is that art was invented for that very purpose: data compression.
I imagine it all started back in the day when early men still lived in caves and hunted the big hairy elephant things. So technically they were cavemen but you must remember that they were not retarded. We are talking about homo sapiens here, who had brains the same size we do. They were not neanderthals who go “Me smash rock!”. These folks had the same mental faculties and speech patterns as we do. So they were more like “Excuse me kind sir, but do you mind if I utilize this rock for making fine state of the art stone tools?”. Buy, you know – in like the caveman language.
Around that time I believe Caveman Bob and Caveman Steve were trying to establish some sort of naming convention for the various animals they would hunt or not hunt. Bob for example was very fond of horses, and decided decided they were one of the more awesome things out there. Unfortunately, much to his dismay he was unable to communicate to Steve which animal he was talking about.
“You know, the things with the legs” he said. Steve was being difficult though.
“Dude, like every thing out there has legs!” This was true. Having legs was a property of almost all living things. Almost…
“That long, crawling thing that bit Margaret on the butox last mood did not have any legs” Bob was of course talking about a snake, but as we established before these early cavemen had no systematic name classification for the beasts of the jungle.
“Anyway, “ he picked up again “I was talking about the ones that run around a lot. They are awesome!”
“And again, that description fits just about anything. You will have to be more specific”
Bob was at a loss. “They have tails?” he tried, but Steve’s expression told him that his friend was still not getting it. Desperate, Bob tried to imitate the sound horses make, but unfortunately he was very bad at making sounds. So the noise he made sounded nothing like a horse, but rather like a constipated gazelle. Besides, Steve never actually heard a horse, or a constipated gazelle so it was a moot point anyway.
All this embarrassing noise making accomplished nothing, and to make matters worse it woke up Caveman Percival who was trying to catch a quick power nap between making stone flints, and ruining away from the wild cougars. He made some nasty comments about Bob and Steve’s sexual preferences (which, BTW was a first gay joke in the history of man) and then reluctantly joined the discussion. You see Percival did see a constipated Gazelle once and he mistakenly believed that it was the animal that Bob was trying to describe. So he decided to help.
The three of them went back and forward like this for hours. Bob talking about horses, Percival about gazelles and Steve in state of utter confusion. Finally, in an act of desperation Bob dipped his fingers in some shit, and smeared it on the wall producing this:
“Oh!” said Steve, finally realizing what the hell Bob was going on about.
“Oh!” said Percival finally realizing that he got the wrong animal. He was about to say something about Bob’s noise making skills, but instead he took some shit himself, and smeared a gazelle on the wall. “I thought you meant this”. They all shared a chuckle, and then they decided they need to totally invent lavatory facilities next, cause there was way to much shit on the floor (and now also on the walls).
They were the first artists, but they created the cave paintings not because of some artistic yearning, but out of the need to find more efficient ways of communication. They invented data compression. The rest is just a history.
Now, I believe that our three cavemen would probably sort the animals out without the drawings. But it might involve more annoying noise making, more make believe and plenty of confusion. It could even mean a trip outside of the cave or even a whole hunting expedition. Instead they have learned how to compress all of that in a form of a picture. Real artists will probably disagree with this assessment, but they are wrong. They just don’t know enough about computer science to make this conceptual leap. Whether they want it or not, their art is still data compression. They are packing complex ideas and/or emotions onto a spatially limited medium in a way that allows it to can be consumed, and understood at a glance.
Think about it! It may take an author a whole chapter, or even a whole novel to evoke certain emotions in the reader. It is a slow process that requires time, and reader participation. A painting on the other hand, can deliver the same emotions in a split second. Even a wayward, accidental glance on a painting or a sculpture may cause an avalanche of emotion, or impart sudden understanding.
I say that’s a damn fine compression.