Historians As Individuals Who Connect The Past & The Future
Historians are individuals whose primary task is to collect and interpret data from past time periods in order to generate accurate recordings of significant human events, within such objectives they also hold the ability to change the future through generating knowledge from which later generations can learn. An Artist, by the definition of poet Jorge Luis Borges, ‘transform[s] what is continuously happening… into something that can last in man’s memory’, hence whose main intention may be to preserve a mirroring of the present. At the same time, hopes to change the future may be contained in the artists’ works, that could reflect the creators’ fantasies of a better world. Importantly, the ‘task’ of the Historian and what the Artist may ‘look to’ do can be defined as both the achievement of personal pursuits by individuals of either profession, as well as their academic and social obligations. Therefore, it is essential to question whether a historian’s sole task is to understand the past and if artists only look to change the future, as both groups also produce knowledge that can be applied to all of past, present and future in their respective areas of knowledge (AOKs).
When historians are fulfilling their task of understanding the past, they construct an account of past historical events using primary and secondary sources. An example of a historian who was dedicated to such an obligation is French historian Jean Francois Champollion, who deciphered the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs written upon the Rosetta Stone in 1822. The historian was able to propose a revolutionary method of combining phonetics, symbols and images to generate meaning in order to interpret the ancient script. This distinct consideration of the way of knowing (WOK), Language, as not merely words but also sound, symbols and pictures, acted as the key to his success. It differentiated him from previous historians who had fallen into ‘linguistic determinism’, trying to understand the Ancient Egyptian script in the same way they would interpret modern scripts that consist mainly of alphabetic combinations.
Significantly, Champollion’s discovery was able to establish the basis for the study of Egyptology, as his deciphering of the hieroglyphics enabled later historians to use the Stone to translate countless other Ancient Egyptian documents, carvings and artefacts that were impossible to interpret, allowing historians access to a plethora of primary sources, aiding in their understanding of past religion and mythology. The knowledge obtained by these historians dramatically changed people’s knowledge of Ancient Egypt. Thus the collaborative nature of their work aided in the fulfilment of their ‘task’ to society and academia of providing an objective review of the past. Furthermore, as Champollion himself revealed ‘…the admiration which [the Egyptian people’s] power and knowledge filled me with, will grow with the new things that I will acquire’, thus a historian’s task is demonstrated to also encompass their own personal pursuit of knowledge. Through his deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, Champollion perfectly illustrates a historian’s task of understanding the past that leads to the achievements of both the social contributions of developing the world’s knowledge of Ancient Egypt, as well as personal pursuits of fulfilling his own enthusiasm towards the study.
Although a historian may be primarily involved in the understanding of the past, they are also able to apply this knowledge to similar recurring events in order to inform the present and future. In examining repetitive events within human history (such as warfare), historians can determine traits of the past that led to particular outcomes and distribute such knowledge to society, deterring the recurrence of similar events in the future. For example, historians who studied WW2 were able distinguish factors that ultimately led to the war’s initiation. One of these was the failure of the League of Nations (an international organisation set up in 1919 to maintain world peace) to stop the Axis Powers’ first attempts of invasion. According to historians, this was mainly due to the League’s lack of practical power to overwhelm invading countries, lacking a physically armed peace force. These findings greatly assisted the foundation of the United Nations (UN) after the war ended, where the the historians helped the UN through the WOK of Memory, containing retained knowledge of the historical reasons of the League’s failure. This retained knowledge was used to aid the UN in establishing its core principles, for example the creation of the Peacekeeping Forces.
Therefore, it can be shown that the work of historians does not only assist in people’s understanding of the past, but can also be used as lessons that significantly shape the future, informing future generations to avoid past tragedies, as scholar George Santayana exclaimed: ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ However, it is also important to question the potential difference between the task of historians and the task of the AOK of History itself, perhaps the major task of historians is indeed to just understand the past and it is the effects of the knowledge contained within the AOK of History that help shape the future. Though changing the future may not be part of a historian’s tasks directly, it is the knowledge generated through their understanding of the past that changes the future.
In contrast to what the title statement may suggest, the knowledge expressed through the works of artists may be intended to reflect the present rather than to change the future. Unlike History that is supposed to be relatively objective and involves mainly the accurate recount of past events through ‘facts’, the AOK of the Arts is more subjective in that it is about the personal emotions and ideas that artists wish to express in their work. This can be justified in the painting ‘Guernica’ by painter Pablo Picasso in 1937 in response to Nazi Germany’s bombing of the Spanish town Guernica in the same year. Within the artwork, the highlighted themes of suffering and chaos in the painting through the depiction of devilish, rampaging beasts such as bulls and horses, forcefully reflects the extensive harms and sufferings that the bombing inflicted upon the innocent civilians of Guernica. According to the painter himself, he intended to express his own ‘abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death’, resonating with the WOK of emotion in both the reaction of the artist as well as the intended response from the receiving audience. Therefore, ‘Guernica’ evidently demonstrates how an artist looks to commemorate and express his individual feelings towards the present in the creation of an artwork, which indicates that artists may intend more to draw inspiration from the present instead of the direct intention of changing the future. Despite this, artworks allow the preservation of an artist’s immediate emotional response to the present that may be felt by future generations, informing them of past perceptions of the world.
However, it is still arguable that the works of artists do hold the great potential to change the future, even if the inspiration is more reflective of the past or present, since the ability for artworks to propagate ideas can drive audiences to take on similar values and act accordingly. An example of this is the 1985 play The Normal Heart written by activist Larry Kramer about the rise of the AIDS epidemic in America. The play was able to raise the public’s awareness of the disease that had just began to spread and was scarcely known in the 80s, exhibiting the realistic conditions of the daily lives of people with AIDS that makes the issue more relatable and immediate. The playwright, being a member of the gay community himself (a group where the prevalence of HIV/AIDS was particularly high) also expresses his personal anger towards the government’s lack of response to the arising lethal crisis to the gay community, due to society’s indifference towards homosexuals at the time. This mobilised its audience to take action by driving them to sympathise with the despair of AID patients through the WOK of emotion as they felt the artist’s desperation in viewing the play.
Ultimately, such ideas that were transcended to the general public led to dramatic changes regarding the issue, which included more information about the disease as well as the injection of more funding to develop targeted medication, so that by the early 1990s, AIDS was no longer a death sentence. Hence, it can be seen that artists can significantly change the future through their work even though they may be addressing present situations. However, it is important to question if an artwork’s effects upon the future is purposely intended by the artist or the result of inspired audiences who had taken initiatives, as an indirect product of the artwork itself and may not reflect what the artists look to change.
In conclusion, it can be demonstrated that the primary task of a historian is indeed to understand the past. However, the knowledge they are able to generate in their studies is often able to inform the future, such as in the formation of the UN though this was not their original ‘task’, referring more to a social and academic obligation as well as personal passion. By contrast, artists reflect more on the present in order to generate an accurate communication of their emotions rather than working with the intention of changing the future. This is not to say, however, that their work may not have indirectly significant impacts on the perceptions of future generations. Ultimately, both historians and artists are able to provide a construction of the past or present from which future generations can reflect upon and learn.
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