Astronomy, Art and Collectivism

Scutum Star Cloud in the constellation Scutum. Taken in August 2022 at White Mound County Park, near Sauk City, Wisconsin.

A brilliant line of haze, resembling the stem of a rose bush, with prickles of white mist protruding twenty-five degrees outwards in all directions, crosses the sky, its brightest clouds casting shadows on the ground.

As hot summers, frigid winters, persistent drought, and the difficult world of an ancient city in an unforgiving desert daunted them below, the Ancestral Puebloans of Chaco Canyon in modern-day New Mexico made the night sky their therapy. Inspired by its concreteness and constancy, they sought to emulate it on Earth, building twelve of their complexes–their pyramids of the West, the largest structures in North America until the nineteenth century–to align with solar and lunar cycles. Constructed over centuries, each building required decades of astronomical observation and generations of coordinated designs.

Conceptually, astronomy and art (in the case of the Puebloans, architecture) are epitomical opposites: astronomy, rigid and constant, is an antithesis to art’s subjectivity. Rigid versus soft, constant versus fluid, the two seem no more alike than the Milky Way and a rose bush.

Consider, however, the first image of Earth taken from Apollo 8 in 1968: that last quarter Earth, fifty percent illuminated, risen in fluid blue, green and white, hanging over the gray lunar surface. Earthrise. Our home, covered in meticulous lines of clouds resembling the flow of water in a light wind, is small, insignificant. Our planet, a lonely speck of blue in a pitch black expanse, presents no direct indication of life; our footprint, our imagined domination of our world, is invisible.

This coincidence of astronomical research and art, evident in everything from this Earthrise to the newest James Webb images, yields a clear, common trait: that small marble of assorted color in the sunlit lunar sky, so small that you feel an urge to pick it up by hand, is a single object system, and we are among its constituents; intrinsically connected to Earth, we are all connected to each other. Astronomy and art, as disconnected as they appear, are united when joined with collectivism.

Understanding art and astronomy, therefore, means understanding collectivism. Understanding our planet’s singular scale in the vastness of this universe, we will no longer consider our migrating human siblings, who trek through the mountains and the rivers in search of a better life in our country, as “aliens,” for they, like us, call that same planet, half-lit, rising on that lunar morning, home. Understanding that it took a collective effort to fight unfair working conditions in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, we will realize that civil rights for the disadvantaged of our world requires not only the efforts of a few concerted leaders in their communities, but by our collective society. Understanding the agony of war and uselessness of our divisions in Picasso’s Guernica and Anders’s Earthrise, we will acknowledge that violent conflict is pointless and brutal, for they lead us only to kill our siblings and friends.

We are all tied together. Resolving political and cultural divisions requires that we all recognize our role in accentuating them. Restoring reproductive rights requires that we all, including men, understand that we are, directly or indirectly, affected by its restriction. Addressing crime in inner cities requires we all understand that, if forced into generational poverty, we would resort to the same measures. 

Carl Sagan once wrote that “…astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.” When coalesced with art through collectivism, however, astronomy is more than that: it is the inspiration for our humanity, the demonstration of our dependence upon one another, the vehicle to the teachings of Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, and Sagan. We cannot walk alone.

Consider again those Puebloans: united, they bore the unforgiving desert, the drought, the cold, the hundred-mile journeys, the pain, so that after centuries of struggle, they could make their mark. Guided under the same sky and craving a better life for their descendants, the architects designed the structures knowing that they would not directly benefit from them.

We now are those architects. While we alone may not benefit from the changes we make today, we alone will determine the survival and longevity of our species. Resolving the threats of now–climate change, division, restrictions on human rights, war, distrust in science–depends on collective, concerted efforts by all of us: it is our responsibility to fix the issues we face today. Our threats, our challenges, are our Chaco Canyon.

Ultimately, if we endure, we will be the progenitors of our species’ future. Once we build our Chaco Canyon, our descendants, long past the issues with which we struggle today, will leave our planet in search of the next frontier–the planets, the stars, the bright stem of rosy haze in the summer night sky–and will find in us, as we must in the Puebloans, the inspiration to proceed. As they depart, they will take one last look at that small pearl of blue in the sunlit sky, watching the hearth of our creation, the journeys, the oceans of revolution, the pain and sacrifice we endured as we sought a better world, fade away into the gradually dimmer, pale blue light.