This is a transcript of a talk I delivered to the Bath Society Of Artists on Thursday 27th October 2018 about the idea of “Home”, reflected in Art and the drive to Polar exploration and war, around the turn of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
There is a slide presentation to go with this, which can be seen here: http://prezi.com/rrzokmbcuzcr/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share
Home always implies the notion of return. It is a basic musical concept in that a movement is initiated, it develops, reaches a crescendo or resolution and returns to the original theme and ending. The cycle of life and death is implied. Creation and ending are all there along with everything that goes on in between.
I think that is probably what home is about. And I think that art reflects that also, and each is a vessel in which the reciprocal former is found.
I hope to explore this concept, and to show how different artists have worked in the context of the historic events which occurred in their time. I cannot hope to mention every artist that has made his mark on that journey through time, so I hope you will be satisfied with some abstracts and they won't all necessarily be connected in a linear time wise fashion.
Earth Rise: Taken in 1968 by US astronaut Bill Anders, on a Hasselblad 500 - the same camera that I bought my son for his 18th birthday. It's a rhetorical shot of us looking back at our selves - or our home. It is the first colour shot but not the first ever, which was taken robotically in 1966 by a Lunar Orbiter and beamed back to earth as a crude black and white raster. Declared by Galen Rowell as "The most influential environmental photograph ever taken."
So that establishes a starting point. Planet Earth is where the drama of out story works itself out. You can see that it is a beautiful yet finite object held in the unimaginably huge theatre of space. What stories unfold, what stories can we tell and what kind of future can we expect? How is this mirrored in the story of art and human culture.
Slides 3: The thing to notice about these images is that they are not purely utilitarian. The cupules or carved hollows are thought to date back to 700,000 BCE.
"The replication of cupules helped us in understanding that their creation on hard quartzite rock is an incredibly long, arduous and labor-consuming task, involving literally tens of thousands of strokes with hammer stones. The struck rock being very hard, the hammer stone rebounds with equal force with each stroke, and gives a powerful jolt in the shoulder of the worker, especially in the creation of large circular cupules and cupules with conical sections. Hence, a person attempting the replication of cupules must have sufficient physical strength, commitment, stamina and patience. In this work, we only used hammer stones of the kind found in the excavation at DC; its cupules were created long before the introduction of metal tools." citation Manual of Cupule Replication Technology
Giriraj Kumar 1,* and Ram Krishna 2
Faculty of Arts, Dayalbagh Educational Institute, Dayalbagh, Agra 282005, India
2 (EE), MBA, Faculty of Management, Dayalbagh Educational Institute, Dayalbagh, Agra 282005, India
By way of contrast, the spear heads, also from 70,000 BCE, clearly are. These images show petroglyphs - painted and carved, which are at least celebratory, certainly mysterious. They are indicative of a self reflective and expressive consciousness making a mark. I would argue that, sacred or not, this 'making a mark is about self as much as it is about home. It is about marking out a context for self, and I would argue that that is what 'home' is all about. It is a context for belonging, for developing personal awareness, ritual, belief, love and relationships, and a cause for work - be that making, building, hunting etc; in short, all the things that bring life meaning. This is what defines our humanity and marks us out as different from all other evolving primates - the ability for make a mark. I am not suggesting that other animals don't have language or means of symbolic and literal communication, but without wanting to get side tracked into a discussion about anthropomorphism and the status of other species of animals, the recording of this language is what makes us different. This is really where art springs from and it is one of man's earliest and most primal urges and is essential to the origin of the idea of home.
If I were to be looking for an early form of art that belonged solely to these shores that I call home, my first stop would be the Celtic christian images created after the Romans left these shores in 410. Here you have images which feature abstracted and entangled organic and animal forms. It is an imagery that belongs to the land. Here is an image from the Book of Kells. There is not only the Celtic knot but the image of Christ on the throne. It is not the same as a catholic or orthodox icon. It has a freedom to it that belies it's genesis from the dark. In spite of it's abstraction, I think it still has much of the same atmosphere as the work of the 19th century and imaginist Samuel Palmer.
I found his work attractive as a student largely because he painted in egg tempera, but also because his images suggested a place I felt at home with, for want of a better word. The warmth of his images reflected that gorgeous space that you find yourself in when you are half awake and half dreaming after a gorgeous night's sleep, or returning home to a warm fireside after a romantic walk. It is an ideal, if not an actual idyl.
The word 'Palmer' means pilgrim and I think the theme of this talk is about pilgrimage as much as it is about 'home'.
When reading of Palmer, especially his childhood, I sense some common experience. I think his world has was a land of imagined reality more than it is a world of material, people, facts and figures. His parents sensed him fragile and strove to protect him by educating him at home in Latin, Greek and in memorising tranches of scripture and Pilgrims Progress.
Quoting Jerrold Northrop Moore, he says of Palmer: "Yet it was his mother's presence which defined the boy's sense of 'home'. 'Home influence is maternal influence,' Palmer was to write in maturity. And to maternal influence he coupled a religion of the country:
When religion is made the basis of education - the sights, sounds and sentiment of the country shed a strong moral influence on the flexible and impressible mids of children - and in town they lose those fine wild exciting exulting animal spirits - which seem essential to the healthy growing of mind and body."
In here we have some key concepts which are essential to understanding the english pastoral tradition as it evolved through the 19th century, namely the maternal equivalence of rural landscape and it's nurturing influence.
Many of these virtues are expressed in Edward Burne-Jones painted his last major work painted in 1897: Love and the Pilgrim. I think it sets out a boundary between the outward expression of a romantic age and an age of disillusion. You can see in it's style that it owes much to the romantic images of the renaissance and it is as much a pagan mythical spiritual image as it is a reference to Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress. This ambiguous tearing of secular and religious imagery, really does put at very least a semi colon, if not an actual full stop to this style of animated cartoonery. This is entirely apt as a commentary on the zeitgeist of the time in which it was painted. The angel or god of love leads the pilgrim out from a mass of brambles. The pilgrim looks worn and bent low, though still a handsome, idealised and muscular character. Perhaps this is a romantic view of suffering? Perhaps this is a portent of the path that innocence must take a horrible prophecy of events yet to come?
Burne-Jones' England has a long history of warring. Warring with itself, our American and Canadian cousins, our European neighbours and most recently with the Boers in the African colony of South Africa. So he was no stranger to the idea of war, but he still lived in an age of perpetual innocence and locality was everything. I think, that what the god of love is doing here, is sheltering and guiding the pilgrim. His other protection is his hooded cape. Nowadays the only caped figures we speak of in our stories and Batman and Superman. We don't have heroes like that any more, with that kind of humility, guiding by love, patience and sincerity. Our mythology has become fast, violent and propelled us into the farthest reaches of the imagined galaxy. Our heroes are bombastic, autocratic and invulnerable. They are possibly a symbolic compensation for the fragmentation and weakening of the protecting, and now androgynous archetype - the one that guides and protects. It is an idealistic image.
The other thing to notice here, is that the landscape is experienced as a 'local' and intimate phenomenon. The events at the turn of the late 19th century, culminating in the first world war and its aftermath pushed the concept of home into a global context. Events abroad had far reaching effects and as we shall see. British culture came under the influence of European pioneers such as Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Derain. Imagery became by turns primitive, then masculine and angular and finally abstract. It was as though a great divorce had occurred between the romantic tradition of the 19th century and harsh culture of militarism, and fundamentalist politics that spread like wildfire across Europe.
The idea of a protecting mother country archetype was about to be dashed forever.
Digressing slightly into music, at about the same time, I don't think it is any random chance that Elgar, deeply moved by the mammary hills of his home in rural Monmouthshire wrote Pomp and Circumstance in 1900. Beautiful and yet perhaps now somewhat ironically anachronistic, here is nation and home writ large. These issues were big news at that time and played a large part in propelling the idea of Polar exploration, for King and country in the face of the Empire's fading grip.
At about that time Robert Falcon Scott was recruited to lead an expedition south to the Antarctic. Captain Cook had been unlucky not to discover it and now it was time to get Antarctica to surrender to the British flag. Norway had Roald Ammundsen on the same ticket. Scott tried to get him onside by focussing on science, sharing knowledge and even donating equipment to his expedition.
Ernest Shackleton also joined Scotts early expedition to the South but the experience left the two men at odds. Scott sent him home, declaring he was unfit and not an asset to the expedition. Shackleton's response was to get his own expedition organised, apparently in direct competition to Scott.
There is much that has been written about why Scott didn't succeed, or at least, why he was second to the pole, and why he didn't make it home. Home being the important idea here. The empire was looking for new ways to assert it's grip on the world stage. The Royal Geographic Society, which refused to admit women, held itself in very high regard and was a still a bastion of empire, misogyny and racism. Polar exploration was seen as a way of perpetuating Britain's hegemonic status. It was perhaps as important then to Britain as the lunar landings were to the USA in the 70's. It was always going to be a race. Very sadly, as we all know, Scott perished along with his companions some time in late March 1912. There is an engraved family memorial, with Scott's name engraved across stone plinth, upon which stands a stone cross in a churchyard not ten miles from where we are now, at Holcombe in Somerset. His family wanted some memorial and this is their tribute and statement of belonging here at home, even though his body remains in Antarctica.
"A century of storms and snow have covered the cairn and tent, which are now encased in the Ross Ice Shelf as it inches towards the Ross Sea. In 2001 glaciologist Charles R. Bentley estimated that the tent with the bodies was under about 75 feet (23 m) of ice and about 30 miles (48 km) from the point where they died; he speculated that in about 275 years the bodies would reach the Ross Sea, and perhaps float away inside an iceberg." USA Today 16th Jan 2001.
In spite of this ostensible failure, Scott was lauded as a hero. Partly for political reasons, and partly because a lot of good science did actually come out of it. The Scott Polar Research Institute is founded in his name and they themselves now have a program of art residencies at both poles to acknowledge the essential cultural value of art that complements science.
Because of research conducted by Scott and others, one hundred years ago, we have attained essential insights into what is happening to our global home. And this is the essential shift that both the move towards exploration, war and the influence of European art precipitated at this time. A shift from local to global.
Quoting Turney from his book 1912: the year Antarctica was discovered: Mawson's work from one hundred years ago shows the Southern Ocean is warming at an ever increasing rate; Filchner's observations demonstrate that the glaciers on South Georgia have spectacularly retreated; Scott's collections are providing valuable insights into the changing biology and carbon cycle of the Antarctic. Some of these samples have even forced change in global regulations. Penguin skins collected during the torturous Cape Crozier trip, by Wilson, Bowers and Cherry in 1911 showed beyond doubt that by the 1960's the pesticide DDT had even reached as pristine an environment as the Antarctic, leading to a worldwide ban."
What is striking about this, is that whilst the first world war and the motive for exploration were each propelled by similar jingoistic sentiments, the pristine Antarctic still has some redemptive quality in it. We dug up the mud and left fields of corpses in France and Belgium, and we have our dead at the southern continent. You could argue that Scott and his men were a similar type of sacrifice? You can also see how the mess we left in France is echoed in a quieter but no less profound way in the effects that are witnessed in Antarctica. In speaking of home, we can see that these effects are truly global.
Shackleton led his men on an abortive trans antarctic expedition. He planned to emerge at McMurdo, exiting the great south polar plain across the Beardmore Glacier, named after Sir William Beardmore, manufacturer of aero engines for British wartime aircraft. Icebound, Shackleton abandoned his ship, Endurance, and escaped part on foot, dragging life boats, then by sea to Elephant Island. He left his crew there and returned with a rescue ship from South America. It is true that not one man was lost on that side of Antarctica, but there was one fatality on the receiving party at McMurdo. It has been said, if you are in a pinch, go with Shackleton; if you want discipline and organisation go with Scott. Frank Hurley, whom, was Shackleton's photographer on this terrible journey. I find it incredible, that having survived this ordeal, he went on to work and fight at the Western Front with his Australian compatriots and we will look at some of his work in a moment.
Back to 1910 and the years before the outbreak of war. Paul Nash is engaged in his flirtation with Marinettie's Futurist dogma. He was shunned by Wadsworth and Lewis's Vorticist gang although it is interesting to note that they each came to rely on the motifs of surrealism in an attempt to hang their work on the zeitgeist of the period following the first war.
The New English Art Club, Bloomsbury and Camden Town clubs all wanted to include Post Impressionist influences, and thereby importing important reference to Cezanne and then Matisse, Derain, Epstein and Picasso.
It was none other that Sir William Rothenstein who referred Nash to the Slade and Henry Tonks so that he could learn to draw. It was felt that Nash's drawing had a kind of coarseness that might be taught out of him. Tonks advised his pupils in no uncertain terms to avoid Roger Fry's exhibitions of European Post impressionist paintings, fearing that they might somehow be contaminated.
Tonk's own contribution to the oeuvre of the war is found in his graphic medical illustrations of facial mutilations. They are nothing if not blindingly unpoetic and perhaps a testament to his pragmatism.
Nash's own assessment of Tonks is perhaps reflected in the fact that he was kind enough to advise his younger brother to avoid such art training as he himself was subjected to.
Nash was torn apart by what he saw whilst working as an ambulance driver at the front. He was repatriated due to nervous exhaustion, or shell shock, to which he never admitted. He was sent back to France as a war artist.
Nash's friend and war artist colleague, CWR Nevinson, painted 'La Patrie', in 1916. The image is of soldiers laid out on stretchers, wounded, dead or dying. There is no sentimentality in this. And yet in the same year, Blake's words first printed in 1808, were set to music to become the famous hymn 'Jerusalem'. It seems that patriotism was dying in a sea of pathos in the painted world, but the establishment was not above appropriating the words and music of a recently bygone age to pump up it's cause.
Slightly later, Nevinson's 'Paths of Glory' was banned by a zealous censor in March 1918.
There is an interesting story here in that NAsh hung the work at the Leicester Gallery hoping that the censors ban would be overturned, but it was not, so he simply placed a diagonal strip of paper over the piece with the word 'censored' written across it. The predictable effect was that the painting became an object of public fascination and the exhibition was extended, although the work itself was replaced by another painting of a camouflaged tank.
What is more surprising still is the governments endorsement of the Grafton Galleries show of large scale photographs. These pictures give you something of the scale of the works. It was felt that factual documentary was less inflammatory. One reviewer said: "Frankly they make most historical war paintings look silly. The whole exhibition is indeed extremely interesting, not only for the poignant actuality of it's subject matter, but of it's latent commentary on realistic art."
Laurence Binyon, "War Pictures and the War Museum," New Statesman (Lon- don), April 20, 1918.
The war was still in full swing. The picture is self explanatory, but the government was not done with sending artists to record the war or it's aftermath.
In 1918 came this beautiful painting from Nash's brother. John Nash's 'The Cornfield', comes as a sheer delight after the horror and torture of images created by his elder brother and his cohort Nevinson. Seen in the context of contemporary poetry at that time, in particular, Wilfred Owen's poem, 'futility' you cant help but see bitter irony in the idea of 'harvest' and 'reaping'. The great reaper has done his job. The field is quiet and the sun spectacular.
Here shines the sun in Owens's poem. And the landscape heals itself. And that is what the men returning from the war now sought in whatever ways were available to them. Their home owed them, but was not quick to pay. Hardship and unemployment faced many veterans.
And the Nash brothers had enough of their own tragedy to heal from. Their mother was poorly enough to be rendered to an asylum. It is said of both that they did not settle after the war. It is well known that Paul had his own depressive spells. It is also recorded each married, neither was happy and sought solace in extra marital affairs.
In 1919 Nash produced 'The Menin Road' in response to a government commission. The picture is self explanatory and boldly executed. Perhaps he laid to rest some of his own demons, at least for a while, in making this monumental tribute to the men and the landscape that was so loved and so torn assunder.
Another picture resulting from a similar commission, was made by Charles Sims. 'The Old German Front Line, Arras, 1916'. It is a huge painting, if not monumental. To stand in front of it is to be in it. The vast landscape lies a way out in front and scanning across, my eyes arrive at a corner of a field by a small wood. There stand a few silent rows of white crosses. Everyone else has gone home. The landscape is unutterably quiet. Gone home. Where are these men? Laying quietly in a field without living arms and legs to move them. I can hear the crows cawing and the bodies turning in their graves to find some comfort, but there is no comfort in this landscape. The wreckage is there plain to see. And the landscape mourns.
Unlike Nevinson's painting, there are no bodies to be seen, but the violence and the tragedy is inferred no less powerfully.
David Bomberg was another of Tonk's pupils. Although never a member of the Vorticist movement, he was invited to exhibit alongside. In his work you can see the nascent abstraction that was emerging in English art at that time. If you went after the english outcome from the post impressionist scene it is easy to see where this break away came about. Bomberg's distillation of the European trend was potent enough, in 1913, to get him expelled from the Slade. Later he had his own 'apostles', who, like those of the earlier Bloomsbury sect, thought they were about to write the new prevailing British fashion. Amongst his alumni are Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Philip Holmes. Bomberg never achieved the kind of success he needed in his own home. He eventually left for warmer climes in Spain and there he sickened from malnutrition, returning home to pass away in 1957. As such you might argue he was a casualty of the petty wars between Tonks, and the Camden and Bloomsbury sect. Always an outsider, his quest, I believe, was for 'home'. Whilst Paul and John Nash each found a home in their own resplendent and healing countryside, Bomberg, going the way of abstraction, seemed to get quite lost. Perhaps the Nash brothers had just enough of an anchor in their attachment to the landscape to keep them tethered to the earth, more or less. Bombergs later works are full of dissolution.The hard edges are gone and it looks to me like he is scrabbling to get back to a sense of firm location. He was physically parted from his country and perhaps his heart was broken. Perhaps he realised that the landscape, or the inner reflection of it, never really coalesced for him. Tradition was too restrictive and yet there was no other style besides his own that he could belong to. Perhaps he fell down the cracks?
This brings me on to the feeling of dissolution experienced by many at the end of the war. In Europe, satire was given vent in surrealist and Dada works. Georg Grosz and John Hertzfeld who later exported himself to the USA as did Grosz, changing his name to John Heartfield.
Whilst Nevinson was censored, Grosz was arrested. Quoting Hans Hess from his monograph on Grosz:
'His originals were confiscated because the army felt insulted. "Either Grosz's drawings don't look like Reichswehr officers and therefore the Reichswehr was not insulted, or the officers look like Grosz's drawings and therefore Grosz is right."But this argument did not prevail, and Wieland Herzfelde, Grosz and others were tried for insulting the army. ... Grosz was represented as a joke, and Grosz himself did not say a word which could compare in sharpness with his graphic line..... The Dadaists over-rated art and literature. They were as much the dupes of borgouis misrepresentation as the very bourgeoisie they were aiming to defeat. ... The bourgouisie did not tremble for its poets, it trembled for its pockets."
The Dadaists must have been disappointed by the mockery of their commentary upon their fractured and distressed Fatherland. In mocking the Fatherland, they were in fact trying to protect the innocence of the maternal aspect of their nationalistic ideal - the Motherland. It is interesting to note that Freud's Oedipal theory was emerging at this time - the one where the child has an urge to sleep with his mother and murder his father. Heartfield and Grosz had been effectively ignored by the father. They continued to work together, however, and produced something which addressed the mutilation of maternal innocence. That which they should have been able to trust implicitly was forever ruined by battle scars, bent politicians, brutal generals and war profiteers. This was, at it's heart, a cry and a protest about what had happened to their home.
Grosz later wrote: "Today I know that it was our only mistake to concern ourselves seriously with art at all ... We saw then the mad end products of the ruling order of society and burst out laughing. We did not yet see that there was a system underlying the madness."
Meanwhile, back in England; Tired from the war, the interest in exploration sparked up again. This time the RGS were to commission a trip to the Himalayas.
Mallory had returned to his dreary job as a schoolmaster and welcomed the chance to join a ragbag of similarly tired misfits to do the job.
This is how things were at home. The world cup had not been invented and the 1920 Olympics weren't going to be enough to bolster national morale
Here is a quote from Wade Davis book, "Into the silence", which is not about war in the trenches, but it is a detailed account of Mallory and his men's experience. What comes through in this passage is the profound sense of mallaise, loss and bewilderment which followed the war:
"The long hallucination of the war induced a universal torpor and melancholy, a sense of isolation, a loss of centre, a restless desire to move - what Christopher Isherwood called 'the vast freak museum of our generation.' For some, like Robert Graves, the conflict had marked their entire adult lives, with each moment of it, as he later recalled, having provoked an inward scream, the duty to run mad.
'We left the war', wrote Herbert Read,'as we entered it:dazed, indifferent, incapable of any creative action. We had acquired on one quality: exhaustion. 'The entire futile exercise, wrote Vera Brittain, had amounted to 'nothing but a passionate gesture of negation - the negation of all that centuries taught us through the long eons of pain.' Having lost her fiancé, her brother, and her two best male friends, she had no one left to dance with. The war was over: a new age was beginning; but the dead were the dead and would never return.'"
If one were looking for a visual equivalent to Brittain's poignant words, then an answer may be found in Winifred Knight's painting of 1920, "Deluge". Taking on a biblical theme, the idea of the great flood is implied. There is an atmosphere of inescapable panic. It looks to me like as though the women in the picture are about to be overwhelmed, and I think that this is exactly the sentiment expressed by Vera Brittain. Grief which cannot be put off or deflected. Hearts ripped without pity or remorse. This is the legacy of the war.
Again quoting Wade Davis citation of Odell's last recorded sighting of Mallory and Irving: "There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere, and the entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled. My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow crest beneath a rock step in the ridge; the black spot moved up the snow to join the other crest. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more."
A much gentler rendition of this violation is, I believe, depicted in Picasso's 'Family by the Sea'. Painted in 1922, here is a picture of innocence at a time when Dada, Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism were already established and historic movements in European and British art. In America abstraction is about to take hold. The Russians have revolted and the Tzar and his family have been murdered. Picasso is with with his Russian wife. Paolo is born.
What we have here is the child trying to wake the father. The recumbent figure is reminiscent of may WW1 paintings, with which Picasso would undoubtedly be familiar.
But I think there is even more to it.
The archetypal family is represented here: Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Perhaps in a nod to the waking of Lazarus, the magical touch of Christ, depicted here as innocence, is poking the father awake. I think this is as heart breaking as any image of the first war. perhaps there is also an inferred pointer towards the latent chaos of Picasso's future life and perhaps this also refers to how the irreversible trauma of the war has affected the family unit in a wider social context. It is said that before the war, everyone went to church. After the war, church attendance dropped significantly. After the second European war, it declined to a fraction of it's prior stature.
Things had changed forever, at home and abroad.
Moving forward now into the 21st century, we have seen the British landscape tradition continue. Stanley Spencer, Eric Ravillious, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Peter Lanyon, the Ruralists, even David Hockney have all carried the flame. They were each affected by the trials of their time. Now I would say we have a unique emergence of an altogether different set of circumstances.
I have already referred to Scott, Mallory and Shackleton. Thanks in no small way to them, our concept of home is global. There is now a perceived conflict between the needs and necessity of business and politics and that of the environment - our home. The images of Grosz are just as relevant today as they were then. What would he make of Donald Trump?
Here is a quote from a beautiful book of photographs by Lynn Davis, who travelled to Disko Bay in Greenland over a series of decades to photograph ice bergs. The quote is from the foreword by Patti Smith as she remembers the deaths of her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, and Davis's son, Ayrev. Speaking of Davis's photograph of Iceberg 5, she writes:
"I cannot help but associate the image of this particular iceberg with crowning moments and impermanence of the same. A commemoration of love."
And so in a sense, this story comes back full circle to Burne-Jones painting of the pilgrim and love. Overshadowed by death but moved by care and loyalty. The conflagrations that plagued our forefathers may be over in one sense, but I think there are bigger and graver conflicts to come. In looking to the poles, we look to the edge of our existence, to the uninhabited wild places. There is an increasing sense that our world will not hold us as we are, indefinitely. We are now surviving by borrowing money and resources from future generations.
Patti Smith again: "A mountain remains a mountain. But these monuments will be no more. They shall transition into the fluid aspect of their own property. The toppling of their mass resounds, creating its own dirge. Each plunges into another form of itself as the world shudders and mourns the changing state of water."
And so I have one more image to show you. “Pale Blue Dot” This is our Home shot by NASA’s Voyager 1 from 6 billion kilometres distance, through the rings of Saturn. The blue dot occupies space in just one pixel. The photo was taken on Valentine’s Day, 1990 Thanks mostly to the persistence of astronomer Carl Sagan. This is what he had to say about it:
We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994