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prehistoric art for art's sake

Post #88 • August 21, 2003, 6:40 PM

I’m fairly well-read when it comes to visual art. My daily reading, I must confess, though, does not include the freaking Japan Times. Douglas McLennan’s does, and thanks to his ArtsJournal, I found a fascinating article about a new monograph on prehistoric art by Randall White. Well worth a read.

I want to quibble with one thing, though:

However we define “art”—as painting, representation, symbolic behavior, or simply as activity with no obvious utilitarian purpose—we cannot attempt to understand it without reference to its cultural context. It is necessary, cautions White, that “we get away from the 19th- and 20th-century notion that somehow art exists as a universal urge on the part of humans, independent of social, cultural and environmental factors.”

It’s hard to tell precisely what’s being discounted here – the ‘universal urge’ part, or the ‘independent of social, cultural and environmental factors’ part, or both. In any case, this sounds awfully postmodernist.

We surmise from studying modern hunter-gatherer societies that the ancient ones probably had a four-hour workday, leaving about twelve hours for non-work activities: rest, play, ritual, contemplation, biologically unnecessary sex, experimentation with physical materials, perhaps even music. Our oldest examples of art predate our oldest examples of writing. It stands to reason that some kind of representational activity has been in effect for a long time, and at least some of it was for fun. Why not? These highly social creatures had twelve hours a day to goof off. Why not get drunk on whatever horrible fermented product you’ve got around and have a bison-painting contest?

Or, you’re a happening prehistoric kind of guy, the food has been found for the day, you’re bored with throwing rocks in the stream, and you notice an oddly shaped chunk of stone that makes you say to yourself, “You know, that would look just like a horse if you knocked off a couple of bits,” and you try it. If someone thinks these ideas are impossible, I want them to demonstrate why.

I teach ancient art history to college students, and the textbook goes through a whole song and dance about how ancient art probably served a religious function, which is unprovable. I respond to this by saying that one day, about five millenia from now, archeologists are going to unearth the Orange Bowl and conclude that 20th Century humans in the southeastern tip of North America gathered in huge numbers to worship in a mysterious Cult of the Dolphin. “Religious function” is an art history euphemism for “we don’t know what the hell this thing was for.”

The underlying paradigm is a fear of non-utility.

As much as they may touch us, wall paintings and figurines are not definitive proof of the presence of a modern human sensibility. Instead, they belong to an array of social and economic developments that collectively signpost our ancestors’ progress along the path toward behavioral and cognitive sophistication.

See? If we could get money and government in on this, that would prove a modern human sensibility. The ability to make paintings that touch us, in itself, does not.

I don’t buy it. Why is it more scientific to assume that others are unlike us than to assume that they are like us? Would the paintings touch us if they were not made by something with human qualities?

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