Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Art by any other name

Easels were always liberally sprinkled throughout my Sims' houses. I was always making my Sims paint.

It's no surprise then that I had to have one for my little girl (Ikea, half price!). I've never forced it on her, but I'm ecstatic when she goes looking for it. It becomes her sole plaything for days at a time. It remained "packed" after our move, stored at the back of a closet, but the other week she asked after it.

As much as I delight in hearing of other people's artistic endeavours, I don't feel quite at ease in practicing my own. However, when I do sit down with Helena for colouring and when she invites me to her easel, I often stay with it long after her attention has passed to something else. I find it immensely calming.



J-F has been mocking our (my) "art" — as having a decidely Paleolithic influence reminiscent of the cave of Lascaux and other Magdalenian sites.

But what were these deliberately engineered and carefully contrived experiences designed to convey? What was the purpose of Magdalenian art? The answer is: we do not know, and we may never know. The earliest explanation was that they were the evening doodles of hunters, with no systematic purpose, spiritual, religious, utilitarian, totemic or even aesthetic. Then, throughout the twentieth century, eminent scholars the Abbé Henri Breuil, Max Raphael, Annette Laming Emperaire, Andre Leroi Gourhan, Reynaldo González Garcia and others devoted many years to formulating, elaborating and proving theories of use. These are contradictory and often mutually exclusive, and all have been eventually invalidated by fresh discoveries which do not fit. The utilitarian theory has been most generally held. But if the art was designed to teach the science of hunting, why did it include creatures already extinct or others that were never hunted? Why did it not include specific hunting scenes? In any case, anyone who has actually hunted knows that its skills are acquired not by studying pictures but by practise, something in which primitive peoples engaged from earliest youth, indeed childhood. Non utilitarian theories see the art as shamanistic, or magical or religious. But none of these fits all, or most or even many of the facts. There are no sacrifices depicted. Humans, almost always the central point of early religious art systems, scarcely figure at all. With one possible exception, the art shows no priest or sorcerer or witch doctor. There is nothing which could be termed a ceremony. An immense amount of classification and taxonomy has been performed on the caves and their contents, and elaborate timeschemes have been worked out. But these chronologies provide the appearance of knowledge rather than its reality. The earliest explanation seems as likely to be true, or untrue, as the later ones. We are a huge distance from Magdalenian society and its mentality, and finding answers to its mysterious actions requires an effort of imagination which may be beyond us.


According to Wikipedia, "the commonest themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer, and tracings of human hands." According to me, that last one is a dead giveaway as to the nature and intent of these artworks.

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