The Lure of the Origins: Paleolithic Art and Contemporary Visual Culture



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Michele Cometa

The Lure of the Origins: Paleolithic Art and Contemporary Visual Culture

Italian Academy, 6 October 2015
Does it make sense to consider cave “art”, the art of an immemorial time, as a challenge for contemporary visual culture studies? It might seem an oxymoron, or rather a boutade, a paradox. Yet there are many reasons to believe that this dive into the past in the age of new media, of digital literacy, can show us a way to the future of visual culture and art theory and that it can give us new energy for research.

My argument is basically that cave art, or, better, paleolithic pictures and signs – and I am aware of course that the definition “art” is neither innocent nor neutral – certainly help us to answer some fundamental questions that contemporary visual culture has faced in recent years – mostly in connection with its stepmothers, the traditional art history and aesthetics – if only because cave art studies inevitably shift the research focus from the issue of Art to the issue of Image.

First I would like to discuss some aspects of this statement from the point of view of a naïve beholder, i. e. the “trivial” gaze of everyday culture. Consider, for example, some prehistoric handaxes (fig. 1)!

There is no doubt that these forms still fascinate and seduce our gazes for their perfect (sometimes fearful) simmetry! The shell (Spondylus spinosus), in the heart of the first handhaxe found in Norfolk (England) is «an adventitious element in the stone», as Kenneth Page Oakley, author of a seminal book like Man, the Toolmaker (1942, 1972) has written, and «served the artistic mind’s eye to distinguish» this exceptional Acheulean artifact «in the way that a blazon does on a sword hilt» (Oakley, 1981).

No doubt that we, “naïve beholders”, see this simmetry and this ornament with almost the same eyes of our prehistorical ancestors. Horst Bredekamp has set this anonymus “Muschelmensch” at the beginning of his “bildaktive” theory on the never-ending origins of images. I know: skilled historians could say that our “way of seeing” are totally different, and that we actually don’t perceive the same things, nor the same meanings and that the historical construction of our eye and gazes don’t permit us too see what our ancestors saw…

In spite of everything, our naïve beholder sees a beautiful and intriguing shell in the middle of a useful and pleasant tool! And in the caves we see still today bisons, aurochs, ibexes, humans and symbols in apsis, side chapels and deep hypogea!

Our naïve beholder would see again a comforting “family resemblance” between the cinematic effects of the horses panel at Chauvet (about 40.000 years ago) and the futuristic speed of the Steeplechasing (1930) by Sybil Andrews (fig. 2.1, 2.2), or between the horses of Chauvet and Marey’ chronophotography of the flying pelican (ca. 1882) or the Volo di rondine (1912-3) by Giacomo Balla (fig. 3.1, 3.2). It is not by chance that Werner Herzog used these cinematic effects to underline the family resemblance between his own images and the paleolithic horses and lions in his documentary film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) and that Siegfrid Giedion has stated: «the representation of movement (is) one of the great preoccupations of prehistoric art, even in the early period» (Giedion, 1962, p. 20).

Yet, these are not simply naïve analogies or “trivial” comparisons. As a matter of fact our paleolithic ancestors tried to develope some tools the we find again and again in our prehistory of cinema. A bone “disk” (fig. 4) from Laugerie-Basse in France shows a chamois whose movement is split on its two faces. As Marc Azéma and Florent Rivère stated «this suggests that the disk might be used to create the illusion of movement by flickering rapidly from one image to the other, a principle later embodied in the thaumatrope, an early modern device involving rotating cards (Azéma, 2012, p. 321) (fig. 5).

As we can see the question of the “dispositif” belongs to our past in the same way how it belongs to our medial obsessions. And this is not a trivial analogy if we see it in the context of our tool-making abilities. As early as 1875 August Pitt-Rivers, one of the founding fathers of the biology of ornament and images, wrote: «In language and in all ideas communicated by word of mouth there is a hiatus between the limits of our knowledge and the origin of culture which can be bridged over, but we may hold in our hand the first tool ever created by the hand of man» (Pitt-Rivers, 1875, p. 31).

I will just underline here the existence of these cinematic devices during the Paleolithic, but this evidence belongs not only to the history of media technologies, but rather also to the history of our relationships to images/pictures animation: from the primitive animism to the animation of Laocoön through the glimmering light of tourches at the Belvedere and at the Louvre (fig. 6), there is only a blink of an eye, indeed (see Freedberg, (1989), 1991, pp. 86-87).
Last but not least: not only is our naïve gaze involved in this history. Our bodies are too. I’m still not sure if the famous handprints of Abstract Expressionism (fig. 7.1, 7.2) are only a “quote” of paleolithic pictures or rather a “re-enactment”, or a “re-experience” of the artist’s body as Judith Butler would say. I don’t know if it is pertinent for Adolph Gottlieb or Jackson Pollock, but this interpretation must be considered when we study Banksy’s graffiti (fig. 7.3).

Whatever we may think about the “modernity” of cave art – by which I mean the parietal art of the caves, as well as the global rock art, the petroglyphs, the so-called “portable art” and all the “signs” that cover thousands of years of human artifacts and surfaces around the world, it is clear that a comparison with these expressive forms made by Homo sapiens forces us to reiterate at least five fundamental questions. These are the questions through which – albeit in short sketches – I will articulate this paper:
where is an image?

what is an image?

when is an image?

how is an image?

why is an image?
Or, more precisely:
where are pictures? That is the question about the global and the local

what are pictures? That is the question on the agency and the power of pictures

when are pictures? That is the question about the evolution of pictures

how are pictures? That is the question about media and device or things and materials



why are pictures? That is the question about our relations to pictures
Because we have and can study only paleolithic “pictures”, not images, following the well known difference which Tom Mitchell introduces in his Iconology (1986) and later in Picture Theory (1994) between «a specific kind of visual representation (the “pictorial image) and the whole realm of iconicity (verbal, acoustic, mental images)» (Mitchell, 1994, p. 4). I am aware that the question of image cannot be so artificially distinguished from the question of the picture and that any process of picture-making must be seen as a process of image-making, but for the sake of accuracy I prefer to speak now of picture-making because pictures on real devices is all we have when we work on cave art.

Applying visual culture methods means too, 1) addressing the problem of the gaze and thus of the beholder, even in prehistoric contexts, 2) studying cave art media, devices and material culture, and above all, 3) seeing visuality and images as the complex interplay among these factors: images/pictures, gazes and devices. We can use the old but still useful definition of Tom Mitchell together with the perfect icon for this interplay, the famous Draughtsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Reclining Woman (1538) (fig. 8):
It is rather a postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality. It is the realization that spectatorship (the look, the gaze, the glance, the practices of observation, surveillance, and visual pleasure)may be as deep a problem as various forms of reading (deciperment, decoding, interpretation, etc. and that visual experience or “visual literacy” might not be fully explicable on the model of textuality (Mitchell, 1998, p. 16).
I am aware that to approach paleolithic production from the point of view of image/picture, gaze and devices is more than ambitious, but the purpose of this paper is simply to show a relationship: that between cave art studies and contemporary visual culture, which allows us to put these questions into the right perspective.

It is not a coincidence that already from within many disciplines the issue of the “paleolithic visual culture(s)” has raised.

Art historians such as Whitney Davis, archaeologists such as Margaret W. Conkey and Steven Mithen, and anthropologists such as Randall White and April Nowell have stressed, as early as the eighties, the need to study the “Pleistocene visual cultures” with methods that have a double meaning: they emancipate cave art studies from the paradigms of art history and aesthetics, which are definitely western and totally sunk in post-colonial and gender prejudices (think, for example, of the exilarating discussions about vulvas (fig. 9) and venus figurines (fig. 10), or about sex and no-sex for the Aurignacians (Bahn, 1986) where – as Meg Conkey would have put is – gender (male) ideologies are fully at work (Conkey, 1995, 20).

Precisely the contact with these forms of expression “beyond art” (Conkey, 1997; White, 1992) or “before art” raises the issue of the paleolithic image in a completely new perspective that is certainly a more useful for the development of contemporary visual culture (as for music studies, see Tomlinson, 2015). And as a literate I believe that even the research on the evolutionary meaning of storytelling could be useful in interpreting the origins of figurative arts, and picture-making, and, on the other side, the research on pictures is a good starting point to study Homo sapiens storytelling abilities (Cometa, 2016, forthcoming).

Further, it becomes more and more necessary, a “cultural history” of cave art interpretations (Moro Abadia-González Morales, 2013), an «archeology of cave art archeology» as Meg Conkey has put it on the prestigious Journal of Visual Culture (Conkey, 2010). Which is obviously a way to question – as David Freedberg would say (2000) – our visual encyclopedia(s).

It is a history written by the best twentieth-century minds in anthropology, paleontology, aesthetics and visual culture avant la lettre, and counterpointed by many extraordinary scholars: Henri Breuil, André Leroi-Gourhan, Max Raphael, Georges Bataille, André Malraux, Siegfried Giedion, Ludovico Ragghianti, not to mention but those further away from us... In this sense it would be very important to write a cultural history of cave art interpretations in order to enlighten some deep implications between cave art theory and modern/contemporary aesthetics. This would be the story of wonderful canonical books which have “invented” a virtual gallery of cave painting and a immaterial museum of portable art.

Not by chance there is an increasing interest in devoloping theories about the origins of the arts, if we think that internationally renowned scholars such as David Freedberg and Horst Bredekamp are working on this subject starting from very different premises, and that scholars like Tom Mitchell and Whitney Davis have still considered prehistoric art a litmus test for art history and theory.

If it is true that the research on Paleolithic art(s) still has “obscure” points (Davis, 1985, p. 6), what is not at all obscure is the influence it still exerts on the contemporary visual culture studies. I know how frustating the research on the “origins” of art could be! When, in the beautiful ambience of the last Biennale, I told my friend and maestro Hans Belting that I had worked on cave painting, he said to me: «Michele, believe me, cave art is the most frustrating subject…, at the end you will have only some obscure hypotheses on the origin of arts, and nothing about art…». To Hans I could reply with Michael Ann Holly’s words: «The objects from the past stand before us, but the worlds from which they came are long gone. What should we do with these visual orphans? Research is that defense mechanism erected against the recognition that there is very little about them that we can in the end recover other than the immediacy of their being in the present» (Holly, 2013, p, XIX). So my aim is not to uncover the mystery of the beginnings. My modest proposal is to study the origin and evolution of pictures only to properly contestualize “art” within our evolutionary history and visual culture studies in the present.
1. Where are pictures?

My first question, “where are pictures?”, is one of the most important for the emancipation from traditional (euro-american) art history. Born in the wake of the international cultural studies, visual culture has posed from the very beginning the question of “who speaks”, and, especially, “where he/she talks from”, i.e. from where this he/she produces the pictures. It is therefore a matter of taking into account the specific locations (not necessarily geographic: think of gender or class) of the subjects involved, but also the “colonial” and global dislocations of ancient and modern visual cultures.

A particular aspect of the joint variation of global and local is, as well known, that of the so-called “world art studies” in its different configurations (Davis, 2009; Elkins, 2007; Onians, 2006; Zijlmans-van Damme, 2008).

World Art Studies, especially in the version offered by Kitty Zijlmans and Wilfried van Damme, has in fact stressed the need to start again from the «visual artistic behavior that emerges in the evolution of Homo Sapiens» (Zijlmans-van Damme, 2008, p. 4) and, consequently, from “cave art studies”, in order to give the theoretical basis of a global approach to images and art. Nor it is by coincidence that Whitney Davis has remembered, in his essay on Present and Future Directions in the Study of Rock Art (1985), «the specifically bioevolutionary and neuropsycological concerns of world art studies (two of its inevitable moments as a multidisciplinary project)» (Davis, 2009, p. 711).



I can here only list few of the obvious advantages that the study of cave art can offer to the establishment of a “world art history” and “theory”. Benefits arising again from distant genealogies going back to the late Nineteenth Century German theories on the origin of art as demonstrated by Ulrich Pfisterer and Marlite Halbertsma (Pfisterer, 2007; Pfisterer, 2008; Halbertsma, 2008).

Cave art studies represent an important corrective, if not an effective antidote, to three fundamental issues of human picture-making:

First, it abolishes the Eurocentrism of Western history and theory of art (and of image), but on the other hand, it helps us to consider with due care the local (biological, social, environmental) constraints of the different expressive forms scattered all over the globe. Appropriately Whitney Davis has spoken of an «enviromental turn in the study of art» (Davis, 2009, p. 714);

Second, it realeses art history and aesthetics from disciplinary isolation, forcing them to a confrontation with evolutionary biology, with neuropsychology, with cognitivism, etc.;

and, last but not least, it achieves a place for the image in the history of evolution, insisting on the adaptive function of picture-making, in the same way as for “story-making”.



These are roads that – as I mentioned at the beginning – might even merge again in future research.

Zijlmans and van Damme, just in defining the paradigm of the “World Art Studies” write:
When and where did visual artistic behaviour first emerge in the evolution of Homo sapiens? What conditions made this behaviour possible – physical, mental, social, cultural? Why has the making and using of visual art been retained in the evolution of our species? After decades of relative neglect, the issue of art's origins is today hotly debated by specialists from an ever growing range of disciplines... These discoveries prompt us completely to reconsider early artistic behaviour in terms of both time and place. Indeed, it is now known that, rather than in Europe some 35,000 years ago, the oldest known types of visual artistic behaviour, in the form of bead production and the creation of geometric patterns, are to be found in Africa some 100,000 years ago. There are even indications that anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) may have already created sculptures and paintings before they left Africa to colonize the rest of the world perhaps some 65,000 years ago. (Zijmans/van Damme, 2008, p. 5).
Actually this is a little revolution in the history of picture-making. So when we ask “where”, we must consider now a wide range of places and times (a many beginnings!) (Pievani, 2014).

It is not a coincidence that the two editors of World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and Approaches titled an entire section of the anthology The Arts and Our Shared Humanity: The Basis of Bioevolutionary Making Art and Perception. Nor it is for coincidence that they hosted scholars such as Ellen Dissanayake, who moves in the context of a general anthropology of art oriented to the ontogenetic development of the child (and of the mother-child relationship), and John Onians, more interested in the foundation of a “neuroarthistory”, which is at the basis of his successful Atlas of World Art (2004).

The most recent developments in evolutionary aesthetics (Menninghaus, 2007, 2011; Eibl, 2004) and cognitive archeology (Mithen, 1996; Renfrew-Zubrow, 1994; Malafouris, Gamble, 2010) suggest today a revision of our theories on cave art.

This picture production – i.e. the art before and beyond art or, better, at the beginnings of Homo sapiens symbolic behaviour – would allow a reflection potentially free from the categorizations of art theory/history and of the history of aesthetic ideas as we know them until today.
2. What are pictures?

Cave art studies, at least since Abbé Henri Breuil funded them as a scientific discipline, discusses this form of art starting from a radical question: what are pictures? In Breuil’s perspective the design of cave art studies is clear and the development of Twentieth-Century research still seems to confirm one of his intuitions:
Prehistory will ask comparative ethnography to reconstruct the economic, social, industrial, even mental life of the ancient men at every stage of their development (Breuil, 1987, p. 15).
The history of the scientific interpretation of cave art – from Breuil to Leroi-Gourhan, from Max Raphael to Jean Clottes – has in fact variously applied Breuil’s program, focusing in turn on the social, religious, technological, and today cognitive aspects of the picture-making.

These are pictures (not necessarly images!), however, that stimulate the fundamental question recently posed by Tom Mitchell, “what do” or, in this case, “what did pictures want?” from us humans, or which “ways of world-making” they show us. I think this is a more pertinent question that the question about “what pictures are”. Cave art helps us to shift from the question of the essence to the question of picture’s agency (Freedberg, 1991, Gell, 1998).

What did the so called Makanspagat pebble (fig. 11.1) want from our unknown ancestors three million years ago? Today it is assumed that this jasperite cobble, lured the gaze of an Australopithecus africanus thanks to the “face” that can be recognized on his surface. So that our anonymous ancestor, although unable to produce such a picture because of his/her still too limited cognitive abilities, had to consider it so meaningful and “beautiful” as to carry it with him/her for many miles.

Or, when our tool-making competence had already achieved a perfect simmetry, why the human felt the necessity to knapp handaxes around fossil shells (fig. 11.2), aiming at an increased aesthetic value or aesthetic surplus.

Or, what did want the fortuitous, accidental signs on the red ochre piece from the Blombos Cave in South Africa (fig. 11.3), from our remote ancestor, perhaps 70.000 years ago, expecially when he/she saw them for the “second” time?

Even if these signs are only the casual product of scavenging (Randall White considers them no more than the marks on the wooden cutting board of his kitchen!) (White, 1992, p. 545), a second look must have recognized a pattern that he/she has found pleasant, and has associated with the rewarding activity of eating and, most important, persuaded him/her to conserve it and to reproduce it on other pieces of ochre. The red ochre is a metonimy of the animal blood as the signs are a metonimy of the human eater (Gallese, personal communication)!

All these are not only pictures before art, but perhaps aesthetic experiences even before language i.e., manifestly before the so called Upper Paleolithic Revolution or Cognitive explosion, about 40.000 years ago, what ever it means! Our modern visual culture is perfectly aware that an aesthetic experience could exist without art, and that picture-making can forego and even bypass language, or simply exists without it. Horst Bredekamp puts explicitly at the very beginnings of his Theorie des Bildakts some reflections on paleolithic or contemporary aesthetic experiences. He no longer considers the production of images as an «aesthetic surplus» – «eine ästhetische Zutat» (p. 32) and states that a picture rises with «the smallest trace of human processing» (p. 35), like in “primitive” tools, is perceptible. As Leon Battista Alberti had already stated in his work De Statua, a picture “occurs” where there is a human gesture, which makes it exist.

Devant l’image, confronting pictures (Didi-Huberman) we are probably not very different from our ancestors of the Upper Paleolithic.



Confronting pictures we are not modern at all (Latour).

Confronting the pictures of cave art little can help language, which perhaps was experiencing its first emergence at that time.

Neverthless I think that a second substitute of the question “what is a picture” could be the question “what do pictures tell?” other, more precisely,
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