Saturday, February 09, 2013

Paleo-porn at the British Museum?

The British Museum’s Ice Age Art is wonderful but makes a gross error. It equates these wonderful objects from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago with ‘art’. The Museum’s accompanying talks; The shock of the old: art in the Ice Age, Art and the arrival of the modern brain and Chauvet Cave’s Ice Age Art, tell you as much about the curators’ prejudices than real research and science. The names of the objects are at times absurdly presumptuous. A tiny ivory figure inscription is called 'The Worshipper’ just because its hands are above its head. One female figure is called the ‘Goddess’. Similarly with the banalities of the exhibit labels, full of words like shamanism, supernatural and spirituality. Even worse are the pieces of modern abstract art that have been parachuted in with all the clumsiness of cultural vandalism. In fact, I saw no one pay much attention to these implants, other than give them puzzled glances.
Even since these cave paintings and artifacts were discovered the prevalent cultural fads have imprinted themselves on the explanations. In the 19th century, when religion was the dominant culture, people refused to believe that these works were so old and some of the discoverers were accused of faking the paintings. In the sociology soaked sixties and seventies it was all totemism and shamanism, as many of these discoveries were made in France, the home of Levi-Strauss and other structuralist luminaries. The contemporary template is ‘art’, a relatively recent construct, with meanings and connotations that can infect inquiry.
Predators and prey
Much recent work on Cave Art has shown that, far from being the result of worshiping shamans, cave art is eminently practical and utilitarian, overwhelmingly representing predators and prey, for the purposes of instruction. The images are strikingly realistic, naturalistic and shown in poses that aid recognition. The images are also strewn with wounded animals and spears.
Like cave paintings, these objects overwhelmingly exhibit (a good calm word) animals. More specifically, the mammals that early man hunted or was hunted by, they are prey or predators. Lions and bears are common, as they lie at the top of food chain. Then there’s the large larder mammals such as bison, mammoths, deer, aurochs, ibex and horses. We now know that the extinction of the mammoth was accelerated, if not caused, by hunting. These images simply reflect or represent the real world that these people inhabited. These are useful, utilitarian images for communities where the young had to learn what they had to hunt or fear.
Recent publications by Marc Azéma of the University of Toulouse–Le Mirail in France and Florent Rivère have uncovered remarkable new interpretations of the practical, hunting stories, represented by attempts at movement in cave paintings and inscribed objects. Most cave images and inscribed art do show movement that can be brought to light through partial reveals and flickering torches, claim these researchers in Antiquity (June 2012). The Chauvet Cave painting seems to show a 10 metre hunting scene by lions as stalking predators and bison and other animals as prey. The lions later lunge at their prey. Multiple, superimposed heads, limbs and tails suggest running. See here for some brilliant examples of this prehistoric animation.
Spear shafts
To illustrate my point about the practical nature of these objects. There’s a case full of antlers with perfectly engineered round holes in their shafts. It was once thought that these were ‘sacred’ objects used in rituals. It is now recognised that they are used to measure and pare down spear shafts.
Paleolithic pornography
One group of objects is worthy of deeper thought, the plump female figures. Again we have to resist recent cultural debates when dealing with these objects. For example, to see them as representing female goddesses or maternalistic societies or shamanistic worship of the female form is premature. We bring far too much cultural baggage to seeing the objects. In truth there are images similar to the Wallendorf Venus, but there are many more images of slim women. Rather than speculate on ‘art’ or ‘spirituality’ few, for example, take the more obvious route of seeing these as paleolithic pornography, in my view a far more likely explanation, as the sexually organs are exaggerated and other features diminished, a well-known feature of eroticising imagery. These are mostly hand-sized sculptures, like Japanese netsukes. I’m not claiming that this was their purpose, simply pointing out that this is, of course, a contemporary cultural norm that is politically incorrect, therefore not considered.
Conclusion
In line with my analysis of cave paintings in terms of the practical function of learning how to spot predators and prey, mobile art seems to have a similar function. Survival in these harsh environments surely too precedence over art in a world full of beasts that you had to kill or would kill you. This, so called art, has a far more practical and prosaic function in this context. Appealing to our 21st century gallery-gawping habits dilutes and diminishes the wonder of these objects.
Bibliography
M. Azema and F. Rivere. Animation in Paleolithic art: A pre-echo of cinema. Antiquity. Vol. 86, June 2012, p. 316.

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