It is fitting that the oldest known drawings lie in caves. Those, dark protected dream-land places feel right for the oldest drawings. All caves are to some degree dangerous. In caves people have to supply the light. They have to explored and whatever light you bring in is not guaranteed to last the journey. Despite the wonder that these caves ignite it is believed that most late paleolithic drawings existed outside of the caves. 1 Drawing practice would have been easier to develop in the sunlight. In the arid American Southwest petroglyphs as well as pictographs drawn on canyon walls and exposed rock shelters are relatively numerous. In the more humid, temperate regions of the East and Midwest, however, that art has mostly succumbed to freeze thaw cycles long ago. Though exposed drawings exist on the rock faces France’s Vézère Valley most, like their American counterparts, have washed into the soils below them. The accomplishment of the Lascaux, Altemera and Chauvet drawings are well known. What is less well know is that they are an exception. Most cave art, according to a recent work on the subject, looks like “the work of a third grader.”2 The point of resting our attention on the drawings of the European late Pleistocene is not to be critics or bask in their beauty nor to necessarily uncover their individual meanings. Instead, because they are representative of some the oldest known drawings, we hope they may help us to grapple with the question: why we draw. In my earlier post “Very Old Art” I called attention to James Harrod’s speculative analysis of Oldowan tool making. Harrod’s perspective opens the possibility that ‘art,’ far from being a diversion, entertainment or past-time, is better understood to be a basic defining characteristic/perspective of people. That characteristic lies in the apparent anxiety felt by Homo Habilis in his effort to make a better and sometimes more beautiful edge.3 I extended Harrod’s analysis by suggesting that the exposure of edges, by snapping chips from a core, was described to be indicative the phenomena of that allows us to lay down an ‘edge’ with a line. Two million years later, more than eighty-thousand generations later, people were swimming in the lines they had created. Lines were everywhere. The lines of Pleistocene drawings are more complex, and develop more significant and interesting ideas than the edges / lines of the Olduvai tool maker. We can say this with confidence because, in contrast to the chopped stone tools of Homo Habilis all Pleistocene cave drawings tell stories. The stories are not ‘read’ like a narrative that comes into being in time word after word. Instead, we grasp the drawn stories significance almost instantaneously. For the artist, the significance of a drawing’s story appears during the making process of drawing using his or her use of edge. If the image is drawn with skill, the meanings of a drawing will take over. If, with skill, we draw a cat – for example – he or she will not make a significant amount of mental pauses with questions about this or that line, that whisker or the length of the tail. Drawing, is not a halting process involving ‘rules’ that need to be accounted for. One drawing in Chauvet Cave, indicative of many, shows just how much more complex these edges are. The drawing called “Cave Bear” shows evidence of a sophistication, the kind of which, that has to be developed from years of dedicated practice. (For an image of the Chauvet Cave Bear Click )By lending detail and emphasis of line, the artist made it clear what he had cared about or what he felt to have the greatest meaning and significance. What those Pleistocene artists cared about, what they wanted to lend significance to, is not disguised. We immediately recognize that the Cave Bear itself held weight in the artists imagination. The drawing shows the bear to have a huge and imposing head, small ears a large, lumbering body of mussel and bone. There is a sense that the bear is older. It is perhaps hungry. Its skin loosely drapes on its bones and it appears to be wasting away. The thickness of line around the head draws our attention to and lets us know that the artist felt the bear’s face to have significance. We can feel the serious expression artist must have had on his own face in the throws of the drawing as he felt himself to be observer and bear at the same time. If that paleolithic artist of the cave bear drawing was in a trance, like some early interpreters of this art thought, that trance was very probably of the same nature that skilled craftsmen experience today. All technique will have receded into the background. Moving quickly, the artist will not have felt the charcoal or paint brush in his hands or be able to recall dipping his brush into the paint. Having mastered his tools he freely launches into a dance, or “the zone” within which he pushes forward into bring the weight of significance to the lions, bears and other creatures of his world. Abbé Breuil, the first professional archaeologist to speculate why these Paleolithic drawings appeared was attracted to their ‘mystery.’ We cannot fault him for that. ‘Mystery’ is an erotic mood within which we feel a looming power that compels us to advance into curiosity. In ‘mystery’ advancing features appear but on closer inspection recedes leaving us with wishes and gaps. For Breuil mystery was expressed as the cultic ‘mysterium’ of religion. Breuil, however, is criticized for having too easily accepted an intellectual atmosphere which understood religion to be the basis for significance and that that basis evolved from primitive to civilized. Those late paleolithic artists, according to Breuil, were doing the work of primitive religion. Breuil laid out a scenario which put focus on the artist as a shamanic figure who drew in order to elicit luck for the hunt. His thesis is summed up as “sympathetic hunting magic.”4 Religion, for Breuil – and many interpreters after him –this was why these drawings were made. Breuil left a narrative of hunting and initiation rites which now, fifty years later – in most quarters – is understood to have little basis in fact. 5 Breuil’s theological argument wanted to lend weight to the notion that ‘significance’ lies before and behind the art. The significance of Paleolithic art, according to Breuil, lies within the artists mind, before the art as some kind of god, the gods or the sacred and fills it with significance. In the same sense, significance lies behind the drawing as hidden meaning yet to be uncovered by its observer. If these drawings were not executed by shamans or priests why were they drawn? One alternative, is “art for art’s sake.”6 In a 1987 paper anthropologist John Halverson argues that “art for art’s sake” may be the best explanation for cave art of the Europe’s Pleistocene. Halverson’s “art for art’s sake” is founded on the principal that Pleistocene ‘art’ is not really what we would call ‘art’ but, instead pre-art play that is, in emphasis, representation. Pleistocene ‘art’ is not ‘art,’ according to Halverson because, these paintings – being at the spring of art – were merely a kind of plaything with which their artists took pleasure and marveled in their ability to represent. Halverson supposes that the drawings look like animals of their environment but otherwise, have little or no significance. Paleolithic art is empty. By this suggestion the ‘appearance’ of an artwork lets function a container that needs to be filled but by itself it has little significance.?His discussion largely ignores the phenomena itself. It is reveling to Halverson’s argument that no individual image is described in depth. Yet, it is to the images that we are drawn and let us care about the world that created them. Though some meanings of these paleolithic paintings are, in part, due to unrecoverable anecdotes of a Pleistocene world, we need only look at the images for the greater weight of their significance. In my discussion of the cave bear I have already described the complexity and significance that pour out of the drawing. We do not need to fill the drawings with meaning or ‘translate’ them into words for their meaning to exist. In addition to paying attention to accumulating archaeological facts about the paleolithic artists we need only have empathy for the broadest dimensions of being situated in our familiar worlds of people, animals, earth and sky to recognize significance within the figure of the cave bear. Religion or art for art’s sake are situational explanations. Each are dependent on a particular conditions in time and space and each, to a certain extent are factual explanations for which evidence will accumulate. No narrative explanation is absent of time and space. Still, if we ask “why we draw” we are in need of a basis upon which drawings ever come to be. The next post will explore in greater detail the basis upon which why drawings come to be.
- Suggested by taphonomy. Taphonomy is a branch of science that studies decay: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/ep/Art/Bednarik_94.html
- Mark Galbart paraphrased findings of Guthrie. http://markgelbart.wordpress.com/tag/r-dale-guthrie/ in chapter 3 of R. Dale Guthrie. The Nature of Paleolithic Art. University of Chicago Press. 2005.
- R. Dale Guthrie presents convincing evidence that most late Paleolithic cave artists were male. See his The Nature of Paleolithic Art, Chapter 3. “Tracking Down the Paleolithic Artists.” There, and in the next chapter “Testosterone Events and Paleolithic Imagery.”
- Parkington, John. Symbolism in Paleolithic Cave Art. in The South African Archeological Review. Vol. 24. No. 93, 1963. pp. 3-13. Parkington compares two approaches to European cave art, Brule’s who focuses on religion and ritual and Leroi-gourhan who takes a structuralist approach and, like Strauss’s analysis of myth seeking and finding symmetries. Leroi-gourhan finds spatial patterns within the caves which appear to be a ‘rule’ used throughout caves in the Vézère valley.
- This according to Guthrie.
- Halverson, John. Art for Art’s Sake in the Paleolithic. Current Anthropology. Vol. 28. No. 1, Feb. 1987. pp. 63 – 89.