Is Paleolithic Art Misunderstood In The Present?
Jean Louis Schefer’s writings in the 1990s have primarily focused on the power of images. Ancient or modern, painterly or cinematic – images are said to provoke, produce, and destroy both the meanings and the memory (Schefer). The Paleolithic Age was the second part of the Stone Age beginning about 75000 to 500000 years BC and lasting until the end of the last ice age about 8500 years BC. Whatever we think we understand about this period thus far without looking at its art provides us with our own set of viewpoints about the culture, religion, society and politics that marked this era in particular. Upon looking at the actual objects of art from the Paleolithic Age, however, our interpretations would most definitely change about the artistic values celebrated in that time. This change of meanings can be understood by way of recalling that our neural connections increase with new information presented to our senses. And, the more we know, the more we tend to understand. How is the cultural, social, religious and political side of the Paleolithic Age depicted in our minds at present?
Schefer, at least, is not satisfied with the existing research on and interpretive hypotheses about Paleolithic figures. For his new book on prehistoric art, he is trying to appreciate what he has seen by himself during five years of visits to the decorated prehistoric grottoes in France. The writer basically believes that understanding lies in the eyes of the beholder (Schefer). Two people viewing the same object of art from the Paleolithic Age will comprehend the values of the Age differently. It is when we combine these perspectives that our research appears satisfactory and we can confidently subject our interpretive hypotheses to public scrutiny. What is more, every era has its own distinctive way of appreciating objects of art. The modern era signifies the current way of looking at objects of art, based on the most recent experiences of the world. This is the reason why the psychologists’ Rorschach Inkblot personality test shows dissimilar objects to each individual. A person facing a great deal of aggression in the home, for instance, may look at each picture on the Thematic Apperception Test with an eye for violence. And a world facing a vast amount of aggressiveness may unquestionably look at ancient art with the extensive world wars in mind. Spears, daggers, bloodshed and religion are the present-day global themes, and later in this discussion we will be able to better understand the way these themes have influenced our interpretation of Paleolithic art.
At any point in time, modern interpretations of ancient art must be dependent on current affairs. In the study of prehistoric art, ethnographic analogy has played a major role (Quinlan and Woody). Scientific descriptions are, of course, the order of the present day, while analogies are generalizations we cannot live without if we are to gather data about the people of the past. To put it another way, today’s renowned methods of reasoning are affecting our discernment of ancient art.
Ethnohistory and ethnography are regarded as providing the key to rock art interpretation (Lewis-Williams). Rock art is, of course, a significant way of understanding human society in Paleolithic Age. The idea of ‘hunting magic’ comes to the fore – right out of the memory bank for sure, sometimes referred to as collective consciousness – when we are reminded of the Paleolithic Age, as it has been theorized that “rock art was made and used in rituals that sought to secure successful hunting of game animals” (Heizer and Baumboff, 2001). P. G. Bahn has rebuffed this theory of the hunting animals and called it a myth. In fact, such theories turn into generalizations and unless there is evidence to refute them, scientific or artistic, we cannot be certain that the people of the Paleolithic Age did indeed use rock art in the process of hunting animals. Thus, it has been asserted that contemporary information is unlikely to represent the full range of rock art’s past cultural contexts (Quinlan and Woody).
It seems that we have everlastingly presumed that the prehistoric peoples were absolutely primitive, and their culture, religion, politics and societal structure could never have been progressive. Nonetheless, they were our ancestors, and if we believe in the essence of the Universal Intelligence, plus the characters of Adam and Eve, we should have realized that their values and ours are essentially the same. Quinlan and Woody have further written that “behavior in the present provides our only data for modeling the social dynamics that create archaeological records.” Should prehistoric times be understood only within the framework of the present age? If yes, we must also be aware that interpreters of art in the days to come would look at the Paleolithic art in a manner different from the way we view it today. Schefer (1997) puts it thus:
….We’ve come across a vast domain where we have to explore, indefinitely, the
horizontal connections between cultural works, signs, and letters – as if the modern (or
technological) access to layers of historical information produced the memory effect of
making everything (all of “culture”) contemporary, or offered us the possibility of
reproblematizing the works of history through new connections and distinctions.
Interpretation of prehistoric art is meant to continue until the end of time. The art we call modern in our time may be labeled as prehistoric in another age. It is interesting to note that the gigantic pyramids of Egypt and elsewhere have been appreciated in a rather vague fashion by researchers. Nowadays, people cannot even dare to imagine how the folks of bygone times built the technology for their awesome artistic and architectural pieces. Even so, writings about prehistoric times have suggested that the earth was at one time inhabited by giants. The people of our age assume that only they have the technology to make skyscrapers. The complete revelation of truth might be enough to spellbind them for all time.
We believe that Paleolithic sculptures are among humankind’s first artistic creations. “Modern art history timelines begin with a small stone sculpture of a woman found near the Austrian city of Willendorf. This small figure carved from soft bone was created around 27000 BC. Its maker is said to have used natural tools like shells, hard rocks, and pointed bones. Another Paleolithic sculpture, called Bison with Turned Head, was carved approximately 15000 BC from a piece of reindeer antler. Found near Dordogne, France, the Bison with Turned Head is a powerful animal filled with vigor. Its strength and vitality are apparent in the lines of its horns, legs, and fur”. As a matter of fact, Paleolithic sculptures are often images of animals, men, women or priests carved in easily manipulated stone. We additionally believe that each of these sculptures served the function of bringing good luck to the maker or the person’s tribal group, and all of these creations somehow affected the physical world. (Prater, 1999)
As a matter of fact, students of art history are usually shown prehistoric art with the concept of good luck charms in the back of their teachers’ minds. Is it correct to always approach these ancient pieces of art with superstition as our fundamental interpretation? We tend to simplify our world by putting everything into the context of our own modernization. We are in fact saying, ‘We are not zealously religious, but our ancestors were.’ Who is to say now that our ancestors did not learn what we have learned, and they did not grow as a civilization as we have grown? Surely, we are aware that the Stone Age was not as advanced in tool making as we are. Still, there is no way for us to be certain that our ancestors were superstitious and viewed every piece of art with an eye for the supernatural.
We also must compare and contrast such crude beliefs about ancient art with popular interpretations of modern art. Presently, artists do paint animals, men, women and priests. Pictures of horses, of men and women in the act of love, and pictures of Jesus and his apostles are highly common all around the world. Are all of these good luck charms or do today’s artists paint for the sake of art? The people of the future may have any number of interpretations of modern art as we know it. Perhaps highly evolved, flying spaceships all over the galaxy, they would describe us as violent and credulous to boot.
Bahn, P. G. 1991. “Where’s The Beef? The Myth Of Hunting Magic In Paleolithic Art.” In Rock Art And Prehistory: Papers Presented To Symposium G Of The Aura Congress, edited by P. Balm and A. Rosenfeld. Oxbow Monograph 10. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p. 1-13.
Heizer, R. F., and M. A. Baumboff. 2001. “Traversing The Great Gray Middle Ground: An Examination Of Shaministic Interpretation Of Rock Art.” In American Indian Rock Art, Vol. 27, edited by S. M. Freers and A. Woody. Tucson: American Rock Art Research Association, p. 123-136.
Lewis-Williams, J. D. 1981. Believing And Seeing: Symbolic Meaning In Southern San Rock Paintings. London: Academic Press.
Prater, Michael. 1999. “When Art Was Magic.” School Arts, Vol. 98, p. 44.
Quinlan, Angus R., and Alanah Woody. 2003. “Marks of Distinction: Rock Art And Ethnic Identification In The Great Basin.” American Antiquity, Vol. 68, p. 372+.
Schefer, Jean Louis. 1997. “Critical Reflections.” Artforum International, Vol. 35, p. 73+.