This is the new Big Archaeological Series on the BBC. I really wanted to like the programme, I really did. But it’s inconsistent at best. The central theme is that much of the modern world rests on Art and the concepts which lie at the root of Art were formed thousands of years ago. Dr Nigel Spivey presents the series. He’s a classical archaeologist at Cambridge and without wishing to sound like I’m sniping that’s probably the problem. Spivey appears to be a very good classical archaeologist. The series however stretches from the Palaeolithic to the classical period.
I was wary when he intoned that Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers foraged for what they could find. The casual dismissal of what appear to be sophisticated logistical networks as subsistence foraging made me wonder exactly what he knew of the Palaeolithic. This is a problem because if you don’t know about the context of the ‘art’ then the only meaning is what you bring from your own perspective. I’m ignoring the fact that calling Venus figurines ‘art’ is anachronistic for the moment. My big issue is that without a familiarity with Palaeolithic culture your interpretation of such figurines will be rather shallow. How do you interpret Palaeolithic art? You use Herring Gulls.
Prof Ramachandran, a neuroscientist has found that herring gull chicks respond the red mark on the underside of the adult gull’s beak. They tap this and the adult responds by regurgitating food for them. He found this when he gave them a lollipop stick with red stripe which only looked like a beak in a minimalist way and they tapped it.
This is interesting. What is more interesting is when he showed the gulls a stick with three red stripes. They went wild over that, even ignoring single stripe sticks. The conclusion was that as ‘art’ the multiple stick showed that exaggeration of certain features is hard-wired into the brain. Prof Ramachandran thinks that the Venus figurines are examples of humans showing exaggeration hard-wired into their brains. Palaeolithic people were responding to neurological imperatives when they created their Venuses.
Spivey then leapt to Egypt and found a different form of stylisation which contradicted this imperative. This was due to the Egyptians having a culture. I’m not convinced the context of the Egyptian art was fairly dealt with, but I accept you can’t cover everything in a hour and the central thesis was the evolutionary basis of art, so it wasn’t necessarily relevant.
He moved on to the Greek world and their art which took Egyptian ideas but allowed them to reproduce perfectly realistic images of the body for the first time in history. I could quibble that Greek sculptures have never seemed perfectly realistic to me, but it would sound like I was boasting. Perhaps it was a frosty day when the model posed. Anyhow he said that more or less as soon as they achieved perfection, they abandoned it. They started exaggerating features again. This proves artistic perception is hardwired into our brains, art is central to what makes us human etc…
If the hypothesis is correct and this is hardwired into our brains then really we ought to see a return to pendulous breasts, large buttocks and swollen bellies. Ok, so the lack of pendulous breasts isn’t a problem for the sculptures he said were the best ever, because they were male. However Buddha is often represented as a short fat guy, and these statues weren’t. I suppose you could argue Buddhas are circumstantial evidence for the evolutionary basis of beauty, but I don’t recall similar Buddhist art for short fat women. I could be wrong on that. Anyhow these Greek statues were athletic. In modern times we continue with lithe as the ideal, probably because of the effect of the Renaissance and the notion of classical art. It seems people from every period reject this ideal. The only people who do fit the hypothesis are the Palaeolithic peoples and if they also had a culture then that rather kills raw neurology as an explanation.
It is a shame the central thought was so poor, as the programme was generally shot well and Nigel Spivey is a good presenter, in many ways the male Bettany Hughes. Some of the sequences like rendering the presenter into relief were done well. So I’d really would have liked to enjoyed the programme. There is definitely an interesting and intelligent series to be made on the origins of art and its cognitive implications. Unfortunately on current form this isn’t it. Hopefully next week’s programme on pictures, starting with Altamira, Lascaux etc will be better, but that would require some understanding of Palaeolithic culture.
You can visit the programme’s website at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/howart/