Something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong

I see this has been lis­ted on the Carnival of Bad History. Visitors from there might find the first post­ing on How Art Made the World useful.

I saw Episode II of How Art Created Made the World on cave art and the inven­tion of the image and I felt a bit guilty about run­ning down the pro­gramme in the pre­vi­ous week. Nigel Spivey con­cen­trated on Palaeolithic art and com­pared it to eth­no­graph­ical records of the San of Namibia. I wasn’t sure I agreed with it all but it seemed plaus­ible and I thought it was a much bet­ter pro­gramme. There was still some­thing that bothered me, but I couldn’t put my fin­ger on it.

I found out what it was in Episode III. This was the one where Spivey’s ambi­tion drove him to the clutches of the Dark Side.

Kenneth Feder wrote about read­ing Morning of the Magicians in his book on pseudo-archaeology: Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. He said that it was one of these secret lost wis­dom of an ancient high civil­isa­tion etc books. It all seemed very plaus­ible. That is until he got to the bit of the book where the author wrote on some­thing Feder knew some­thing about. That was com­plete tosh. That when Feder real­ised that if the author was equally bad about the other fields then he, Feder, wouldn’t be in any pos­i­tion to tell.

I thought Spivey was good on Palaeolithic cave art and his com­par­ison to African sites. But while I have a few books on Palaeolithic art, I haven’t actu­ally got round to read­ing them prop­erly yet. Despite my fer­vent wishes the know­ledge doesn’t leak out like radio­activ­ity. On top of that I know noth­ing about African art. I’ve already said Spivey is an excel­lent presenter, but all that means is that if he was talk­ing non­sense he’d simply do it much more con­vin­cingly than me. How can I tell if what he says is any good?

I found out in the third epis­ode on Art and Politics, which was poor.

There were two sort of fault in the pro­gramme. The first was opin­ion. He seemed to be arguing that Augustus secured the empire with a clever use of imagery. I’ll con­cede that he was a mas­ter manip­u­lator of image and that his use of pro­pa­ganda did help. Yet I can’t also help but won­der if the pres­ence of an army at Actium also helped. This is a mat­ter of opin­ion. I say one thing, he can say another and with him being the boffin of Classical Art at Cambridge University I have to con­cede that I may be wrong. He should have a bet­ter grasp of the facts than me. Which brings me to the second sort of error.

This [Stonehenge] is the biggest pre­his­toric monu­ment in Europe”. I’ve wound the DVD back to check that. Those were his words. It’s not even the biggest pre­his­toric monu­ment in Wiltshire. I don’t know in what sense he’s using the word ‘big’. Big in area? Avebury is so massive it holds a vil­lage in its centre. Big in volume? Silbury Hill was the biggest pre­his­toric mound in Europe. I sup­pose he could mean big in the sense that U2 are the biggest rock group in the world des­pite there only being four of them of aver­age height and weight.

I doubt he means big in the U2 sense because he also says later that “The people who lived around Stonehenge would have worn noth­ing but simple animal skins.” There’s evid­ence of tex­tiles from the Palaeolithic period. We know they must have had rope, which shows pro­cessing of nat­ural mater­i­als in the Neolithic, unless you want to believe that Stonehenge was built by hand. It seems that when I know the facts I find Spivey at best shal­low or at worst flatly wrong. This makes me feel like a ped­ant, but it reveals a cas­ual unfa­mili­ar­ity with evid­ence that runs through the pro­gramme and under­mines any con­fid­ence in it.

This both­ers me a lot. There is so much you can say about the his­tory of Art which means a lot more than “Hey look at this pretty vase!” There are ser­i­ous ques­tions to ask about cog­ni­tion. Why do we have art when no other animal does? Spivey should be a good choice for the series. He is tech­nic­ally a very good presenter. Yet the whole pack­age isn’t work­ing. My Da, who will often tell me how much I could make as an account­ant, saw this. “He’s just pick­ing out the bits of evid­ence to sup­port his pet the­ory. In his own way he’s like that guy who traces everything back to 10,000 BC.” Something, some­where, has gone ter­ribly wrong.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

7 Responses

  1. Athena says:

    Hiya, Stonehenge the biggest in Europe? Is he loopy? Get his back­side to Malta and Gozo… Don’t take my word for it, have a look herE: web​.infinito​.it/​u​t​e​n​t​i​/​m​/​m​a​l​t​a​_​m​e​g​a​_​t​e​m​p​l​es/ or if your lib has a copy of Malta before his­tory (Daniel Cilia ed) go just look at the stun­ning pho­tos there. I’m no fan of the “mine is big­ger than yours” “debate” but really this is silly.

    Did he men­tion Lewis-Williams in rela­tion to African rock art? Or bet­ter still, Ann Solomon? This is when I miss not hav­ing a telly (but I’m happy I don’t have one when I hear all about Big Brother part 99999999999999).

  2. Alun says:

    I think Lewis-Williams was the San expert, though I’m hope­less with names. I’m cer­tain Ann Solomon wasn’t men­tioned though as he didn’t speak to any women.

    You can always keep up with Big Brother via the net. I think the hairdresser, who has a lot to say, has just told the world that ‘hair is like an exten­sion of you’. That’s prac­tic­ally Zen.

  3. Diana says:

    I had the mis­for­tune to sit thru two epis­odes last night as had for­got­ten to watch last weeks record­ing.
    Athena, do you want my TV? Free! It would save me hav­ing to fume about Spivey’s incon­sist­en­cies and total inac­curacies! I was really get­ting niggled!!!
    I thought the bit about Aboriginal art was good, but as he said, David Attenborough had already been there, seen it and worn the T shirt.
    I think that the army at Actium may have definately had a major influ­ence on events…I some­times won­der what age group his pro­gram is aimed at!! I feel that he erro­neously con­siders his audi­ence to have NO know­ledge out­side the TV screen.
    Incidently, have you done the fol­low up on the web­site? I’m bewildered. It told me that my pro­file did not fit the art I like! Now, do I change my pro­file, or change my art stlye? According to my pro­file, I should like Impressionism.

  4. Alun says:

    I some­times won­der what age group his pro­gram is aimed at!

    You’re not the only one. The Observer has a poor review of the book, for pretty much the same reason.

    To an extent I might be being entirely fair. It’s sup­posed to be about art, not Rome. So when he described Augustus as a mon­arch­ist I cringed, but what he was doing was try­ing to explain briefly why Augustus needed to man­age his image. It would be easy to get bogged down in the Civil Wars which would have left no time to talk about the art. There’s sur­pris­ingly little room for nar­rat­ive even in an hour, so it could just be a clumsy sum­mary of the his­tory of Augustan Rome. It’s hard to main­tain that defence when you can point out bits which aren’t simply opin­ion or badly phrased but plain wrong.

    It’s a shame when a show lacks sub­tlety, but it’s not the end of the world. After all every­one has their own opin­ion of what is import­ant about a sub­ject. Sometimes con­straints of time mean that detail is lost. Additionally pro­grammes aren’t usu­ally made for the viewer. Television com­pan­ies are in the busi­ness of selling audi­ences to advert­isers. The big­ger the audi­ence the bet­ter — hence the push for access­ib­il­ity. However, there’s a dif­fer­ence between access­ible and superficial.

    I did the test and I came out as lik­ing Japanese art. My age group tends to like Impressionists. It seems plaus­ible I know a few people who fans of Dead Ringers.

  5. Diana says:

    …My age group tends to like Impressionists. It seems plaus­ible, I know a few people who fans of Dead Ringers.…
    Nice one, Alun!
    …Additionally pro­grammes aren’t usu­ally made for the viewer.….I sup­pose we can always click the off but­ton! but I know full well I shall be watch­ing again next week!
    Please enlighten me about Karma.. I don’t dare click on the link in case I get eaten too!

  6. Alun says:

    I’ve added a brief descrip­tion of Karma. It’s really just a tool to keep unwanted advert­ising off the site.

  7. Jon H says:

    I think the hairdresser, who has a lot to say, has just told the world that ‘hair is like an exten­sion of you’. That’s prac­tic­ally Zen”

    Hair exten­sions must be doubly Zen.