Something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong
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.