Making sense of art

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I was going to put Brian Hoffman’s post Aniakchak Art — The Bone Face into a Vidi post. Instead I’m post­ing sep­ar­ately because:

  1. He’s got a really inter­est­ing prob­lem, one faced by archae­olo­gists across the world.
  2. He’s got some nice pho­tos, and I’m a sucker for nice photos.

So here’s the prob­lem. You’re dig­ging in Alaska and you find a bit of bone with a face carved on it. Now what?

In the past I’ve ten­ded to ignore much of Art and Art History. My earli­est intro­duc­tion to it was as art appre­ci­ation which I’ve ten­ded to feel ali­en­ated from for vari­ous reas­ons. It doesn’t help that my memor­ies of Art class were killing time in Pottery because the Technical Graphics class didn’t have enough space. So I never really under­stood Art. I still don’t under­stand Art, but now for much more inter­est­ing reasons.

Art is much more inter­est­ing when you don’t merely look at form, but also pro­cess. The favoured story at the moment is that Art exploded as part of some great leap in think­ing around 35,000 years ago. I don’t agree, it’s a ter­ribly Eurocentric per­spect­ive and African archae­olo­gists have pushed back the dawn of art twice as far at the very least. Unlike a lot of firsts, the argu­ment over when the first Art emerged is worth hav­ing because Art as sym­bolic resp­resent­a­tion on con­cepts is some­thing which makes humans very spe­cial. There’s argu­ment over the pre­cise defin­i­tion of Art and whether or not that can be applied to pre-Renaissance soci­et­ies because it also car­ries a lot of social and cul­tural bag­gage. Nonetheless the prac­tice of cre­at­ing sym­bols and pat­terns which refer to some­thing in an abstract way is found around the world. Reading art can be like read­ing lan­guage. I was amazed to dis­cover in a Psychology even­ing class that even things like per­spect­ive have to be learned. It’s cul­tur­ally spe­cific and, if you fol­low the Extended Mind hypo­thesis (which I will explain in more detail in a future post) it may even be part of the scaf­fold­ing of thought.

So back to Hoffman’s Aniakchak art. What can it tell him?

Initially he thought it told him about cul­tural diversity. It seemed the Aniakchak were pro­du­cing dif­fer­ent art and so think­ing about the world in dif­fer­ent ways. Nonetheless he’s kept and open mind and kept ques­tion his own inter­pret­a­tions. Now he’s look­ing at sim­il­ar­it­ies to Kachemak art, which dates from around the same time. He’s also bear­ing in mind that Art never exists as a Platonic ideal, but has to have a phys­ical pres­ence. The mater­i­als you use are going to have an effect on the art you can produce.

What I like about this is that his work isn’t mak­ing a lot of assump­tion about mean­ing. The arte­facts must have had mean­ing to people who made and used them but this, like the words they spoke as they used them are lost. Nonetheless by look­ing at the form, the con­text and think­ing about the chaîné opératoire the pro­cess of cre­at­ing the arte­fact it is pos­sible to make mean­ing­ful com­par­is­ons and ana­lo­gies with other local peoples. It shows that a min­im­al­ist approach doesn’t have to be Spartan in its outcomes.

The Drawings on the Wall

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The image is an example of the sort of shape they’re talk­ing about. You can see it big­ger at Flickr.

Well yes that may be true, but it’s not just Palaeolithic men who’d want to ven­er­ate them. Slightly more ser­i­ously art is ambigu­ous. The Minoans are known for their bull sym­bol­ism, but it’s unlikely any of the bulls would appre­ci­ate their role in the sacrifice.

Thanks to the tip from Archaeozoology and the reminder from Remote Central, I’ve been listen­ing to The Drawings on the Wall. It’s one of those series of 15 minutes doc­u­ment­ar­ies that the BBC some­times does. George Nash, who’s dis­covered Neolithic rock art, is the presenter and he does a great job. Really cave art should be one of those sub­jects that makes awful radio, just a step away from the All-England Live Mime Championship, or Harpo Marx in his own words. On the con­trary he does a really good job of cap­tur­ing the interest and pas­sion of the archae­olo­gists work­ing in the caves.

He also talks about some of the reas­ons why rock art mat­ters. It’s dif­fi­cult because he has little time to do this in, but rock art is one of the hot fields in archae­ology at the moment, not just for what it is but also for what it says about cog­ni­tion. What happened to humans that means they have art and chim­pan­zees don’t?

The second epis­ode goes out Feb 10, so you’ll want to catch it before then.

How Art Made The World — Revisited

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While look­ing for some­thing else I found this snip­pet from How Art Made the World. It deals with the exag­ger­ated fea­tures of the Ice Age Venuses. Yes they’re unreal­istic images of women, but why do they look unreal­istic? The answer might be found in the actions of gulls. This seg­ment filled me with ambigu­ous feel­ings, so it’s good to have the oppor­tun­ity to watch it again.

I had to flip back to my ori­ginal com­ments, because I remembered feel­ing quite neg­at­ive about it. Yet look­ing at that clip it seemed that Nigel Spivey was an enga­ging presenter. It is an inter­est­ing topic and a change from the chro­no­lo­gical his­tor­ies and dis­aster porn which make up a lot of is his­tory television.

The other clips avail­able online made it clear what I dis­liked about the pro­gramme. It was the dis­join­ted con­nec­tion between pre­his­tory and his­tory, which can be seen in the clip below.
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Art in the eye of the Beholder?

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Deer (best view)
It’s a deer. This is the most eas­ily seen of the carvings.

I went up to Creswell Crags on the bank hol­i­day week­end to see the Ice Age art which had recently been dis­covered. As a trip I can highly recom­mend it. Even though it was a Bank Holiday week­end, there weren’t that many people there, which is odd because regard­less of the archae­ology the site is beautiful.

Creswell Crags Gorge 2

The gorge was formed mil­lions of years ago, but the archae­olo­gical interest comes from occu­pa­tion dur­ing the Ice Age. There’s evid­ence of Neanderthal set­tle­ment around 40kyr from the tools found in sev­eral caves in the gorge. The people would have been fol­low­ing anim­als to the sum­mer graz­ing grounds. These could have been long migra­tions as Great Britain was still con­nec­ted to the European main­land. There is some slight evid­ence for mod­ern humans around 29kyr or so. This came to a halt when the cli­mate became colder. The polar ice cap grew down to within 20 miles to the north of the caves, which sug­gests the tun­dra in the area was barren.

Around 13kyr the cli­mate eased enough for mod­ern humans to return. The tools of the period made Creswell the type-site for an Upper Palaeolithic cul­ture. The flint itself seems to have been sourced in Southern England. The Creswellian cul­ture is tied to the Magdalenian cul­ture of Europe which came at the end of the Upper Palaeolithic. Elsewhere in Europe Magdalenian sites are known to have port­able art­works. More fam­ous is the static art of this period. This is the era of Altamira and Lascaux. During this period the main­land of Britain was still widely con­nec­ted to Europe across what would become the Channel and the North Sea. The people were still mov­ing vast dis­tances across the con­tin­ent fol­low­ing the herds. So why hadn’t any­one found cave art in the UK? This was the ques­tion Paul Bahn, Paul Pettitt and Sergio Ripoll asked and they went search­ing for it. Creswell is the first place they found it.

Having vis­ited the site I can’t help but admire their eyes. The images are cut into the rock, which means they’re partly vis­ible through light and shadow rather than pig­ment. Additionally there’s also a tend­ency for the artists to use nat­ural fea­tures in the engrav­ings. It makes sense because it cuts out a lot of the effort in mak­ing an image when you’re cut­ting into rock, but it does make your won­der if you’re see­ing images that were inten­tion­ally cre­ated or if you’re pulling pat­terns out from ran­dom shapes.

Bison
A bison?

This may be a bison with its head facing to the right. However now I come to write this I’m now won­der­ing if this isn’t a couple of anim­als with their heads on the left. It could pos­sibly be both. One inter­pret­a­tion is that there are sev­eral images over­lay­ing each other. This makes sense if you ser­i­ously ques­tion what pre­his­toric art is.

Art in mod­ern terms is some­thing that you look at. It’s the end product. If you try and improve the Mona Lisa by paint­ing a proper smile on it people would get upset. In con­trast in other cul­tures, par­tic­u­larly some of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, art is some­thing you do. If the pur­pose of the image is to cre­ate it rather than admire it then it could lose its mean­ing once it’s fin­ished. In that case there’s no loss in carving over the top of older images. It is pos­sible that there is another clue in what the art was for, in where it was found.

The animal engrav­ings are all on the east­ern side of the cave. I ini­tially though this was due to astro­nomy. The caves with engrav­ing are on the south­ern side of the gorge. They’re occu­pied in the sum­mer when the Sun is rising to the north of east and set­ting to the north of west. The animal engrav­ings are all on the east wall of the cave, which would mean it would be illu­min­ated by the set­ting sun. The animal engrav­ings look bet­ter in the after­noon, which would seem to indic­ate the time of day when they were cut. However, these may not be the only art­works on the walls. On the west side are carvings inter­preted as fer­til­ity symbols.

Ice Age Pornography?

The tri­angle in the centre of the image above is, pos­sibly, sym­bolic of female gen­it­als accord­ing to one inter­pret­a­tion. I can’t see it myself, but maybe I should to get out more. If there is a divide between fer­til­ity in the east and anim­als in the west it would be inter­est­ing to see if this divi­sion was more widely found else­where. It could show that the pla­cing of the art was import­ant as well as the con­tent, bey­ond simply find­ing a suit­able blank patch.

If you can get to see it then I’d recom­mend pack­ing a pic­nic bas­ket and tak­ing a trip out. The gorge itself is pleas­ant and has a nice meadow adja­cent to it. If you’re keen on get­ting inside the caves then I’d also sug­gest that you phone up and book a place rather than turn­ing up on the day if you can. The tour groups are lim­ited in size and fill up quickly.

Creswell Crags Gorge 3

Unearthing Mysteries has an epis­ode on the dis­cov­ery of the cave art. Scroll down to the bot­tom of the page and click ‘Listen Again’ to hear it. This page also has a high­lighted photo of the deer.

There’s also pages at The Megalithic Portal and The Modern Antiquarian and The Bradshaw Foundation.

I’ve put my pho­tos up under a Creative Commons licence.

Monet the Astronomer?

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[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent and i-Science]

Monet's Houses of Parliament

Monet’s Houses of Parliament

Is Monet’s paint­ing of the Houses of Parliament above an accur­ate paint­ing of London? The story that it could well be broke in August but I’ve delayed com­ment­ing on it because I wanted to sit down with the ori­ginal paper.

A Picasso, so it could be anything.

A Picasso, so it could be anything.

I tend to be scep­tical of claims that art can be read sci­en­tific­ally. For instance does this really look much like a woman with a gui­tar? The Monet paper had the added prob­lem of stat­ing that the time of paint­ing could be dated. Astronomy is usu­ally a ter­rible way to date things. It really only works if you already know the period of the thing you’re dat­ing, which is why the paper ‘Solar pos­i­tion within Monet’s Houses of Parliament’ by Jacob Baker and John E. Thornes makes a lot of sense. It’s an example of good inter­dis­cip­lin­ary thinking.

The reason it works so well is that Baker and Thornes are able to use his­tor­ical mater­ial to elim­in­ate a lot of spec­u­la­tion. Monet’s life is well stud­ied and many of his let­ters sur­vive, so they are able to place the period dur­ing which Monet was in London. To exam­ine the paint­ing more closely they also needed to cal­cu­late where Monet’s vant­age point was. This was made easier as they knew the build­ing he was in, Saint Thomas’s Hospital. Using archi­tec­tural draw­ings and Monet’s descrip­tion of the room they had a set of likely can­did­ates. They then tried to match this to the view from the paint­ing.
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It’s ok, it’s Art — there’s a fat kid on a nearby wall

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Lely's Venus (Aphrodite)
Lely’s Venus (Aphrodite)

What? Tawnee says what she does is Art, sarge. And she wears more clothes than a lot of the women on the walls around here, so why be sniffy about it?”

Yeah, but…” Fred Colon hes­it­ated here. He knew in his heart that spin­ning upside down around a pole wear­ing a cos­tume you could floss with def­in­itely was not Art, and being painted lying on a bed wear­ing noth­ing but a smile and a small bunch of grapes was good solid Art, but put­ting your fin­ger on why this was the case was a bit tricky.

No urns,” he said at last.

What urns?” asked Nobby.

Nude women are only Art if there’s an urn in it,” said Fred Colon. This soun­ded weak even to him, so he added, “or a plinth. Both is best, o’ course. It’s a secret sign, see, that they put in to say that it’s Art and okay to look at.”

What about a pot­ted plant?”

That’s okay if it’s in an urn.”

What about if it’s not got an urn or a plinth or a pot­ted plant?” said Nobby.

Have you got one in mind, Nobby?” said Colon suspiciously.

Yes, The Goddess Anoia* Arising from the Cutlery,” said Nobby. “They’ve got it here. It was painted by a bloke with three i’s in his name, which sounds pretty artistic to me.”

The num­ber of i’s is import­ant Nobby,” said Sergeant Colon gravely, “but in these situ­ations you have to ask your­self: where’s the cherub? If there’s a little pink fat kid hold­ing a mir­ror or a fan or sim­ilar then it’s still okay. Even if he’s grin­ning. Obviously you can’t get urns every­where.”

* Anoia is the Ankh-Morpork Goddess of Things That Get Stuck in Drawers.

Thud! Terry Pratchett