Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cave Paintings

from Judith Thurman's essay "First Impressions" on cave paintings (The New Yorker, June 23, 2008):

[Henri Breuil] divided the era into four periods, and dated the art by its style and appearance. Aurignacian, the oldest, was followed by Perigordian (later known as Gravettian), Solutrean, and Magdalenian. They were named for type-sites in France: Aurignac, la Gravette, Solutre, and La Madeleine.

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. . . Chauvet was a bombshell. It is Aurignacian, and its earliest paintings are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged from that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, [Gregory] Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a "classical civilization." For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been "deeply satisfying"--and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.

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In an earlier article, :The Signs of All Times," written with the anthropologist T. A. Dowson, [David] Lewis-Williams had explored what he called "a neurological bridge" to the Old Stone Age. The authors cited laboratory experiments with subjects in an induced-trance state which suggested that the human optic system generates the same types of visual illusions, in the same three stages, differing only slightly by culture, whatever the stimulus: drugs, music, pain, fasting, repetitive movements, solitude, or high carbon-dioxide levels (a phenomenon that is common in close underground chambers). In the first sage, a subject sees a pattern of points, grids, zigzags, and other abstract forms (familiar from the caves); in the second stage, these forms morph into objects--the zigzags, for example, might become a serpent. In the third and deepest stage, a subject feels sucked into a dark vortex that generates intense hallucinations, often of monsters or animals, and feels his body and spirit merging with theirs.

. . . When [Jean] Clottes joined forces with Lewis-Williams, he had come to believe that cave painting largely represents the experiences of shamans or initiates on a vision quest to the underground world, where spirits gathered. The caves served as a gateway, and their walls were considered porous.

. . . Clottes was hurt and outraged by the rancor of the attacks that greeted "The Shamans of Prehistory" ("psychedelic ravings," one critic wrote) . . . . "You can advance a scientific hypothesis without claiming certainty," Clottes told me one evening. "Everyone agrees that the paintings are, in some way, religious. I'm not a believer myself, and I'm certainly not a mystic. But Homo sapiens is Homo spiritualis. The ability to make tools defines us less than the need to create belief systems that influence nature. And shamanism is the most prevalent belief system of hunter-gatherers."

. . . Yet even members of the Chauvet team feel that Clottes's theories on shamanism go too far. The divide seems, in part, to be generational. The strict purists tend to be younger, perhaps because they came of age with deconstruction, in a climate of political correctness, and are warier of their own baggage. "I don't mind stating uncategorically that it's impossible to know what the art means," Carole Fritz said. Norbert Aujoulat tactfully told me, "We're more reserved than Jean is. He may be right about the practice of shamanism in the caves, but many of us simply don't want to interpret them." He added with a laugh, "If I knew what the art meant, I'd be out of business. But in my own experience--I've inventoried five hundred caves--the more you look, the less you understand."

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[Jean-Michel] Geneste agrees with their reading, but he also believes that a cave like Lascaux or Chauvet served many purposes--"the way a twelfth-century church did. Everyone must have heard that these sanctuaries existed, and felt drawn to them. Look at the Pont d'Arc; it's a great beacon in the landscape. And, like the art in a church, the richness of graphic expression in the caves was satisfying to lots of different people in different ways--familial, communal, and individual, across the millennia--so there is probably no one adequate explanation, no unified theory, for it."

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