Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Paleolithic art, part 4: Interpreting Paleolithic art

Despite its rich achievements, the art of the Paleolithic — the longest-lived artistic era in human history — was not systematically studied until the late nineteenth century. The famous European cave paintings only came to modern scholarly attention in the 1860s, and the art of other parts of the world had to wait even longer before it received serious study. We have no opinion from Marx or Engels on them, and the only Marxist art theorist to have given them detailed consideration is Max Raphael.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the art was suddenly ‘discovered’: as the British archaeologist Paul Bahn has pointed out [1], local people had often been aware of nearby art sites, and writing about prehistoric art dates back to at least the Chinese writer Han Fei in 280–233 BCE. However there was good reason for a surge of scholarly interest in nineteenth century Europe. In his book The Descent of Man, Darwin had challenged Christian fairy tales by proposing that humans, rather than springing ready-made into the Garden of Eden in approximately 4004 BCE [2], had evolved from primates over many thousands of years. As recently as 150 years ago, it was still assumed by most scientists in the West that human beings and all other species were both immutable and divinely created. In this context there could be no understanding of the sheer antiquity of Paleolithic art — it took twenty years before archaeologists accepted that the art at Altamira and other sites was authentic. Even when its real nature was accepted, the earliest scholarship put forward a theory of ‘art for art’s sake’, finding it hard to ascribe complex behaviours to people whom they considered simple and primitive.

Even with the powerful techniques of contemporary science, it is very hard to speak with certainty about what the paintings and artefacts of such a remote era ‘meant’ to the people who created it. As R. Dale Guthrie put it, “Who were humans before all the stuff of crops, villages, churches, dogs, property, houses and wars?”[3] Many of the usual data of interpretation, such as written records, do not exist, and ethnological parallels with modern hunter-gatherers are simply not reliable. We don’t know if art was created by men or women, or if creation of different types of art was divided between them, or if artists had any special, perhaps shamanic, status (the very idea of an ‘artist’ distinct from non-artists may well have been alien to them). It would be careless to ascribe the same meaning to an Aurignacian bison at Chauvet and to a pre-Estuarine kangaroo from Kakadu, Australia, and even in the same region it is almost certain that art’s meaning will have changed over the immense 30,000-year span of the Upper Paleolithic. We must always therefore be on our guard against over-ambitious hypotheses. Randall White makes a pertinent observation, which references cave art but stands just as well for all art of the period:

There has always been a tendency on the part of scholars and the general public alike to attempt to account for all of Paleolithic cave art with a single explanatory model: art for art’s sake, hunting magic, fertility magic, mythograms, shamanism. As a result, carefully selected images are often presented to bolster one or another of these interpretations, leaving the vast majority of images unexplained. For example, perhaps 10% of the known images conform to the expectations of a shamanistic interpretation. What, then, do we do with the remaining 90%?... No single characterisation of the cave environment is adequate and no single interpretation of cave painting will suffice. [4]

We must cast aside Western assumptions about art: that it is an act of self-expression by an individual artist that results in an ‘art object’, an activity separate both from practical concerns and from mere ‘crafts’. The very idea of ‘art’ as a distinct category of activity is alien to how most humans in most times and regions have viewed creative labour. Even seeing and feeling are conditioned by culture, so the Paleolithic conception of art will have been very different to (speaking as a Westerner) our own. Its meaning will have changed over the millennia and varied across regions.

All we can do is carefully sift through the archaeological layers to find concrete objects, dates, materials, etc, and deduce what we can from the evidence. Our conclusions are becoming richer as excavation yields new finds and archaeology combines with other disciplines to develop as a science. Each work of art arises in a particular social context, and the more we can learn about the material facts of Paleolithic life, we more confidently we can attempt cultural interpretations. Thus the key to understanding Paleolithic art lies as much in the everyday debris of the cave floor as it does in the art objects themselves.

The first observation that must be made is that these are works of outstanding quality. There is no doubt that these are true works of art, which show great symbolic and technical skill. It is prehistoric, but it is not primitive. “We see,” wrote Max Raphael, “that despite external differences, these works of art are fundamentally the same as those of today.” After visiting Lascaux in 1940, Picasso reportedly declared: “We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years.” All of the major art forms we know today — painting, sculpture, engraving, bas-relief, music, charcoal drawing — existed from the beginning.

Art and the Paleolithic social context

We mustn’t overlook a second, very obvious, observation: Paleolithic art represents the pre-occupations of human beings at the time, conditioned by the materials and environment available to them.

In discussing prehistoric art we must shed the ‘caveman’ stereotype of a heavy-browed simpleton with a club and remember that the people of the Upper Paleolithic period had equal faculties to ourselves. As Colin Renfrew observed, “a child born today, in the twenty-first century of the Common Era, would be very little different in its DNA — i.e. in the genotype, and hence in innate capacities — from one born 60,000 years ago.”[5] However they were people who had to subsist from one day to the next in impoverished conditions. Arnold Hauser correctly commented:

We know that it was the art of primitive hunters living on an unproductive, parasitic economic level, who had to gather or capture their food rather than produce it themselves; men who to all appearances still lived at the stage of primitive individualism, in unstable, almost entirely unorganised social patterns, in small isolated hordes, and who believed in no gods, in no world and life beyond death.[6]

He goes on to conclude “in this age of purely practical life everything obviously still turned around the bare earning of a livelihood” and that art must have served to help procure food. By this he refers to the theory of hunting magic, which we will discuss later.

Today archaeologists are less certain that Paleolithic life was as harsh, and the struggle for survival as all-consuming, as used to be assumed (in Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously described it as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”). Paleolithic skeletons are in surprisingly good condition, because of the high quality of their diet. As early as 1966 the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins controversially suggested that hunter-gatherer society was even the ‘original affluent society’, because their food-gathering skills provided for all and that leisure time was greater than today.

Marxists have no time for utopian hankerings after a ‘golden age’. It is a myth that humans once all lived in a simple and sustainable balance with nature. Humans, because of their unique cognitive powers, have never been in balance with nature: we might cite the probable extinction of large land mammals by over-hunting, or the disastrous deforestation of Easter Island, as evidence that ancient societies were just as able, on their own scale, to degrade their environment as we are.

But it is likely that some members of the tribe would have spent an amount of time producing art that was disproportionate in a society supposedly desperate for their next meal. Skill in carving figurines requires a lot of time and practice. The cave paintings and engravings would have been difficult and expensive to make: their lamps needed copious animal fat and the paintings often cover a large area and are at some height above ground level. The people found in the Paleolithic graves at Sungir had been buried with thousands of ivory beads — hundreds of hours of labour had been expended on objects that were simply buried in the ground.

Productivity must reach a certain level before works of art can be created, as people who are on the brink of starvation cannot afford to expend labour on objects with no practical use-value. Marx wrote: “A man who is burdened with material cares, who is suffering great hardships, cannot appreciate even the most beautiful spectacle.”[7] Paleolithic society was prepared to invest resources in its art, and that required a basic economic development — the result of better social organisation and new technologies such as the harpoon — capable of providing those resources. It was learning to acquire a social surplus product, that is, to accumulate food reserves over and above what was strictly needed in order to stay alive. Thus people who had a particular aptitude for art could take the very early steps towards specialisation — towards being artists as such.

The meagre Paleolithic level of production allowed for only a rudimentary division of labour. The principal division of labour was not between specialists but between men and women. This was a pre-class society, in which every member lived in the same general poverty, and had to do their fair share of food-gathering. There was no material basis for a state or for the hoarding of property by a minority, which suggests their society was basically egalitarian. This is the period known to Marxists as ‘primitive communism’. Engels described it this way (the gens is a kinship group based upon common descent):

No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits — and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected... Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today — the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households — yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy — the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free — the women included. There is no place yet for slaves, nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of other tribes.[8]

This should not be taken to mean that prehistoric society was a kind of utopia. The absence of alienation and class exploitation may be something to envy, but the standard of living was severely limited by very low productivity.

In a time when co-operation and community could mean the difference between life and death, it is tempting to conclude that works of art were an integral part of society: in a sense they were as utilitarian as they were spiritual. Rituals, ceremonies, dances, artifacts and so on would have emphasised to a small Paleolithic band the sense of belonging to a social group. A belief in the magical powers of certain artifacts would have provided certainty in a life where much was beyond our control. The elaborate working and perfecting of cultural objects would have stressed the importance of the set of shared beliefs and customs concretised in their particular forms.

The Paleolithic artist

Nowadays we often think of artists as solitary beings, pursuing a private vision in spite of the mockery around them, and the role of art has indeed changed for a variety of reasons. But for the vast majority of art’s history there could be no question of the ‘misunderstood’ artist struggling against his contemporaries. Because I am human, wrote Marx, “my own existence is social activity, and therefore that which I make of myself, I make of myself for society and with the consciousness of myself as a social being.”[9]

Paleolithic people did not produce ‘art objects’ to be placed in galleries or museums, or to sell on the market (leading many prehistorians to reject the word ‘art’ altogether for this period and to prefer the term ‘symbolic representation’). Art in hunter-gatherer society, besides being the product of labour, was and is a social activity in which all participate. For these people, dances and storytelling were not solitary acts of contemplation or self-expression but rituals that bound together their communities. As Ernst Fischer put it: “Art in all its forms — language, dance, rhythmic chants, magic ceremonies — was the social activity par excellence, common to all and raising all men above nature and the animal world”:

An artist can only experience something which his time and social conditions have to offer. Hence an artist’s subjectivity does not consist in his experience being fundamentally different from that of others of his time or class, but in its being stronger, more conscious, and more concentrated... Even the most subjective artist works on behalf of society. By the sheer fact of describing feelings, relationships, and conditions that have not been described before, he channels them from his apparently isolated ‘I’ into a ‘we’... [10]

The community was paramount, for in these times being cast out of it literally meant death; binding communities through culture gave adaptive advantage.

Art has never lost this social function. No artist lives in a social vacuum; we are all subject to the influences and ideas that are on offer in our particular time and place. An artist, however ‘original’, does not produce ideas unconnected to those of his or her society, and art only succeeds if it can speak to us all. This does not mean that the artist may not be highly individualistic; it is rather that the best artists concentrate social experience and its most profound contradictions and processes. We shall explore this subject in more detail when we consider ‘genius’ and the relationship of the artist to history.


The traditions of Paleolithic art came to an end because of radical changes in human society that were spurred by climatic changes and economic development. From painting caves we began painting houses — from naturalistic carvings of animals we began carving gods and kings. Steven Mithen observed:

The ending of the cave art tradition should not be attributed to cultural disintegration, social collapse, or the arrival of a dark age when minds were closed to the arts. The cessation of cave painting is a remarkable testament to the ability of people to rewrite the rules of their society when the need arises.[11]

It is an important truth about art that despite its immense variety across cultures, its fundamental nature never varies. Whatever a particular culture may believe about the provenance of art, e.g. supernatural intervention, art is always in fact the work of human skill and imagination. It is the affirmation of our human powers in concrete, sensuous form, and our species character has altered little in the evolutionary blink of an eye that is 40,000 years. For this reason we can still admire this art today, even without understanding the complex meanings it would have possessed for its makers — a human vision survives across the millennia.


[1] Paul Bahn, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (1997). Incidentally I shall repeat that my citing these writers does not mean they are Marxists, only that their scientific contribution in my view complements a materialist conception of art.
[2] As calculated by Bishop Ussher in the 17th century.
[3] R. Dale Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2006). Guthrie’s controversial book contends that rather than seeking symbolic and ritual meanings in Paleolithic art, we should see it as much more everyday, even casual. Sceptical of the ‘magico-religious paradigm’, he claims that most cave art was created by adolescents and demands parallels with graffiti.
[4] Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (2003).
[5] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[6] Arnold Hauser, vol. 1 of The Social History of Art (1951).
[7] Karl Marx, The 1844 Manuscripts (1844).
[8] Friedrich Engels, Chapter 3 of The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).
[9] Karl Marx, Third Manuscript, The 1844 Manuscripts (1844).
[10] Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (1959).
[11] Steven Mithen, After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000–5000 BC (2004).

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