Monday, 19 January 2009

The origins of literature

The exact form of the first languages is long lost. Writing was not invented until the Neolithic era, and recording equipment even later. The best we can do is look for indirect clues from fossils and social evidence.

The anatomy that made language possible was already present in the first anatomically modern humans 130,000–200,000 years ago. Whereas four-footed animals must breathe in time with their steps, bipedalism allowed us to control our breathing — a prerequisite for speech. We also have a descended larynx, a relatively small and mobile tongue, etc. This does not mean for certain that our species had language from the outset, but it would be remarkable if we had evolved this equipment without using it. It would also be remarkable if that skill had developed in isolation from others, such as symbolic behaviour. Thinking and talking and symbolism evolve together.

The sign

The earliest language was probably mimetic: an imitation of human, animal and natural sounds, but this could never provide the full range of sound and meaning correspondences we needed. Language is mostly arbitrary — “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” — and cannot exist without symbolism. Its users have to agree that certain sounds have a collectively recognised meaning, are a symbolic substitution for things we have experienced.[1] Thus our ancestors may have hissed in imitation whenever they saw and heard a snake. After enough repetitions, the hiss would become symbolic of ‘snake’ even when the snake was not there. Through abstraction they had created a word.

With abstraction, objects and experiences became signs, patterns, symbols. The Russian linguist Valentin Voloshinov, in his classic Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929), argued that “any physical body may be perceived as an image”, that is, it may be converted into a ‘sign’.

Everything ideological possesses meaning: it represents, depicts, or stands for something lying outside of itself. In other words, it is a sign.[2]

Signs allow our consciousness to interact with external reality. Voloshinov is right to stress ideology. A naturally occurring object simply exists, whereas a sign, as a human creation, cannot but take on a specific, socially mediated human meaning. “The physical object is converted into a sign. Without ceasing to be a part of material reality, such an object reflects and refracts another reality.” Signs, including words, are mediators that convert our concrete experience into ideological, symbolic forms.

This probably first served as a means to share information about food-gathering and dangers, share cultural behaviours, etc — early humans may have mimed a predator, together with an agreed vocal signal for that predator. And it is more efficient to tell the community where it can find an animal carcass than for individuals or hunting parties to retrace their steps to show others where it is. It became possible to gain knowledge of a thing, via someone else’s report, that one had not experienced oneself, and include this third party experience in one’s own calculations. This was another gain in the efficiency and effectiveness of learned behaviour.

Ernst Fischer said:

All tools of a particular kind, it will be remembered, came out of the first tool of which they were an imitation or copy. The same is true of many other abstractions: the wolf, the apple, etc. Nature is reflected in newly discovered connections. The brain no longer reflects each tool as something unique; nor does it reflect every seashell in that way. A sign has been evolved to cover all tools, all seashells, all objects and living things of the same kind. This process of concentration and classification in language makes it possible to communicate more and more freely concerning the outside world, which man shares with all other men...

Language not only made it possible to coordinate human activity in an intelligent way and to describe and transmit experience and, therefore, to improve working efficiency: it also made it possible to single out objects by attaching particular words to them, thus snatching them out of the protective anonymity of nature and bringing them under man’s control.[3]

Creative language

In combination with an advanced brain, words also created the possibility of creative, for example metaphorical, expression. The explanation of how to find a carcass becomes the story of a kill, with the recreation of emotions, gestures, and what the participants said, and becomes a kill that never actually happened.

Let us recall Marx, who said:

The poorest architect is distinguished from the best of bees by the fact that before he builds a cell in wax, he has built it in his head. The result was already present at its commencement, in the imagination of the worker, in its ideal form. More than merely working an alteration in the form of nature, he also knowingly works his own purposes into nature; and these purposes are the law determining the ways and means of his activity, so that his will must be adjusted to them.[4]

Using language to recount something that has happened in the past already implies a certain conscious control of one’s own experience. To tell a story means being able to model the entire narrative in one’s mind before one embarks upon it, just as Marx’s architect plans a building. Our dependence upon learned behaviour meant that when we imitated a comrade to make a handaxe, we knew in advance what we were making, having an ‘ideal’ or ‘best’ handaxe in mind as our goal. This allowed our abstraction of experiences and things into concepts and symbols. Here is Voloshinov again:

Signs also are particular, material things; and, as we have seen, any item of nature, technology, or consumption can become a sign, acquiring in the process a meaning that goes beyond its given particularity. A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality — it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore, it may distort that reality or be true to it, or may perceive it from a special point of view, and so forth. Every sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation (i.e., whether it is true, false, correct, fair, good, etc).[5]

As we developed language, we gave names to things. Thereby we acquired power: partly in a social sense, because we could issue instructions to our fellows and see them acted upon, but also because we could bring the named things under our control. This is another aspect of the humanisation of nature: a named thing has been assigned a place within a structure of human making. There is an ancient belief, probably rooted in this discovery, that by possessing a thing’s or person’s name we gain power over it. The Bible, for example, claims that “in the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1), and that God gave Adam the right to assign names to all the living creatures in Creation (Genesis, 2:19). We see here a correspondence with the idea of sympathetic magic — a thing and its name are somehow causally connected, so that controlling the latter through the human power of language gives influence over the thing too.

Human culture is a learned and not an instinctive behaviour. Therefore, we needed an oral means to pass on tribal lore and our attempts to make intellectual sense of what we saw of the world. In an age where we had language but did not yet have writing, we needed help in memorising these huge narratives so that they might be passed to succeeding generations. To this end we developed verbal techniques like alliteration and rhyme, simile and metaphor, drawing not only upon the powerful effect of symbols upon the imagination but upon the characteristics of words themselves to make them more vivid, more memorable — a unity of both form and content. This is how, in time, simple accounts, stories and folklore evolved into the powerful myths of oral literature. The earliest literature was a communal inheritance, compiled and modified over many years by a succession of storytellers [6]. The sense of shared myths and stories would also have helped bond the social group. These were the beginnings of literature.

As society developed, new abstractions, new words, were introduced. There was no word for ‘painting’ until we had acquired the skill, just as nobody thirty years ago would know what you meant by the ‘internet’. The increasing complexity and diversity of our experience led to increasing complexity and diversity in our signs.

It is likely that language was so important that it actually became (partially) genetic. Chomsky famously proposed, as we have mentioned before, that we are pre-programmed to absorb linguistic structures — what he called ‘universal grammar’.

The Confusion of Tongues, by DoréGustave Doré’s image of the Tower of Babel, ‘The Confusion of Tongues’.

Of course, each language is culturally specific. Human communities that had no contact with one another developed private sets of symbols that were understood to them, and to neighbours, but not to people thousands of miles away. Different communities had different environmental experiences — prey animals, weather, local materials, and so on — and thus developed signs completely unknown to others. Thus, despite our common humanity and ability to communicate mimetically (such as miming hunger or fear), we don’t understand each other’s languages, because these are arbitrary and abstract.

Marxism makes a very important assumption in its theory of language: it believes that these abstractions refer in a meaningful way to aspects of objective reality, even though this relationship is complex. This places it at odds with structuralism and postmodernism, which argue that consciousness and ideology are themselves the product of language. In the postmodern view, we can never escape the web of discourses to an objective truth (as Jacques Derrida put it, “There is nothing outside the text”). This is a debate that we will explore another time.

[1] The uniformity of all living humans — their DNA differences are minor and limited to physical appearance — means we can communicate with one another even when we do not share a language. Of course there is regional variation in how particular gestures are understood. But we can all communicate basic human needs and feelings mimetically. We all have the same ‘species-being’ in common, despite the huge variety in our personal experiences.
[2] Valentin Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, (1929). A part of the intellectual flowering that followed the Russian Revolution, Voloshinov was associated with the circle around Mikhail Bakhtin. The link is to a couple of extracts rather than the full text, which is apparently still in copyright.
[3] Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (1959).
[4] Marx, from ‘The Labour-Process And The Process Of Producing Surplus-Value’ from Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[5] Voloshinov, op. cit.
[6] For this interpretation of oral literature we are indebted to the early twentieth-century scholar Milman Parry, whose particular study was the Homeric poems. Some bourgeois theorists dislike the social conception of art because they want art to be rooted in the individual. But only very late in human history did it become customary for literature to be the work of individuals and have authorial names attached to them.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Paleolithic art, part 5: The magic of art

The perfecting of tools, and the advances in social and cultural organisation associated with them, won Homo sapiens an unprecedented power to alter the external world. One of the explanations of art offered by prehistorians is that our ancestors explained this power through the concept of sympathetic or hunting magic.

This theory dates back to the French archaeologist Salomon Reinach, but was particularly promoted by the pioneering Abbé Henri Breuil. Making analogies with surviving hunter-gatherer peoples, Breuil and others contended that Paleolithic art represented a kind of hunting magic. This theory was later taken up by semi-Marxists and Marxists such as Hauser, Fischer and Sánchez Vázquez. There are various problems with it, but let us begin with the theory.

The magic theory

The theory starts with the proposal, convincing in itself, that it is unlikely that Paleolithic cave paintings were created to decorate the places where people lived. Paleolithic people did not live in caves, or only occupied the entrances of them, whereas some of the paintings are hidden in dark corners and can only be seen by lying down. They are also painted at conflicting angles and even on top of each other, which would ruin any decorative effect. Hauser articulated it well:

A whole series of indications argues against such an interpretation, above all the fact that the paintings are often completely hidden in inaccessible, absolutely unilluminated corners of the caves where they would have been quite impossible as ‘decorations’. Their palimpsest-like superposition, destroying any decorative effect from the very outset, also argues against such explanations. After all, the painters were not forced to paint their pictures one over the other. They had space enough. This very superposition of one picture over another points to the fact that the pictures were not created with any intention of providing the eye with aesthetic enjoyment but were in fulfilment of a purpose in which the most important element was that the pictures should be accommodated in certain caves and in certain specific parts of the caves...[1]

Speculation naturally followed that this art had a ceremonial or spiritual significance. Hauser sees the inaccessibility of the paintings as proof of a ‘magical’ purpose.

The magic theory contends that during the Paleolithic period there was none of the complex separation of art and reality that occurs later. The act of acquiring power by imitation was extended by Paleolithic hunters and artists beyond tool-making and language, until there was no separation between the image of the animal and the animal itself. Hunters hoped that by making an image of an animal, they would acquire power over it. In Hauser’s words:

The Paleolithic hunter and painter thought he was in possession of the thing itself in the picture, thought he had acquired power over the object in the portrayal of the object. He believed the real animal actually suffered the killing of the animal portrayed in the picture. The pictorial representation was to his mind nothing but the anticipation of the desired effect; the real event had inevitably to follow the magical sample-action, or rather to be already contained within it, as both were separated from each other merely by the supposedly unreal medium of space and time... It was not the thought that killed, not the faith that achieved the miracle, but the actual deed, the pictorial representation, the shooting at the picture, that effected the magic.[2]

Many of the cave images show animals surrounded by arrows and spears, or by human hunters, and they were even stabbed or shot at.

Horse from LascauxHorse from Lascaux. It appears to be under attack from spears or arrows.

Art was expected to assist in the hunt, and owes its finely-observed naturalism to the need to recreate the animals as closely as possible. The animals are drawn from the side, where their form was most apparent and complete; where they had distinctive features like antlers, the head would be turned so that these too could be seen at their most representative angle. Dance would have originated in the same way, as a group imitation of the animals that we would shortly hunt.

This might explain why human beings are depicted far less often than animals in Magdalenian paintings, and then in a less naturalistic form. Given the supposed power of an image to correspond with a real being, they may have worried that creating images of people could expose them to harm. The power of this correspondence between image and living person has never quite left us: as famously explored by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Paleolithic magic would not have resembled religion as we understand it today, with its elaborate rituals, scriptures, esoteric myths and hierarchies. There were neither the resources nor the social organisation for that. The magic was as direct a part of the hunt as the sharpening of a spear. This art was part of our determination to exert control over our environment: art, spirituality and science were one and the same.

Problems of the magic theory

One reason we need to examine the magic theory is that it was taken up by several Marxist writers in the first half of the twentieth century. Marxists worth their salt look to contemporary scientific thought, and sympathetic magic was for a time the predominant theory among archaeologists in interpreting Paleolithic art. “Any other explanation of Paleolithic art,” wrote Hauser, “…is untenable.”[3] Fischer wrote that “The magic of tool-making led inevitably to the attempt to extend magic to infinity… Art was a magic tool.”[4] In 1965, Sánchez Vázquez confidently asserted: “Today no one has any doubt about the close relationship between art and magic in the Upper Paleolithic period.”[5] Max Raphael, in his influential book Prehistoric Cave Paintings, proposed that Paleolithic art was totemic, adding: “that totemism and magic co-existed in the world-view of the paleolithics in a specific manner is indisputable.”[6] All of these writers either drew or are likely to have drawn theoretical backing from the writings of the Marxist archaeologist Gordon Childe.

The attraction of the theory for Marxists at that time is obvious: there is no doubt that ‘making alike’ played an essential part in our aesthetic development, and the magic theory is a plausible extension of it. Above all it emphasises humans acting to take control of their environment. But our archaeological knowledge and technique is much better today, and it is clear that there are limitations to what the theory can explain.

The first problem is that it relies upon ethnological comparisons with modern hunter-gatherer societies. Such societies are by their nature exceptional rather than typical. Most societies progress socially and technologically, so any that remain in the most ancient mode of production are anachronistic by at least 5,000 years. Even when a society is in arrested economic development, meanings will shift and change across thousands of years: modern Aborigines for example are unable to explain to researchers the art of their Paleolithic ancestors. We simply cannot know what Paleolithic people believed, because they left no written explanations of the meanings they attributed to their images.

Another problem is that the inaccessibility of parietal art, often claimed as evidence of ritual or magical purpose, is in fact exaggerated — many images are not in especially obscure places, especially at African sites. R Dale Guthrie suggests that Paleolithic people quite possibly did paint the great majority of their paintings in accessible public places [7] — it is just that the works in protected, inaccessible locations are the only ones that have survived.

Even if sympathetic magic was important to one Paleolithic culture, it may not have been for others. It does not explain the presence of non-prey animals (the Chauvet cave features a hyena and a leopard), or of abstract symbols and handprints. Not all the images of prey animals are highly lifelike. The painters of Lascaux hunted reindeer and left their remains in the caves, but the caves have no images of reindeer at all. It does not explain what to make of the statuettes of women — an association with encouraging fertility can not be assumed, as this was an impoverished society that probably wished to limit population growth as much as to increase it. The wary avoidance of the human image seems contradicted by the 155 engraved human portraits found in on the floor of a cave at La Marche in France [8], and although rare in Magdalenian paintings, they are not uncommon outside Europe. And alongside the fine cave paintings, there is a mass of other images, engravings and ornaments that is the stuff of everyday life and refuses to fit into the scheme of the theory of hunting magic.

So-called sorceror from Le GabillouA figure at Le Gabillou in France, which appears to be half-animal and half-human and has been described as a ‘sorcerer’. A similar figure was found at Les Trois Frères in the French Pyrenees. Such images may well be magical, but hunting magic does not seem adequate to explain them.

Hunting is only one element in Paleolithic art. There is imagery that suggests an understandable interest in sex, and perhaps rituals of fertility. The half-human, half-animal beings may be totemistic, as Raphael suggested. Ethnographic parallels have led to the proposal — for example from French prehistorian Jean Clottes and South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams — that cave art is not magical but shamanistic: i.e., that they were part of a ritual that induced a trance-like state to make contact with the spirit world. As shamans danced themselves into an altered physiological state, they experienced brightness, patterns of light and shapes, and saw animals within those shapes. Paleolithic parietal art was the attempt to reproduce hallucinatory imagery.

Before we dismiss superstition and the mass of false beliefs that accompany it, we must remember that Homo sapiens was still a new kind of being, with an extraordinary consciousness which we were just beginning to try and understand. Our attempt to find meanings were derived from our lived experience at that time. Although magic is a fantasy, the idea of correspondence is still in use today, and not just in religious practice — we see it every time we burn a figure in effigy. And the correspondence of a drawn symbol with a word, which in turn represents a thing, is a requirement for the invention of writing.

The problems with the theory of sympathetic magic do not necessarily mean that the Marxists who adopted it were entirely wrong and that magic has no relevance whatsoever to Paleolithic art. It is the promotion of it in ways contradicted by evidence that is untenable. The case in support of the magic theory is well argued — but it can only be part of the answer. We must remember Randall White’s observation, cited in an earlier article, that no interpretation of Paleolithic art can be applied to every work.

In one sense there is no need to struggle for an explanation for what this art was ‘for’. Nobody would suggest that modern art had only one motivating cause, and there is no need to try and find one for Paleolithic art either. A cave painting created to assist the hunt may happily exist alongside a face whittled from bone for the pure fun of it. Art is humans’ attempt to affirm their intellectual, emotional and physical powers in concrete, sensuous form. As such, it is as diverse as humanity itself.

[1] Arnold Hauser, vol. 1 of The Social History of Art (1951). Hauser’s over-simplified view of prehistoric art has become dated.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (1959).
[5] Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, Art and Society (1965).
[6] Max Raphael, Prehistoric Cave Paintings (1945). Max Raphael was a German art theorist who moved to France and then the US to escape Nazism. Adopting Marxism in the 1930s, he offered us some of the most intelligent and sensitive Marxist writing on art. This essay was an important part of a new generation of work in the 1940s and 1950s that sought to go beyond early interpretations of Paleolithic art. He proposed that the paintings were much more structured than previously thought.
[7] See R. Dale Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2006).
[8] I should add that there are doubts about the authenticity of these images, which would be remarkable if genuine.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

The development of the aesthetic sense

We have touched upon the idea that our technology demonstrated, over many thousands of years, a developing aesthetic sense. Where does this come from?

Creative labour is the result of human action to work upon the materials of nature towards our own purposes. Art and culture arose from this and must be understood not in terms of absolutes but of social and historical conditions. We have examined Sánchez Vázquez’s argument that labour is the humanisation of nature:

Labour is thus not only the creation of useful objects that satisfy specific human needs, but also the art of objectifying or moulding human goals, ideas, or feelings in and through material, concrete-sensuous objects. In this capacity to realise ‘essential powers’ — to produce material objects that express the human essence — resides the human potential to create objects, such as works of art, that elevate the capacity for expression and confirmation that is already present in the products of labour. [1]

In this article we shall explore in more detail how humans discovered the creative, spiritual labour specific to art, a discovery essential to the emergence of Paleolithic art at least 40,000 years ago.

‘Making alike’

“Fancy,” wrote V. Gordon Childe, “cannot work in a vacuum. What it creates must be like something already known.”[2] A crucial part of the experimentation that led to human technology is the concept of ‘making alike’.

We have already discussed how culture is a learned, not a genetic behaviour. This makes imitation, or mimesis, extremely important. To preserve our specifically human skills in controlling fire, making tools and so on, we had to carefully imitate previous generations so that their innovations were not lost.

Our technology was originally acquired simply through trial and error, because we were curious, playful beings that were always trying out new things. Of course, we are not unique in our curiosity — we share it with chimpanzees, for example. But the human imagination enables us to take control of what our curiosity shows us: to consider before we act, to pause in midstream and compare what we are doing to what we know has been achieved by others or is made possible by the properties of the materials involved.

Early humans will have picked up a stone and noticed that its edge could be used for cutting or pounding. Eventually they began to associate particular kinds of stone with such purposes, to compare stones with each another, and take note when one form proved more effective than another at a given task. After a while we realised that we did not need to wait until we happened upon the right stone — we could shape one ourselves. In doing this we imitated a form we had found in nature. Ernst Fischer, whose Necessity of Art includes an interesting Marxist discussion of humans’ early development, wrote:

Man made a second tool resemble the first and by so doing produced a new, equally useful and equally valuable tool. Thus ‘making alike’ grants man a power over objects. A stone which was previously useless acquires value because it can be made like a tool and so recruited into man’s service. [3]

Fischer’s analysis flows into a discussion of the proposed ‘magical’ purpose of Paleolithic art, about which we must be sceptical. Nonetheless, his argument stands that by copying, for example, naturally occurring flints to create axe-heads, then copying those axe-heads to make more axe-heads, humans won control over nature and learned to value imitation.

Our ancestors may have seen the benefits of imitation as a strange power, and this was not entirely fanciful. Imitation, and the powers opened up by it, created immense technological and cultural possibilities. Bows, spears and spear-throwers gave us the power to bring down a gazelle — something our scavenger ancestors could never have done. By introducing rhythm into language we created chants that made hard work easier, and poetic sound patterns helped us — when writing did not yet exist — to remember long ancestral stories. Drumming and dancing stirred the body and mind before a hunt. Our creations really did enhance our abilities.

The imitation of nature spread to other aspects of our lives to increase our ability to change and control them. While we scrawled shapes on walls, drew around our hands, and so on, we discovered a relationship between a created image and a real, living thing. Through a long process, there emerged an aesthetic based upon similarity and imitation. It was the desire to create an image of an animal that gave birth to painting; it was the recreation of an animal or human form that gave us sculpture. In the products of our labour, we could go beyond mere imitation and infuse those products with meaning. Here is Fischer again:

By his work, man transforms the world like a magician: a piece of wood, a bone, a flint is fashioned to resemble a model and thereby transformed into that very model; material objects are transformed into signs, names and concepts; man himself is transformed from an animal into a man.[4]

Early humans probably mimed animals in order to communicate information about them. With the acquisition of full consciousness, such mimes could become symbolic, integrating our knowledge of human and animal to create a mixture of both: the mimer could temporarily ‘become’ the animal.

Mimesis is therefore the probable basis of dance, storytelling and theatre. Our shared human experience meant that the miming or re-presenting of actions would be understood by an audience. Once we were able to mime a single event, which would have had an obvious instructional use, we could mime several in sequence, and thus build a narrative, rather like building a sentence. When combined with symbolisation, we had the structure, built upon shared experience, which was the basis for complex, imaginative storytelling, and assisted our development of language.

Utilitarian and spiritual need

We have asserted that “through production we give our human or species character a concrete, sensual form, affirming it in external objects we can see and touch.” This does not yet suffice to explain art as a particular form of human labour.

All the products of our labour are creative, in the very straightforward sense that we are making an object. There is therefore a certain overlap between what is art and what is not [5]. A car for example is a practical object: its purpose is to get us from A to B. At the same time, we may hear someone praise their car as ‘a work of art’. And indeed, we can see that the car has been invested with aesthetic qualities as well as practical — it has been painted a bright colour and polished to a shiny finish. These qualities are irrelevant to its dominant, utilitarian purpose. Other qualities may be more ambiguous: a car may have a graceful design which also serves to make it more aerodynamic. The difference between art and other labour derives from the tension between utilitarian and spiritual [6] functions. Let’s return to Sánchez Vázquez:

The usefulness of a work of art is determined not by its capacity to satisfy a determinate human need, but by its capacity to satisfy the general need that man feels to humanise everything he comes in contact with… Art is the creation of objects that essentially satisfy only spiritual needs; that is, these objects are distant not only from direct, physical, immediate needs, but also from the practical needs that are satisfied by the products of labour.

We can see from this that labour predates art. Labour was at first dedicated to strictly utilitarian tasks. It took thousands of years for humans to create — through the mastering of natural properties and of an aesthetic sense — the conditions in which art could be created.

Magdalenian spearthrower decorated with carvingMagdalenian spearthrower made of reindeer antler. Spearthrowers are designed to make a spear fly faster. However the artist has decorated it with a carving of a bison licking itself, even though it cannot have made the object any more effective. From the Flickr account of mharrsch.

Kant amongst others alleged a contradiction between art and work, and this idea persists as a common dichotomy — work is seen as strictly pragmatic, art is seen as free and creative. It is more correct to see labour as an activity by which humans express their powers and exert control over materials found in nature, with art as one particular form of it. If we see work as an unpleasant and arduous necessity and art as a pleasant ‘pastime’, it is because we live under the alienating conditions of capitalist society, where most of us depend for a living upon labour that is out of our direct control or even our full understanding [7].

All human creations, including art, must satisfy some sort of need, or we would not make them. Art satisfies, though not exclusively, a spiritual need.

Spiritual utility, which is specifically human, is already present within the narrow framework of the material utility of the products of labour: art in effect does no more than express fully and freely, and in an adequate form, the spiritual content that is already present in a limited way in the products of human labour. [8]

Human productivity must reach a certain level before works of art can be created, simply to provide the materials, the technical skills and the leisure time that are required. Labour and human consciousness must also have achieved a certain level of complexity before the separation of utilitarian and spiritual value becomes possible. For this reason, labour predates art and makes it possible. When art bloomed magnificently in the Upper Paleolithic, it resulted from humans spending hundreds of thousands of years exerting their powers over nature, testing its properties, and unlocking their own consciousness. Our very first tools were very crude — stones we picked up from the ground — but as we practised their manufacture we unlocked a range of powers. Sánchez Vázquez continues:

When man had at his disposal an instrument as subtle, as humanised, as the burin, capable of responding to the most delicate and precise movements of the hand, the conditions were ripe for him to trace the prodigious figures of wild animals found in the caves of Altamira, or to shape small statues such as the Aurignacian Venus of Lespugue. But the development of tools was not enough: the prehistoric artist had to know and recognise the natural qualities of objects — their colour, weight, proportions, hardness, volume, etc — so that he could effectively use them to endow objects with qualities that are not found in nature, with what we today call aesthetic properties.

Through our improvements in tool production, we discovered which properties were most effective for achieving certain ends, and engaged in a search for ever more perfect forms. Our satisfaction in contemplating these more perfect forms and knowing we had achieved them was the first step towards aesthetic pleasure.

Already in the Lower Paleolithic, with the appearance of symmetrical handaxes, we arguably see a sense of aesthetics at work. We also see rocks being chosen for colours and forms that people found attractive. These rocks were sometimes transported at great distances even when other rocks were more readily to hand. The likelihood is that aesthetic characteristics were first ‘discovered’ because they had a practical function, and only later was their aesthetic character pursued for its own sake. A hunter might make a tally of his or her kills by making notches on a stick; or, as archaeologist Paul Bahn writes:

For example, much of the simplest decoration of ‘tools’ and weapons, such as incisions near the base, was probably intended to strengthen the adherence to the shaft and to improve the user’s grip...[9]

Like Fischer, Sánchez Vázquez places great emphasis on the role of hunting magic, i.e. that Paleolithic people believed in a practical correspondence of images with reality. Modern scholarship suggests his emphasis is misplaced. It does not however invalidate the general argument, as he does not propose magic as the origin of art. To be precise:

Magic could make use of art because man, thanks to his labour, had already created the conditions necessary for going beyond the practical demands of the useful object, thus giving rise to the beautiful useful object, and then to the fundamentally and primarily beautiful object [my italics].

Once we had conceived the idea of incisions — or engravings, or other decorations — we could make them independently of the practical task they once performed. Thus spiritual labour was able to acquire some autonomy from utilitarian requirements, and humans became aware of themselves as creative beings, finding pleasure and self-affirmation in art.

The aesthetic is uniquely human

We have already discussed the difference between animal and human senses — the first operate under immediate need with no distance opened up between the subject and the object. Humans by contrast affirm their human nature by objectifying themselves, recognising themselves as separate from the external world. By creating human objects we celebrate our uniquely human power to act upon natural material and alter it according to our will. Our discovery of new qualities in objects helped to enrich our senses, and because of this, humans are sensuous beings. Sánchez Vázquez explains (his quotation is from Marx):

The aesthetic sensibility springs from this human process of affirmation. The aesthetic sense appears when human sensibility has been enriched to such a point that objects are, primarily and essentially, human reality, ‘reality of the essential human powers’… Man creates aesthetic objects by structuring raw materials to endow them with a human expressiveness they do not in themselves possess…

Thus humans unlock the aesthetic potential of natural materials, potential which exists only for us and which assists our humanisation of our environment. Only through human action does nature become beautiful.

But natural beauty is not arbitrary or capricious: it requires a material substratum, a particular structuring of sensuous, natural properties, without whose support there would be no human, social, or aesthetic meaning.

This needs some clarification. The aesthetic has nothing to do with an ideal — a perfect universal state, as in Plato, or in innate material properties such as the ‘golden ratio’ or Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’. Just as a handaxe has no use-value whatsoever without a human to wield it, there is no innate beauty in nature independent of human senses. The aesthetic is an act of the human senses based upon a dialectical relationship with nature. It is not based not upon any particular absolute property in nature’s raw materials — colourful rocks, tactile fur, or whatever you like — nor is it based upon any particular biological fact in humans — a ‘beauty gene’, for example.

It is one thing to talk of the objectivity of the marble with which a statue is made — a physical objectivity which implies an independence from all subjects — and another thing to talk of the objectivity of the statue as an aesthetic reality, whose form and content do not exist outside social man. The aesthetic embraces the physical condition of the statue without being reduced to it.

This may seem counter-intuitive: surely we find a rainbow more ‘beautiful’ than a pile of animal droppings? Surely then our response must depend upon some intrinsic qualities in the material? Yet as soon as we attempt to find the aesthetic in the natural properties of objects, we meet a problem, namely that different humans at different times find different natural properties ‘aesthetic’. Convention may indeed claim, because of the particular historical development of such preconceptions, that rainbows are more ‘aesthetic’ than animal droppings — yet Piero Manzoni and Chris Ofili have both made art using excrement, and Andres Serrano used his own urine for his photograph ‘Piss Christ’. We do often find qualities such as colour, shininess, softness and so on aesthetically pleasing — something we will explore when we look at aesthetic cognition — but aesthetic qualities cannot be reduced to that. Something more is brought into play.

The problem disappears if these formal elements are seen as functions of a spiritual content… This allows us to conclude that unless objects, and therefore their formal elements, are humanised, charged with a spiritual content, they cannot be called beautiful… Mere physical reality must be transcended, transformed, humanised, if it is to have an aesthetic value.

Materials all have innate properties of form, colour, mass and so on, and a work of art cannot exist without materials in which to concretise a human content in sensuous form. This is part of the dialectic of art. But aesthetic value is an entirely human response. Max Raphael used stone as an example: early Egyptian sculpture stressed the heaviness and rigidity of stone to emphasise a transcendent and autocratic content; Gothic architecture by contrast tries to negate these properties entirely to create an illusion of immateriality; and Greek sculpture tries to render fleshiness and the subtle modelling of the stone’s surface [10]. All use stone, but stone’s innate properties are invested with different aesthetic values depending upon the creative intentions of the artist.

All our labour is creative, but art is creative labour at its highest level, for it satisfies the human need for self-objectification without being limited by narrow utilitarian purposes — in it we see human skill, imagination, intellect and feeling at its most profound, sensuous and unfettered.

[1] Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, Art and Society (1965). All subsequent quotes from Sánchez Vázquez are taken from this work.
[2] V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[3] Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (1959).
[4] Ibid.
[5] The Indo-European root of our English word ‘art’ implies something that has been ‘arranged’ through the purposive action of an agent, or later, ‘something made by humans rather than nature’ — hence we derive the word ‘artificial’. Only in the eighteenth century did the word ‘art’ come to refer specifically to aesthetics.
[6] By ‘spiritual’ Marxists do not refer to anything religious or mystical, rather to humans’ emotional and intellectual life.
[7] Art, although it is seriously affected by alienation, cannot itself be alienated, for art by its nature affirms our humanity — we cannot create art objects if we are completely alienated from that humanity. We shall discuss alienation in detail in later articles.
[8] Sánchez Vázquez, op cit.
[9] Paul Bahn, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (1997).
[10] Max Raphael, ‘Toward an Empirical Theory of Art’, The Demands of Art (1968).

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).