Affectivity, Art, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 3)

The arguments presented by those archaeological and anthropological theorists discussed in Part 2 are obviously deeply flawed, and these flaws need to be exposed. Between their different ways of thinking we are in danger of being herded into a space evacuated of aesthetic intensity and affective response.

An overarching assumption (or presupposition) dominates this type of thinking – i.e. that when one associates an experience of aesthetic affectivity with a particular non-Western or prehistoric artifact, one is merely uncritically applying (wholly subjectively) a late Western construct linked to individualism, taste, and decoration. Our concern with experiences of aesthetic affectivity solicited by different visual and material cultures is consigned to being a peculiarly post-Rennaisance form of cultural embroidery that is an entirely inappropriate frame for approaching prehistoric, non-Western or hunter-gatherer visual culture and crafted artifacts. Little or no consideration is given, however, to the view that aesthetic affect is an ongoing trans-historical and transcultural cognitive and existential feature of human beings. Each of the thinkers assume consideration of aesthetic experience to be nothing more than a late Western cultural product, and, as such, totally inadmissible when considering Paleolithic images. Any derivation of aesthetic affect generated from one’s experience of works from prehistory is always an unwarranted projection and an unjustified supplement to the work itself. It is just a superfluous and entirely unnecessary feature that should be eradicated from the ethno-archaeological pantheon for good. If one succeeds in evacuating Paleolithic images Continue reading

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Affectivity, Art, Books, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 2)

I was queuing for tickets to visit the cave of Les Combarelles when I overheard a conversation between two American prehistorians attending a conference at the International Centre of Prehistory in nearby Les Eyzies. Both were animatedly conversing about their recent visits to other cave paintings and relief carvings in the local area, and were severely criticizing people who visit the caves and thoughtlessly produce speculative interpretations of the prehistoric images ‘on the spot’, as opposed to giving more careful and sober consideration to published archaeological and anthropological scholarship. One of them was bemoaning the sheer interpretative naivety of many who visit the caves, evident in their desire to quickly impose uninformed and determinately biased ideas upon them (often without any proper grasp of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ milieu or mindset). All that results from such immediate speculations about their status as art, they argued, were biased projections and analogies that were more telling of the cultural prejudices, expectations and sentiments of non-specialist twenty-first century spectators. Their conversation reminded me of a vivid observation made by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that fetishization of recently derived historical categories is a particularly serious flaw in much art history, which ‘never having really broken with the tradition of the amateur, gives free rein to celebratory contemplation and finds in the sacred character of its object every pretext for a hagiographic hermeneutics superbly indifferent to the question of the social conditions in which works are produced and circulate.’ (Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 1)

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As I listened to the prehistorians talk I felt a certain degree of sympathy with their views. It is undoubtedly the case that non-specialists visiting the caves do speculate somewhat haphazardly as to the work’s meaning, intention and purpose, sometimes producing very little in the way of insight. However, for all of their interpretative naivety, I was not at all comfortable with the implication that the only true response to the affectivity of prehistoric art be restricted to historical ‘experts’ or archaeological scholars. Their conversation implied fixed truths associated with the imagery in the caves, the meaning of which was only accessible to the detached and dispassionate eyes of informed experts. Yet, I knew that this view had been challenged in recent years by archaeologists such as Ian Hodder. Hodder’s work emphasizes the irreducible subjectivity of archaeological interpretation and advocates a much more pluralistic Continue reading

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Affectivity, Art, Books, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 1)

In the flickering lamplight, deep in a cave at Bedeilhac in Southwestern France, a creature’s eye stares out from the rock, a perfectly placed natural circular hole in the rock. Around it, described by the addition of a few graceful curving lines 14, 000 years ago, is carved the outline of a reindeer. Its head is almost entirely composed of a natural shape on the cave wall, and the engraving continues to use the natural relief of the cave wall for the animal’s back and the undulating shape of its body. It look as if the reindeer is advancing, turning slightly and looking directly at us. It is caught and held in a moment of alert stillness, and seems to be about to run away. This creature expresses an audacious sense of life and possesses an odd ‘in-between’ quality. Its hesitant pause at a point of imminent retreat extenuates its spiritual status as something existing between two different worlds. It stands at a point of organic emergence, coming out of oblivion to meet our look, yet about to flee and disappear back to its hidden realm.

This reindeer is a consummate example of prehistoric art’s ability to summon life from inorganic material. It is one of the earliest examples of prehistoric art’s capacity to draw out animals (perhaps understood as a spirits, ancestors or representations of some higher power) out from base material, to bring them to life and hold them into view – caught in the magical instant of their emergence – an ancient hypostasis. One can only imagine the wonder evoked by those who were originally privileged to witness a glimpse of this subtle yet breathtakingly art. In the moment of wonder and astonishment a delicate affective thread is spun between then and now. I do not think this is an entirely fanciful notion. The affectivity of this instant, this moment, this glimpsing, seems, at its most basic and fundamental foundation, to be similar. Wonder and astonishment. Because of our different way of life from that of the Magdalenian era, their myths, beliefs, knowledge, thought and way of being, the degree of intensity associated with this affectivity will almost certainly have differed from our own. Yet, at its most radical, primary and originary, the affective moment associated with this ancient reindeer persists through time. Its affective moment is intrinsically tied to a display of fusion between the organic and the inorganic, a birth and transfiguration. The evident ancient affective alchemy of the art is still full of transformative potential.

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The archaeologist Paul Bahn, in his popular guide to the decorated prehistoric caves of Southwestern France and Northern Spain, insists that the only difference between viewing the original paintings and relief carvings in the few remaining sites still open to the public, and the modern facsimiles at Lascaux and Altamira, is a ‘psychological’ one. Any aesthetic differences between experiencing the originals and reproductions are negligible. For him the knowledge that what you are seeing is actually original is merely psychological and largely irrelevant to the appreciation of the ancient images. But surely this apparently Continue reading

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