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.


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 ‘minor’ difference is everything, where the vast age of what you are actually experiencing, ranging from anywhere between 22, 000 and 12, 000 years old, is crucial to their aesthetic affectivity? Surely, with this art more than any other, the difference between originality and reproduction is the most telling? The sense we have of actually being in the direct presence of of the marks, outlines and forms traced out upon the rock by our ancestors is not a merely insignificant psychological factor. It matters. Whilst it may well be the case that whether the urinals we see exhibited in galleries across the world are reproductions produced in 1960 of the one originally exhibited by Duchamp in 1917 is of negligible aesthetic significance, or that we are in fact viewing one of the three sanctioned replicas of Duchamp’s ‘The large Glass’, it seems willfully perverse to insist upon such aesthetic indifference with regards to the status of prehistoric art. To take such a view is to impose a curiously Twentieth century anti-aestheticism, where questions of authenticity and originality have been rendered obsolete in the age of reproduction, or perhaps, in Bahn’s particular case, it is an archaeologist’s insensitivity and indifference to aesthetic qualities. Whichever it might be, it results in the same form of denial that direct experience of prehistoric art has any capacity to continue to speak and affect us moderns outside of its appreciation by specialists as archaeological data. Its meaning, significance and affectivity is apparently so utterly lost to us that it no longer matters whether we are viewing the originals, elaborate facsimiles, photographic reproductions or linguistic descriptions. This simply risks sidelining an affective energy that remains vital for our experience of the work today.


To venture today into those dark and cramped places deep underground to see the remarkable images our ancestors painted, carved, traced and drew there, is to experience a rare lightening spark, and to become affectively re-sensitized. They remain a gift of vital energy and sheer participatory joy that is so often lacking in the dematerialized, linguistic and conceptual realm of contemporary Western art. In the ancient caves we are transported back to a domain where art is as enigmatic and transformative as magic. The art here still has the capacity to viscerally move you, to make your body and mind feel enervated from experiencing brief moments of ecstatic absorption in its monumental beauty and affective power. The delicately traced outlines of creatures, horses, bison, deer or the strange hybrid creatures, exist on a perceptual threshold, hovering, wavering, and vibrating – held between coming forward in the light as fixed and static representations and then disappearing just as easily back into the natural contours or marks on the cave wall. This ambivalent hovering in-betweeness born in the frenetic dance of lamplight seems to bring them to life as organic beings, but also animates them as creatures with ‘spiritual depth’. A divine spark still seems evident in the creatures of the caves at Les Combarelles, Font de Gaumes, Peche Merle, and Niaux. This spiritual quality is somehow tied to this technique of inscribing a liminal hovering between inwardness (a movement of recession) indicated by the presence of the creature already-there in the rock, and the movement outwards (a moving of coming forward out of the rock, of emergence). These are works which constantly demonstrate the complexity of a negotiation with the hidden and subterranean, a sense of something which is always already there – a rendering of something virtual into a momentary form of the actual – a realized organic form metamorphosing from undifferentiated stone.

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The animal dynamism of prehistoric art can still reach spiritual levels of affectivity. One is not just moved by their pictorial beauty, elegance and refinement, but also (and perhaps more significantly) by their spiritual depths, by their capacity to figure a spiritual movement of emergence and coming-into being. This quality is at once playful and spiritually significant. We are still able to glimpse an inscribed spirituality profoundly experienced and expressed thousands of years ago. This power is such that we moderns (or postmoderns) cannot fail to be affected by it regardless of the time and culture we come from. To consign this aspect of prehistoric art’s affectivity to an insubstantial and aesthetically insignificant psychological trait is highly reductive and restrictive. There are things being spoken of in these caves – foreign, enigmatic, and temporally distant things. But these are things that should matter to us now. As well as serving as poignant memorials to what we once all were, as well as bittersweet inscriptions serving to remind us of everything we became (in all its grandeur, wonder and banal, grotesque barbarity), they might yet speak eloquently (through the persistence of their affective syntax) of what we could yet still become. This affective thread thrown out by our ancestors might yet speak to a future yet to be made. They might serve as a means for an affective wound awakening us to new possibilities. The affectivity of this particular prehistoric art is a joyful wound. However, the question remains as to how justified one can actually be in this insistence upon a unique and irreducible aesthetic affectivity to prehistoric art?

Several years ago we decided to rent an apartment in the Dordogne region of South-West France for a couple of weeks. I had been asked to teach a course on Kant’s aesthetics to undergraduates, and needed to spend some serious quiet time re-reading Kant’s Critique of Judgement and writing my lectures. Our main reason for choosing to stay in this area, apart from the wine, weather and food, was the handful of caves located in the region with prehistoric paintings that are still open to the public. Nearly a decade before I had visited the facsimile of cave paintings at Lascaux II. Despite the fact that it is a modern replica, first opened to the public in 1983, the striking authenticity and intensity of that experience inspired the decision to come back and visit some of the caves in the area (as well as ones in other parts of France and Spain) where I could actually see some original paintings. During the preparation for this trip I researched which of caves were still open, and discovered that, for reasons of preservation, a further six caves had been closed to the public in the decade since visiting Lascaux. I planned a tentative itinerary of several cave visits which still allowed plenty of time for lying in the sun, drinking wine and reading Kant. As it turned out, the visits to the caves at Font de Gaume, Rouffignac, Le Cap Blanc and Les Combarelles had a significant impact upon my own understanding of Kant and greatly influenced how I ended up approaching the task of teaching this work on aesthetics to second year undergraduates. Here is what I wrote in the opening of my first lecture to them:

“I have, as I am sure you no doubt will, struggled with comprehending Kant’s text on aesthetics. I have also struggled to see the value of its point regarding the specificity of aesthetic feeling as it relates to cognitive judgements of taste regarding beauty. I have struggled to see the text’s relevance for any ongoing and meaningful discussions around art, and I have struggled to hear its particular voice amid the clamor of everything that has come along since. At times Kant’s text seems hopelessly outdated, and its arguments regarding art seem more than a little sterile. However, sometimes the great books of history need to be supplemented by life experience, whereby they are brought back from the realm of the dead. We suddenly experience something irreducibly sensible that begins to deeply resonate with the most impenetrable passage to be found in them. Indeed, this was true for me with Kant’s text.

A little under a month ago, I re-read Kant’s Critique of Judgement in preparation for teaching this course whilst traveling around South-Western France visiting prehistoric cave paintings. I found myself struggling with Kant, particularly with his insistence upon the irreducibility of the aesthetic sensation in the text, as well as what he argues for in connection to the universality of this feeling, namely what he calls a sensus communis – a common sensibility or a community of the senses. I thought long and hard about this idea of a universal community of the senses, existing beyond the mere contingencies of the sensations bound up with my own idiosyncratic physiology (i.e. so just because I like something, because something pleases me, because something gives me sensorial pleasure, why should it say anything about what anybody else should find pleasing or pleasurable). These questions, as Kant recognized, impinge upon our whole understanding of the aesthetic affectivity of art.

With these questions circulating in my mind, I visited an extraordinary cave called Les Combarelles. This is a very long, narrow and often quite low cave that can only be visited by small groups of six at any one time. All along the walls of this cave are a very great number of relief sculptures and wall etchings of animals and abstract symbols or markings attributed to the late Magdalenian, about 13,000 years ago. The feeling of being in such close proximity to such ancient art is very powerful; they have a delicacy and fragility, but also an extraordinary presence. At one point I vividly remember the French guide explaining to us that in order to fully appreciate the effect of the engravings you had to view them under the light conditions with which they had been created. So, rather than viewing them under the homogenous light of an electric light bulb, you needed to see them with a flickering lamp. He had a special lamp with him which simulated the low flickering light of the oil lamp, and when he switched it on I remember looking at a carving of a horse that had been delicately folded into the relief of the cave wall. Suddenly the horse became ‘flesh’, it moved, trembled, and seemed to come alive. This moment produced an intense sensation in me, a kind of visceral charge. The effect of this was to suddenly make me acutely aware, in a way that I had not quite realized until that moment, of the huge distance in time that separated me from the artist and those original viewers of this horse. Quite simply, I felt that what I was feeling was what they, standing there, had also felt. My certainty of this was overwhelming. Standing on the same spot our ancestors had stood, the certainty seemed inescapable. I suddenly became aware of a shared community of sense connecting me to them and which simultaneously collapsed the great distances of this temporal divide. It was as if this single beautiful ancient image, coupled with the movement of light and the intense sensation evoked by its strange animation, had, for an instant, placed me back into direct sensory communion with prehistoric human beings.

This very powerful aesthetic experience had suddenly rendered Kant’s arguments comprehensible to me in way that I had struggled to intellectually clarify for a very long time. It helped me to understand something about the aesthetic singularity of art and the universal community of sense (both of which Kant attempts to demonstrate in the Critique of Judgement), but it was something demonstrated through experiencing pure sensation, a pure feeling of aesthetic pleasure, rather than an isolated act of abstracted intellection.”

I recently revisited the prehistoric caves in Southwestern France, and I read back over these remarks. I was struck by the way I had described the experience of the prehistoric art as essentially clarifying Kant’s aesthetics for me, yet at the same time being unaware of the extent to which Kant was possibly operating to form my fundamental perception and appreciation of the art. It is as if I was critically primed to have the very type of aesthetic experience I had in the caves, together with an intuitive realization regarding the shared nature of human sensibility across time, by simultaneously reading Kant. However, despite the the emergence of a more reflexive realization of the role Kant may have played in shaping my early experience at Les Combarelles, I have continued to carry with me a very strong instinct regarding the unique and transformational affectivity of the moment I underwent there.


Returning to this cave again, whilst also visiting many other caves in the area, I was fascinated to explore the contours of that affective transformation in a more reflexive way. I was reminded that, as a child, I once became fascinated by a photograph in an old encyclopedia of a single, red, prehistoric negative hand stenciled with breathe onto a cave wall. I remember thinking that the image was an unspeakably mysterious and impenetrably strange gesture of greeting across time. The recording of images of human hands in this way on cave walls is one of the oldest and most universal themes in ancient art, occurring across the globe in many many different cultures, from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, France, Spain, Argentina and Australia. During this later trip I was able to visit the prehistoric cave art at Gargas in Southwestern France which is adorned by dozens of negative stenciled prehistoric hands on one of its walls. They are positioned in distinct groupings across six or seven panels, and when viewed from a certain distance you are able to see the whole wall as a single composition. The hands are all different sizes with different arrangements of fingers, with some being made by women and/or children, and they are placed cloud-like in a variety of oblique angles rather than arranged in careful parallel lines. Their oblique and haphazard arrangement suggests an intention, or a set of intentions, beyond visual holism. The concern was more to do with actually touching the cave wall than visual composition, and with an act of preserving a vital moment of touch and visually associating it with other, previously recorded, encounters. The constellation of hands suggest a memorial to repeated acts of direct visceral communion with the rock, sensual moments of integration to be revered and recorded.


The different finger combinations seem to signal some kind of code or sigil performed at a particular moment and then recorded like a photograph through breathe and paint. The French prehistorian Jean Clottes suggests that as the hand was originally placed against the wall, and the red or black paint applied with breathe, the hand would have also become covered in paint, along with the bloom or aura around it on the cave wall. At this moment there would have been a visual attainment complete fusion between body and rock. The hand would literally have become one with the cave wall through the substance of colour applied through the breath. With each breath on hand the physical disposition and gesture of a different person was caught in an instant, each coming close to the uncanny quality of photographic capture but without the associated mechanism. Many consider the stenciled hands (as well as the other prehistoric abstract geometrical symbols) as an early form of language – a kind of picture writing system – yet to view it in this way is to ignore its affective dimension. It seems more akin to a visual affective syntax, of which photography is present – literally a graphic logos with light. The gestural capture at work preserves an almost visceral trace of the body that was once present – like a photograph offering the impossible presence (in the present) of a moment irretrievably lost in time. This temporal paradox is presented and recorded by the hands. Each leaves a unique physical trace, a vestige of an impossibility, a paradoxical residue of a lost moment held in abeyance from the passing of time (what Roland Barthes called a punctum). This paradoxical tracing accounts for their ongoing affectivity. The sensation of temporal anachronism – a kind of visceral trace that can function as a time capsule propelling us back to the instant of their creation.

Many cultures accord photographs an almost magical power, capable of trapping the soul in an instant of time. Was prehistoric image making, particularly the recording of hands with personalized, individual digital codes, perceived in a similar way? Were the creation of images considered a way of abstracting an element of embodied spiritual substance and fusing it with the rock – preserving it to uncannily persist in time, perhaps through a lifetime? They may well have had an oddly unique affectivity all of their own at the time they were made, least of all the affectivity evoked by their continued presence thousands of years later. Is it possible that this represents the first spiritual transubstantiation that we have still have evidence for, the first genuinely artistic gesture whereby the individuated self is placed back into an affective, gestural and aesthetic communion with an outside? Do the stenciled hands represent one of the earliest gestures at overcoming separation through art, a simple visceral gesture that could stand outside the circles of time, and rejoin the eternal again?



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