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)


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 interpretative approach to understanding the meaning of the past. Apparently fixed truths of the past are only ever ascertained from the archaeological record relative to the viewpoint of the archaeologist responsible for unearthing and presenting the data. Archaeologists are never able to separate their own subjective theoretical, cultural, historical, linguistic and experiential stance from the data in order to somehow view it in a disinterested and abstract fashion. Despite the fact that they may or may not admit it, archaeologists always impose their own views and biases into their interpretations of archaeological data, putting them in a position more or less logically akin to other, more naive, spectators. Whilst it is certainly the case that archaeological and anthropological experts may well have a much greater empirical and theoretical insight into the hunter-gatherer milieu (Bourdieu’s ‘social conditions of production’), and that such a detailed understanding allows for a more nuanced reading of prehistoric imagery, it is equally certain that they do not possess any particular monopoly upon aesthetic and affective responses to such work.


As many writers have observed, at their source, prehistoric artworks inscribe ways of seeing, thinking and feeling that are in fact common to our species. It is this commonality which produces, and continues to produce, the efforts at projection and the creation of analogy amongst spectators in the caves today. Despite being alienated from the social conditions governing their production, the works remain affectively close to us and this proximity ceaselessly stirs us most deeply. As the cognitive psychologist Merlin Donald has written:

‘There is no reason to think that visual art  in the Upper Paleolithic came from a different creative source than it does today. The human brain is the biological constraint on, and ultimate source of, creativity. Culture provides the specific semantic fields that determine meaning. Thus, we cannot expect that the inspiration for Upper Paleolithic parietal art was somehow derived outside of the social-cognitive networks that have shaped its modern equivalents. Artists must work within a tradition….We must view the ancient images painted on the walls of caves in the Franco-Cantabrian region as reflections, however incomplete and indirect, of a religious worldview; that is, of myths and stories, archetypes and allegories, that gave life meaning.’ ((Donald, M. (2009) ‘The Roots of Art and Religion in Ancient Material Culture’, in Renfrew, C & Morley, I. (eds.) (2009) Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture (Cambridge University Press), pp. 100-1)

However, merely producing analogies between prehistoric art and more familiar art associated with Western European history, whilst necessary and somewhat unavoidable, it is not sufficiently explanatory, and to believe so would be grossly naïve and risk imposing a unwarranted tyranny of the present. As the prehistorian, and author of The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis Williams asks: ‘Is it possible to understand Upper Paleolithic art without recourse to analogy? By using analogies, do we not simply create a past in the image of the present?’ (The Mind in the Cave, p. 46) Despite an affectively resonant core similar between the art of prehistory and our own, it is important to not simply conflate the two in an all-encompassing way. To do so would be to legitimate the haphazard projection of a whole litany of imagined characteristics onto these works. Obviously if one has, like the prehistorian and the archaeologist, a much more informed grasp of the prehistoric milieu gathered from archaeological sites and collected artifacts, this would inform the interpretative location of the artworks more appropriately. But many of us, myself included, do not. Quite simply though, the absence of such professional scholarly expertise should not prevent us from genuinely engaging affectively with these works, and from being deeply moved by them. To engage with their affective resonance is not necessarily a response that involves the naively inappropriate imposition of contemporary ideas. Rather, it remains an attempt at a faithful sensory engagement. It is the taking up of an affective thread first laid out during prehistory; it is an act of continued participation in a sensory continuum.


Despite the claims made by some art historians for an aesthetic continuity between prehistoric art and later modes, there has been a concerted effort by a number of prehistorians, archaeologists and anthropologists to completely sever prehistoric imagery from Western art discourse and from any consideration of aesthetic response. Such a subtractive strategy, carried out in the name of the autonomous dignity of the imagery itself, risks completely removing the affective power and transformational capacity of prehistoric art from having any ongoing impact upon contemporary cultural and aesthetic development. It denies their ability to influence, inspire and affect outside of specific technical realms. In order to counter the influence of these subtractive strategies and restore the persistent aesthetic affectivity to this art, it is important to look in detail at four of the most important and persuasive theorists in this area – Alfred Gell, Margaret Conkey, Timothy Ingold and Silvia Tomaskova.

One of the most important and influential art theorists, whose work underpins much of the current thinking in the area of prehistoric and hunter-gatherer imagery and artifacts, was the anthropologist Alfred Gell.


In his posthumously published book Art and Agency, Gell formulated a functionalist theory of art applicable to a broad range of prehistorical, historical and ethnographically diverse forms and types of imagery, practices and artifacts. His approach is based on defining transcultural abductive reasoning and the production of social agency rather than relying upon the application of Western aesthetic values, passive modes of aesthetic reflection and modern institutional categorisations of art. For Gell, Western aesthetics is largely redundant for providing us with any explanation and understanding of culturally and historically diverse artifacts because it remains too confined within its own subjective psychological interiority. The Western tradition of art that has evolved around subjective aesthetic response is culturally and historically specific and not at all transcultural. This is something he makes clear at the beginning of his book:

‘Our aesthetic preferences cannot by themselves account for the existence of the objects which we assemble in museums and regard aesthetically. Aesthetic judgements are only interior mental acts; art objects, on the other hand, are produced and circulated in the external physical and social world. This production and circulation has to be sustained by certain social processes of an objective kind, which are connected to other social processes (exchange, politics, religion, kinship, etc.)…I am far from convinced that every ‘culture’ has a component of its ideational system which is comparative to our own ‘aesthetics’. I think that the desire to see the art of other cultures aesthetically tells us more about our own ideology and its quasi-religious veneration of art objects as aesthetic talismans, than it does about these other cultures.’ (Gell, Art and Agency, p. 3)


‘Aesthetic properties (for us) are totally irrelevant to its anthropological implications…The innumerable shades of social/emotional responses to artifacts (of terror, desire, awe, fascination, etc.) in the unfolding patterns of social life cannot be encompassed or reduced to aesthetic feelings; not without making the aesthetic response so generalized as to be altogether meaningless. The effect of the ‘aestheticization’ of response-theory is simply to equate the reactions of the ethnographic Other, as far as possible, to our own. In fact, responses to artifacts are never such as to single out, among the spectrum of available artifacts, those that are attended to ‘aesthetically’ and those that are not.’ (ibid., p. 6)

Gell’s dismissal of response-theory rests upon the view that they remain mired in the illusion that the subjective quality of aesthetic experiences has objective import. Western philosophers and historians have considered art to be a universal expression of humankind, and of particular significance is the influence of Kant’s theory of aesthetics which postulated the universality of aesthetic taste or sensibility as a significant human faculty. Art is considered a transhistorical and transcultural product of this universal human aesthetic faculty (For a more detailed discussion of this see: Deacon, T. (2006) ‘The Aesthetic Faculty’, in Turner, M. (ed.) (2006) The Artful Mind (Oxford University Press): pp. 21-53). Paleolithic art, as well as the art of other hunter-gatherer cultures throughout history, seems to prove that art exists across all human societies. However, Gell questions whether this specifically aesthetic conception of art can in fact be regarded as a universal faculty or whether it is a wholly modern system that acquired its current form only in the preceding two centuries. He argues strongly in favour of the view that the category of art is an entirely historically contingent one which demonstrably emerged in the course of modernity. (For a detailed presentation of this argument see: Shiner, L. (2001) The Invention of Art (University of Chicago Press). If this is the case then there are serious problems associated with the idea of utilizing the concept of art in different historical and cultural contexts. Firstly, such a category of art is anachronistic in the and illegitimately functions to predetermine how widely divergent images are interpreted. Secondly, it is dangerously reductionist, merely condensing all the diversity of imagery and artifacts into a singular matrix of categories, namely ours. Thirdly, it privileges an inappropriate set of aesthetic values whereby the modern definition of art is related to an aesthetic discourse which establishes that art is valued for the skill needed to make the object, reflection upon the immediacy of it beauty, and its essential non-utility. Quite simply, as Shiner identifies in his work, these aesthetic values are modern Western ones which do not have universal validity. And fourthly, it is blatantly ethnocentric, the vestige of an ethnographic prejudice which considers hunter-gatherer art as the ‘natural’ precursor of Western art, merely an early developmental stage along a linear cultural trajectory towards our own aesthetic refinement.


Gell’s position regarding the problematic projection of Western aesthetics is largely built upon Pierre Bourdieu’s dismissal of the aesthetic immediacy of art perception in his Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception. Bourdieu argues that the immediate apprehension of an artwork claimed by aesthetic response approaches (which he terms ‘fresh eye’ or ‘naked eye’ approaches), can only occur when the ‘cultural code that makes the act of deciphering possible’ is immediately and completely mastered by the spectator. (Ibid., p. 215) Claims for the universality of any immediate aesthetic perception of an artwork are illusory, and in fact rest either upon a pre-existing mastery of complex cultural codes appropriate for comprehending familiar work, or the mistaken application of a such codes onto foreign objects or traditions.

‘In the absence of the perception that the works are coded, and coded in another code, one unconsciously applies the code which is good for everyday perception, for the deciphering of familiar objects, to works in a foreign tradition. There is no perception which does not involve an unconscious code and it is essential to dismiss the myth of the ‘fresh eye’, considered a virtue attributed to naiveté and innocence.’ (Ibid., p. 216)


Drawing on the German art historian Erwin Panofsky, Bourdieu argues for a two-stage process of deciphering an artwork – the primary stage concerns grasping the most familiar, formal and sensibly basic qualities of the work, with the second stage being associated with the sphere of the meaning of the signified (i.e. what Panofsky referred to as iconography) which ‘go beyond the simple designation of sensible qualities, and, grasping the stylistic characteristics of the work of art, and constitute a genuine ‘interpretation’ of it.’ (Ibid. p. 219) Any meaning generated by the primary act of deciphering is differentiated by whether it tries to constitute the whole of an experience of the work of art, or whether it becomes merely part (i.e. the ‘simplest’ part) of a unified experience embodying much more sophisticated levels of meaning. Following Panofsky, he insists that it is only by starting from a complex iconographical interpretation that the formal arrangements and technical methods and, through them, the formal, expressive and affective qualities of an artwork, assume their full meaning. The full iconographic interpretation reveals the evident insufficiencies of pre-iconographic or pre-iconological aesthetic interpretations, certaintly insofar as they might attempt to become self-sufficient. Citing Nietzsche’s phrase ‘the dogma of the immaculate perception’, Bourdieu argues that the comprehension of the expressive and affective qualities of the artwork is always an inferior form of perception. ‘Uninitiated perception’, he writes, ‘reduced to the grasping of primary significations, is a mutilated perception.’ (Ibid., p. 219) It is a perception not supported, controlled, and corrected by knowledge of the styles, types, and broader ‘cultural symptoms’. It ‘uses a code which is neither adequate nor specific.’ (Ibid., p. 219) Whilst he acknowledges that the first order of aesthetic experience represents the capacity for emotional affectivity solicited by an artwork, and insofar as it can contribute to the overall connotation it remains one of the keys to art experience, it is a lower level of art perception than that which involves comprehending the wider social and cultural codes, and can never legitimately be considered an end in itself.

‘The ideology of the ‘fresh eye’ overlooks the fact that the sensation or affection stimulated by the work of art does not have the same ‘value’ when it constitutes the whole of the aesthetic experience as when it forms part of an adequate experience of the work of art…One may therefore distinguish, through abstraction, two extremes and opposite forms of aesthetic pleasure, separated by all the intermediate degrees, the enjoyment which accompanies aesthetic perception reduced to simple aisthesis, and the delight procured by scholarly savouring, presupposing, as a necessary but insufficient condition, adequate deciphering.’ (Ibid., p. 220)


Bourdieu insists that works of art only exist as works of art for people when there is an available means to appropriate them through adequate decoding. The conditions of appropriation at any point in time come through the existence of a social institution, which is an historically constituted set of instruments for defining and perceiving artworks that does not depend upon individual will and consciousness (as in the Western myth of subjective aesthetic response). It is something forced upon individuals without their knowledge. The social institution sets the involuntary boundaries for the aesthetic distinctions and artistic definitions they make. He writes:

‘The work of art is given only to those who have received the means to acquire the means to appropriate it and who could not seek to possess it if they did not already possess it, in and through the possession of means possession as an actual possibility of effecting the taking of possession.’ (Ibid., p. 234)

For Bourdieu, the most apparently uninitiated perception is always inclined to go beyond the immediate level of sensations and affections,  but without the appropriate interpretative code this perception always illegitimately carries into it codes from the most familiar perceptions, i.e. the everyday. And, more often than not, when dealing with imagery and artifacts that are foreign (both historically and culturally) this leads to a form of aesthetic imperialism and reductionism. Diverse objects are subject to a reduced set of familiar aesthetic categories associated with primitivism, naturalism, vitalism, and exoticism. By following Bourdieu’s general line of argument, Gell resists importing the theoretical nexus surrounding aesthetic response-theory and affectivity into an anthropological theory trying to comprehend culturally and historically diverse imagery and artifacts. It needlessly contaminates them with a specifically Western myth of the ‘fresh eye’ that is really nothing of the kind, as well as attempting to produce a perception of art based upon the most unsophisticated stage of art perception. This inevitably comes at the cost of overlooking a whole range of highly specific social codes governing specific artworks and their production, function and agency. For Gell, art in general (although his attention focuses on visual artifacts, like the intricately carved prows of boats of the Trobriand islands) acts in very specific ways upon its users, i.e. artworks achieve different forms of agency through their evident technical virtuosity. In the development of his own theory he very clearly places the interpretative emphasis away from aesthetic response and reflection theories towards ‘agency, intention, causation, result and transformation’ (Art and Agency, p. 6). It is the stylistic virtuosity materially inscribed in an artwork that elicits a response (different from an aesthetic response) whereby it is treated as a living presence. Artworks are reacted to as if they were living beings or things with personal agency; they become objects into which people enter into personal relationships with, triggering love, hate, desire or fear. Their is a far more active relationship to artworks than that bound up with the reflective passivity of Western aesthetics. Artworks, across all cultures, create a shared common sense, especially through the mode of abductive reasoning. For Gell the solicitation of abductive forms of thought is one of the foundational transcultural features of artworks. Abduction is a type of synthetic inference that is far more intuitive and concise than other forms of logical reasoning. He adopts this principle from the linguist Charles Sanders Peirce, who introduced it to cover the grey area where the semiotic inference of meanings from signs merges with hypothetical inferences of a non-semiotic (or not conventionally semiotic) kind. Abduction covers inferences of a non-linguistic kind. As Gell writes, with abduction ‘a new empirical rule is created to render predictable what would otherwise be mysterious’ (Ibid., p. 15). The production of artworks presupposes the presence of indexes from which such abductions can be made, specifically ones associated with agency. Artworks mediate the flow of different forms of social agency using the logical mechanism of abduction: those who observe the works of art carry out a range of nuanced abductions about the intentions of those who produced them, or even just exposed them to public use. Crucially, his work effectively severs transcultural discourse about art from that of aesthetic affectivity and Western aesthetics in favour of a functionalist social agency model.


Gell’s also distinguishes the prevalent Western definition of the artwork (and its associated artworld) from his own transcultural anthropological theory of art. In Art and Agency, having dismissed Western aesthetics in the way we have seen, he proceeds with a definition of the Western artwork derived largely from the Institutional Theories of Art developed by the philosophers Arthur Danto and George Dickie. In fact, Gell conflates Bourdieu’s arguments and that of Danto and Dickie under the rubric of a general ‘sociology of art’ most appropriate to Western forms of institutionalized art. The Institutional Theory holds that there are no intrinsic formal or aesthetic properties for an object to be an an artwork, but that an object only becomes an artwork in the context of the institution known as ‘the artworld’. Gell follows Dickie’s rather circular proposal that the classification of an artwork involves an artifact upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred such status. Something is an artwork simply because members of the requisite dominant cultural institution decide to afford such a status. However, for Gell, whilst this appears entirely appropriate for defining Western artworks, it is wholly inappropriate for understanding the broader functionality proposed by an anthropological theory of art upon a culturally and historically diverse set of artifacts.

‘The anthropology of art, if it is to be distinguished  from the sociology of art, cannot restrict its scope to ‘official’ art institutions and recognized works of art. It cannot, in fact, talk about ‘works of art’ at all, not only because of the institutional implications of ‘work of art’ status, but because this term has undesirably exclusive connotations. An object which has been ‘enfranchised’ as an art object, becomes an art object exclusively, from the standpoint of theory, and can only be discussed in terms of the parameters of art-theory, which is what being ‘enfranchised’ in this way is all about. The anthropological theory of art cannot afford to have as its primary theoretical term a category or taxon of objects which are ‘exclusively’ art objects because the hole tendency of this theory, is to explore a domain in which ‘objects’ merge with ‘people’ by virtue of the existence of social relations between persons and things, and persons and persons via things.’ (Art and Agency, p. 12)


Western concepts of the artwork are far too exclusive and too culturally specific in term of the overarching institutional matrix granting their status to be of any real value to an anthropological theory attempting to comprehend the social function and social agency created by art. For Gell, both the discourse surrounding the definition of the Western artwork and the cultural specificity of aesthetic response-theory,  needs to be largely purged from broader anthropological discussion, as it adds little of any real insight into art outside of the narrow confines of its own social field. His insistence upon evacuating such considerations has had a very significant impact upon the development of a range of different anti-art polemics in contemporary anthropology, archaeology and prehistory. One of the most important of these recent thinkers is the American anthropologist Margaret W. Conkey who, in recent years, has attempted to emulate Gell and move the terms of the discourse ‘beyond art’ towards that of ‘image-making’ of the Upper-Paleolithic (or the ‘Pleistocene’). ‘Many of us..have been seduced by both our own notion of art as aesthetic creations and the uncanny resonances that many Paleolithic images have with our own aesthetic sensibilities.’ (Conkey, M.W. (2009) ‘Materiality and Meaning-Making in the Understanding of the Paleolithic ‘Arts’’, in Renfrew, C & Morley, I. (eds.) (2009) Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture (Cambridge University Press): p. 180)


Indeed, in one of her papers she suggests replacing the term ‘art’ with ‘visual and material imagery’. (Conkey, M.W. (1987) ‘New Approaches in the Search for Meaning? A Review of Research in “Paleolithic Art”’, in Journal of Field Archaeology, 14 (4): p. 413, fn) For Conkey, the creation of a conceptual caesura will permit the necessary reconfiguration of perceptual factors away from our immediate and most familiar aesthetic notions towards producing a more appropriate archaeological and anthropological understanding of such artifacts. Like Gell, her overriding concerns are with the cultural prejudices that are repeatedly reproduced within familiar aesthetic and artistic discourse, that functions to obscure the autonomy of different cultural and historical practices, as well as being emblematic of an uncritically male-gender privileged discourse regarding art and creativity.

Conkey’s work tries to redirect certain established orthodoxies concerning questions of art and aesthetics in Pleistocene image-making, orthodoxies which reduce prehistoric artifacts to familiar avatars of aesthetic embroidery. Taking her cue from Gell’s functionalist social agency model, she attempts to redirect the discourse towards asking how materially embedded aesthetic factors at play in the images have been mobilized as a form of social action. For her, prehistoric objects, images and forms are linked to concepts of the world not just through social action, but are forms of social action in and of themselves:

‘It is unlikely that the images are to be understood by us – or by ‘them’ – as separate from the actions, the practices and performances of which they were a part and for which they were probably instruments of social action and experience. For example, so many images are clearly ‘in’ and ‘of’ the cave surfaces, the cave wall, which appears not to be a canvas in the sense that we know it. Images appear to emerge from a crack, hand prints made with a pigmented palm of the hand were repetitively placed against the cave wall, arranged – perhaps performatively – to create a shape of some sort.’ (‘Images Without Words: The Construction of Prehistoric Imaginaries for Definitions of Us’, in Journal of Visual Culture, 9 (3):p. 280)


According to Conkey, the images and forms of prehistory were generated within and by ‘communities of practice’, and were not so much art images as they were an ‘artful integration’ of many different entangled material and social factors. As such, like Gell, she also resists the idea that these images are merely signs to be linguistically decoded in favour of an approach that emphasizes the way they signify – ‘how their colours, shapes, placements, relations to other images, the textures of the walls, among many possibilities, materialize a way of experiencing.’ (ibid, p. 181) Her search for meaning is not for specifically determinate meanings as such, but rather ‘why would the making of imagery have been meaningful and to whom, in what contexts?’ (ibid.) Although she seeks to subtract any consideration of aesthetic factors (defined as a specifically modern Western form of passive reflection), she argues that affective qualities were integral to the ongoing construction of new meanings, and served to materialize a way of directly experiencing culture. For her, the affective qualities of prehistoric imagery were closely bound to their original function as direct forms of social action.

Like Gell, Conkey also draws upon the work of the linguistic philosopher Peirce, but instead of using his principle of ‘abduction’ she utilizes his concept of ‘unlimited semiosis’, i.e. the idea that images and other material manifestations of form, representations and symbolic concepts tend to ‘open out’ and allow for a multi-order and fluid system of signification. She argues that the so-called ‘art’ of prehistory is a way of joining different cultural messages together into an overarching narrative text. Within the production of this text the images, forms, representations and symbols possess a high degree of ambiguity and self-reference. The effect of this upon a spectator is to generate an ongoing transformational process of significances where as one level of meaning is established it is transgressed and its meanings are transformed into a different set of connotations. This happens repeatedly. A final stage of decoding is never actually reached, there is no one final and absolute meaning as each ambiguity generates a further round of transgression of meaning, inviting us to continuously undo and remake what the imagery seems to be ‘saying’ or what it is ‘about’. For Conkey the materiality of Pleistocene imagery has the potential to not only aesthetically embroider reality and elicit aesthetic feelings (as she maintains the current orthodoxy is guilty of reducing it to) but also to generate a creatively pragmatic process of affective meaning construction. Prehistoric images are not merely the passive embodiment and carriers of existing cultural meanings, but are in fact the means by which such meaning was actually created – ‘Those who engage with the images (images in the widest sense) not only begin to ‘see the world’ differently, but learn how to create a new world.’ (Ibid., p. 184)


For Conkey, Pleistocene imagery is more productively viewed as a vehicle for semantic displacement, multi-order signification and the creative production of new meaning, than as artistic products whose function was aesthetic. Her own conclusions regarding the transformative quality of prehistoric imagery and artifacts echo those of Gell in Art and Agency, who viewed art ‘as a system of action, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it.’ (Art & Agency, p. 6) Conkey writes:

‘They can be taken as evidence of a semiotic process that is producing (new) knowledge; they are evidence of the re-inscription of a multiplicity of meanings and their further semantic transformation that could potentially expand and ramify into new understandings and elaborated knowledge,’ (Images Without Words: The Construction of Prehistoric Imaginaries for Definitions of Us’, p. 185)

Like Conkey, the British anthropologist Timothy Ingold also seeks to separate Western art discourse and aesthetics from more anthropologically coherent considerations of hunter-gatherer imagery and created artifacts depicting non-human animals.


Given the plethora of animal depictions throughout much prehistoric art, his arguments concerning hunter-gatherer imagery are highly relevant to the discussion of their affective significance. His operative understanding of Western art and aesthetics, whilst it follows some aspects of Gell’s (as well as Conkey’s) working definition of art, is worth examining separately since there are slight differences in emphasis. One of these differences concerns the extent to which he accentuates the role of distance and reflection in Western aesthetics. According to Ingold:

‘Art…reveals a capacity, common to all human beings, to disengage consciousness from the current of lived experience, so as to treat that experience as an object of reflection. Such reflection is the work of the imagination, and its products are symbolic representations. In visual art, these representations are expressed in painting, drawing and sculpture.’ (Ingold, ‘Totemism, Animism and the Depiction of Animals’ in The Perception of the Environment, p.111)

Ingold believes that any claim for these ideas of conscious disengagement and imaginative reflection associated with art to be transhistorical and transcultural, are almost entirely false, and come ‘from the retrojection, onto the entire field of pre-modern or non-Western societies, of notions as representation, that [has its] source in western Modernity.’ (ibid., p. 111) He contrasts hunter-gatherers, who ‘have an extremely close and intimate knowledge of the landscape and its plant and animal inhabitants, on whose continuity or regeneration their life depends’ (ibid., p. 111), with the ‘affluent Westerner who may find the wild animal a beautiful thing to look at, whether directly or more often through the lens of a camera, so long as it remains at a safe distance which precludes any closer involvement.’ (ibid., p. 111) The literal physical proximity and participation of the hunter-gatherer with landscape and animality is contrasted with the embodied modes of distance from nature and the resultant reflective and representational stances associated with contemporary Western cultural traditions. Western categories of art and aesthetics, for Ingold, are inextricably bound up with the associated predominant ways of being in the West, i.e. of distance and reflection. The allied aesthetic modes of relation are an entirely Western, post-Enlightenment, construction mirroring the social and cultural evolution of the West, and bear little or no resemblance to the hunter-gatherer milieu. Ingold argues for a symbiotic relation between ways of being and ways of artmaking, the privileged direction of flow being from the embodied social and the cultural towards the creation of visual artifacts. For Ingold the relationship between nature and culture in hunter-gatherer societies is far more ecologically symbiotic than it is often posited within modernity and postmodernity. However, this caesura is entirely the product of those Western cultures and reflects little of the ecological reality of the hunter-gatherer. Therefore the categories mobilised for comprehending and perceiving Western art art almost wholly inappropriate when dealing with hunter-gatherer imagery, performances and artifacts.


When dealing with historically and culturally diverse imagery of hunter-gather societies he opts, like Conkey, to dispense with the term ‘art’ altogether in favour of ‘depictions’. He also tries to reconstruct a far more appropriate notion of representation, particularly with regard to depictions of animality in hunter-gatherer societies, that is theoretically, in principle at least, far more appropriate for comprehending the significance of Paeleolithic imagery. For him an appropriately expanded notion of representation involves ‘ways of understanding the relationship between human beings, animals and the land.’ (ibid., pp. 111-2) This particular form of understanding concerns the lived and embodied interrelationships between the three, a form of holistic ecological relation in a material continuum as opposed to the separation imposed by modes of idealist disconnection and imaginative reflection. It is a form of understanding concentrated much more on modes of lived visceral perception, of the ways of being inextricably caught up within the flow of the earth and its animality. In order to carry out this form of perceptual expansion appropriate for approaching hunter-gatherer depictions he mobilises two different ways of understanding the relationship to animality – totemism and animism (‘orientations that are deeply embedded in everyday practice…not so much systems to which people relate as immanent in their ways of relating.’ (ibid., p.112)) Like Conkey, in explaining how totemic and animic ontology is reflected in the depiction of animals, he almost touches upon talking of these ways of relating as being affective:

‘The activities of hunters and gatherers that lead to the production of what we in the West call ‘art’ should be understood as ways not of representing the world of immediate experience on a higher, more ‘symbolic’ plane, but of probing more deeply into it and of discovering the significance that lies therein…With a totemic ontology, the forms life takes are already given, congealed in perpetuity in the features, textures and contours of the land. And it is the land that harbours the vital forces which animate the plants, animals and people it engenders. With an animic ontology, to the contrary, life is itself generative of form. Vital force, far from being petrified in a solid medium, is free-flowing like the wind, and it is on its uninterrupted circulation that the continuity of the living world depends.’ (ibid., p. 112)


With both totemic and animic depiction the purpose ‘is not to represent but to reveal, to penetrate beneath the surface of things so as to reach deeper levels of knowledge and understanding. It is at these levels that meaning is to be found. There is no division between ‘ecology’ and ‘art’, as though hunting were merely a matter of organic provisioning and carving or painting gave vent to the free play of the symbolic imagination. This division, along with the dualism of nature and culture on which it rests, is of modern provenance, and it lies behind the conventional notion of the work of art as proof of a uniquely human capacity for creative thought and expression…It is commonly believed that art, like language, is a species universal whose evolutionary emergence marked the advent of humanity itself. This belief, however, belongs to a western myth of origin which, like all such myths, does more to legitimate the present than shed light on the past. Projecting onto our hunter-gatherer forbears the capacities for everything we most value in contemporary civilization, the entire course of history – including the history of art – is revealed as the glorious but pre-ordained movement of their progressive fulfillment.’ (ibid., p. 130)

Ingold insists that the hunters and gatherers of the past were indeed painting and carving, but they were absolutely not ‘producing art’ in the sense that we in the West mean it. He proposes a kind of Copernican revolution whereby in order to begin to understand the original significance of what they were doing we must stop thinking of painting and carving as types of art, and ‘view art instead as one rather peculiar, and historically very specific objectification of the activities of painting and carving.’ (ibid., p. 131) The technical skills of pre-modern and non-Western peoples are acquired through practice and training within a particular material environment. They are embodied ways of exploring the immanent nature of lived reality as opposed to being the products of disassociated reflection and objects manufactured for imaginative contemplation. They are not, Ingold insists, culturally specific dialects of a naturally evolved, and developmentally pre-constituted ‘capacity for art’. ‘The existence of such a capacity’, he claims, ‘is a figment of the Western imagination.’ (ibid., p. 131)

In recent years the archaeological theorist Silvia Tomaskova has extended and deepened the critique of the aesthetic miscontextualizaton of prehistoric and hunter-gatherer representation laid out by Gell, Conkey and Ingold.


Her work presents us with a very nuanced consideration of the type of conceptual reflexivity we need to employ when approaching prehistoric imagery and artifacts. In her 1997 chapter in Beyond Art, Tomaskova argues:

‘The historical shallowness of ‘art’ as a uniquely aesthetic marker is not difficult to demonstrate…The historical track of the term ‘art’ over the past three centuries suggests that it comes hedged with preconceptions, leaving only a narrow corridor of possible interpretation…The art object provides the means for an exploration of transcendental aesthetic quality, the attribute that must infuse any such piece to provide it with meaning, and resonates with the sensibilities of the audience. This concern is seen as an emotional response, outside the rational reasoning of everyday activities. The focus is not on the contextual role of the object, since the basic aesthetic function of the piece is not in doubt.’ (Tomaskova, ‘Places of Art: Art & Archaeology in Context’ in Before Art, pp. 268-9)

For Tomaskova, we simply cannot legitimately assume that the primary function of prehistoric imagery and artifacts was aesthetic. The continued conventional use of the concept of ‘art’ leads us to repeatedly reproduction of our own familiar cultural preconceptions, which are then thoughtlessly reflected and transported into the prehistoric past. For representations and other image-bearing artifacts to be ‘elevated to the status of art they have to be cleansed of their social and cultural context, or the (timeless) response that any piece may evoke in its viewers.’ (p. 269) The entire discipline of archaeology would be better off evacuating the concept of art from all of its discourse concerning prehistory. As she writes in her most recent book, Wayward Shamans, a detailed critical study of how the concept of the ‘Shaman’ has become such a dominant interpretative tool in prehistory:

‘The concepts we use to describe things at the edge of our knowledge are inherently uncertain. Amid the remnants of strange and distant worlds, we project our own assumptions and anxieties alongside the things we take as evidence, the past that we catch as a glimpse of, say, through painted surfaces of rocks. Categories are useful and necessary heuristic devices, in scholarly as well as everyday life. When archaeologists approach representations and beliefs without the benefit of ethnographic records, they necessarily appeal to general concepts and forms drawn by analogy.Yet it is precisely when we do not have access to ethnographic and historical accounts – troubling our generalities with varied and sometimes contradictory detail – that concepts appear the most deceptively pure.’ (Tomaskova, Wayward Shamans)

When we view photographs of prehistoric imagery, Tomaskova writes, it is very easy for the lion, bull or deer to appear to be analogous to representations of animals in the tradition of Western art. By viewing and thinking of them as artworks we illegitimately confine them in an inappropriate perceptual framework (i.e. aesthetic). However, ‘when you visit the site you must climb a steep slope, at times walk through dark, long passages of a cave, and only find the paintings after considerable effort. In person, you now notice little stick figures to the right, bird-like creatures underneath, a dotted line running in and out of a rock, and animals and shapes crowded, drawn over each other. Yes, there may be a lion, a bull, or an eland, but so much else is going on – and behind you is the sound of the wind, and above you a glimpse of open sky…my goal is to point beyond these figures to the ground behind them, to broaden the focus enough to suggest other ghosts and other wondrous paths along the margins of history.’ (ibid.) For Tomaskova, by evacuating the concept of art and aesthetic response-theory, one allows a broader and more contextually enriched affectivity to emerge. The affectivity of prehistoric imagery and artifacts are allowed to become embedded back within the specificity of their place, their landscape, and their time.


Gell, Conkey, Ingold and Tomaskova each operate with a broadly similar and overlapping set of assumptions regarding the definition of art and aesthetics which they believe to be operative and repetitively projected upon prehistoric hunter-gatherer imagery. Their primary aim is the attempt to sever, or bracket off, what they see as the corrosive influence of artistic categorisation and notions of aesthetic reflection and response. It is inappropriate, hagiographic and non-productive to apply such aesthetics to prehistoric hunter-gather imagery and artifacts. The imagery (and the whole process of image-making during this era) must be understood from the appropriate perspective and cultural context, as well as from the angle of a culture-making or social action and cultural production. If we are ever to come to comprehend the significance of Paleolithic images and image-making it will only be by jettisoning any attempt to describe, appreciate, respond or understand it through the familiar terms of Western aesthetics. Whilst the imagery may well have a familiar aesthetic affect upon us (and they obviously do), care needs to be taken that we are not merely viewing the work through our own 20th century aesthetic lens and then mistakenly ascribing determinate aesthetic characteristics to the work as if they were something implicit within them rather than a feature of our own mind, culture or being. It is not at all clear that any of the aesthetic responses we may manifest now played any significant role in the work’s composition, meaning and collective significance. However, whist familiar aesthetic responses and qualities ascribed to the work are an unhelpful and unproductive 20th century cultural projection that needs to be bracketed off, each of these thinkers continues to ascribe significant affective qualities to the work. What remains interesting, and is only beginning to be understood, is the extent to which these levels of affectivity in prehistoric imagery are revealed once the categorial framework associated with Western art and aesthetics is entirely jettisoned.

Despite the aesthetic skepticism expressed by these contemporary theorists, as well as that expressed by the two prehistorians overheard in conversation at Les Combarelles, affectivity remains the true transcultural and transhistorical factor ever-present in the prehistoric imagery.


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