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 from having any intrinsic aesthetic qualities (i.e. because somehow they were never intended to be there by the image-maker who was always somehow more concerned with a strictly utilitarian task of information conveyance and cultural production/action), the idea is that somehow one can respond legitimately to their aesthetic qualities is structurally dismissed.


However, in order for this line of argument to hold water, the culturally determined constitution of the aesthetically affective point of view would at least need to be demonstrably proven. But once you begin to take a look at the way it is being presented in their work it is clear that this is simply not the case. So, for example, all of these thinkers share an implicit assumption concerning the view that aesthetic affectivity and response is not only a late Western projection, and that it is somehow irremediably subjective type of experience. As an irremediably subjective experience, aesthetic responses have about the same epistemological value as opinions – i.e. none. However, this particular view (radically subjective and relativist), is a peculiarly 20th century/late capitalist view, and certainly in no way reflects some of the substantial body of philosophical writing on art and aesthetics in the Post-Kantian tradition. Also, there is an almost deliberate construction of a parodically homogenous category of ‘art’ in each of these writers. Their definitions of what constitutes the notion of ‘art’, which is supposedly being illegitimately projected back onto Paleolithic art again and again, take little or no account of some of the considerable thought regarding the ontology of art and is really very simplistic, naïve and erroneous. There is also an entirely erroneous assumption which suggest that many of the features of the images during the Paleolithic era, which they argue are in fact salient (i.e. those features which express an animist sensibility or mindset; cultural creation and experimentation; cultural communication; cognitive governance; semiotic fluidity and ambiguity; and collective experience), are simply not part of an artistic aesthetically affective experience. They merely assume that these factors have little or nothing whatsoever to do with what is meant by art or aesthetic experience. They are entirely bound to an empirical realm discoverable by a certain type of approach cultivated within the disciplines of contemporary archaeology and anthropology. The idea that contemporary aesthetic discourse might provide any kind of insight is entirely dismissed.

If these particular assumptions are challenged then their views regarding the corrosive nature of the cultural projection of inappropriate categories onto prehistoric visual culture and artifacts begins to have much less argumentative force. Even where image-making has most explicitly been utilized in the most utilitarian fashion imaginable to convey information, to communicated ideology, to provide social/cultural governance, it has never perhaps been as divorced from aesthetic affectivity as many of these thinkers would like to suggest. The reduction of Paleolithic images and image-making to ethno-archaeological data, together with the patronizing view that this is the only objective route to comprehending their means and significance, risks evacuating the very thing that would help us understand precisely how and why they served so powerfully to convey, reinforce and create culture and spiritual ideology. Aesthetic affect is actually a vital cornerstone in understanding the enduring legacy of Paleolithic image-making over 16, 000 years. For me, at least, it appears only too obvious that these works contain vestiges of intense aesthetic affectivity which played a significant role in conveying their deeper cultural/spiritual meaning to those who viewed them. Aesthetic affectivity is intrinsic to the way that they functioned. I would refute the idea that this is merely a 20th century projection. Our own 20th century responses are likely to be responses to those aesthetic qualities, and speaks powerfully of the trans-historical and transcultural aesthetic qualities. Indeed, one of the most noted prehistorians, Michel Lorblanchet, argues that the simple act of applying an existing concept of art to Paleolithic paintings, engravings, and carvings does not mean that the Western meaning is necessarily imposed. He proposes that ‘in recognizing the historical meanings and the usages of rock art, we realise that our own perspectives on prehistoric works differ from those of our ancient predecessors’.


In each of the thinkers we have discussed, there is an assumption that all anyone ever does in ascribing the notion of ‘art’ to Paleolithic images is retrograde projection. There is little or no consideration of the idea that one might actually try to derive a categorical intuition of what constitutes ‘art’ from the work itself. The idea that this collection of prehistoric work might in fact prove to be grounding in some way of a categorical understanding of art that was projective, and not retrospective. Perhaps there is a way of seeing the art as projecting forward in time in some way, rather than preserved as just an archaeological artifact. Perhaps they are capable of speaking originally of what ‘art’ might be – of continuing to speak of what art might become. By severing Paleolithic images from art discourse on the rather flimsy basis that these writers do, risks alienating it from having any constructive, grounding or productive impact upon the continuing discourse surrounding art, affectivity and culture.

However, as the philosopher Thomas Heyd has suggested, to remain with the aesthetic affectivity of prehistoric visual culture and artifacts does not in any way commit one to the categorical claim that they are in fact ‘art’. Indeed, each of the theorists we have discussed up to this point (Gell, Bourdieu, Conkey, Ingold and Tomaskova) leave significant space for an affective dimension outside of any effort to define the works as art or non-art. Indeed, I want to suggest that it is the affective quality of prehistoric work which forms of the most essential dimensions of our ongoing relationship to it, rather than the effort to render some taxonomic accord with the history of Western art. At this point, it is worth briefly citing the philosopher Spinoza to better understand the fundamental idea of affectivity which is relevant to this particular discussion. For Spinoza the affections of the body are the means by which the ‘body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections.’ The dimension of affectivity is one of the cornerstones of the development of the human organism in its environment. This important Spinozist insight into the primacy of visceral affect was extrapolated and explored by the psychologist and affect theorist Silvan Tomkins. Tomkins, in his work Affect, Imagery, Consciousness, argued that as human beings became less and less dependent on reflexive and instinctive responses, they became more responsive to the way circumstances in their environment made them feel. As humans reacted to these positive and negative feelings about others and their material surroundings, they acquired a greater and greater range of flexible responses. For Tomkins, one of the unique characteristics of the human being is its capacity to ‘feel strongly or weakly, for a moment, or for all his life, about anything under the sun and to govern himself by such motives.’ (Tomkins, 1962, p. 122) Human motivation revolves around a reasonably high degree of emotional involvement, and cultures have evolved different means for ensuring the availability of the kind of things that evoke and arouse intense emotion and stimulate socially desirable activity. The sheer strength and evolutionary significance of affectivity has necessitated culture for both its expression and control.


One of the most important recent anthropological theorists to examine this crucial cultural role in the production and control of affect through art is Ellen Dissanyake. In works such as What is Art For? and Homo-Aestheticus, she argues that valued affective states, such as self-transcendence (i.e. being taken outside of oneself and made to feel part of something larger than oneself), self-transformation, intimacy with others (parental, erotic, kinship), and making and recognising order and stability, are in fact needs as fundamental and vital as the need for food, warmth and rest. Intrinsic to the life of higher animals such as human beings are two complimentary needs – for making order out of the chaos of experience and for disorder, novelty and the unexpected. We all share a proclivity to experience something that is outside the stable order of the everyday – the extraordinary. There is a deeply shared appetite for intensity and and heightened emotion that reminds us of our lived existence in the world. We appear inclined towards intensity, the extraordinary and the mystical. States of ecstasy elicited through ritual would appear to have been an important aspect of generating experiences of the extraordinary throughout human history, and for Dissanyake, in this state and the means used to achieve it can be recognised many of the prototypes for the cultivation of the affectivity through art.

Dissanayake’s view of art sees the intrinsic validity between the association of what human beings have always found to be important and certain ways called the ‘arts’ which they have found to grasp, manifest and reinforce this importance. Art-making is a means of ‘making-special’, of evoking extraordinary states of liminality, transcendence and transformation:

‘Both ritual and art are compelling. They use various effective means to arouse, capture, and hold attention. Both are fashioned with the intent to affect individuals emotionally, to bring their feelings into awareness, to display them.’ (Homo-Aesthicus, p. 46)


‘The external transition or transformation marked by the liminal state may well produce a transformation in the participants too, a heightened emotional condition – communitas. Individuals feel themselves joined in a state of oneness, with each other, with powers greater than themselves, or with both a sort of merging and self-transcendence. This is a state outside ordinary life; indeed, ordinary life would be disrupted by it.’ (Ibid, p. 70)


Once something is aesthetically shaped, structured and affectively comprehensible it very often takes on the quality of having a life of its own, often appearing more intense and real than ‘real-life’.

By placing aesthetic affectivity at the forefront of her own discussion, Dissanayake’s work provides a very strong challenge to the work of theorists like Gell, Conkey and Ingold who, as we have seen, try to evacuate all aesthetic discourse from discussions of prehistoric and hunter gatherer culture. For Dissanayake such theorists remain in thrall (despite their structural rejection) to the ‘deeply peculiar’ understanding of Western art – an understanding dependent and intertwined with ‘ideas of commerce, commodity, ownership, history, progress, specialisation, and individuality’. For Dissanayake, this peculiarity highlights the extent to which few other cultures have ever thought of art quite in this way. However, such peculiarity has encouraged the view amongst theorists that art, per se, is entirely contingent and dependent on a particular social context – which in turn leads theorists to assume that ‘the abiding human concerns and the arts that have immemorially been their accompaniment and embodiment are themselves contingent and dependent.’ (p. 41) It is such a view that provides such a strong impetus to try and evacuate art discourse from discussions surrounding prehistoric, non-Western and hunter-gatherer visual culture or material artifacts. But this deficiency is not really one bound up with the notion of art and aesthetic affectivity at all, rather it is entirely the consequence of inhabiting ‘a world unprecedented in human history in which the abiding concerns are artificially disguised, denied, trivialized, ignored or banished.’ (What is Art For?, pp. 41-2)

For Dissanayake, the corrosion of art and artworks that are intrinsically bound to the deep and universal human need for intensity, the extraordinary and for the transformative in favour of the vacuously and over-commodified shapes of much Western art, is immensely dangerous.

‘The recognition by most human societies that there are extraordinary emotions and their provision of ways for eliciting and controlling these suggests that human beings have a powerful propensity to attach strong emotions to something they consider to be important (and importances) to what they experience as qualitatively and quantitatively intense). In circumstances where nothing seems important, where nothing – ritual or art – shapes their formless flow, tat strong emotions will nevertheless be stimulated by or attach themselves to excess or extravagance or the extraordinary in whatever guises these assume.’ (Dissanayake, What is Art For?, p. 140)

Dissanayake proposes that the need to artistically reconnect to a viscerally affective and significant dimension is an urgent one. Instead of continuing to deny the aesthetically affective dimension to prehistoric art I suggest that we not only restore it, but that we return to it again, to learn once more of what it is to be brought to a liminal point of transformation.


Upon entering the massive iron gate that stands at the entrance of the cave mouth at Les Combarelles, deep in the Dordogne, I am transported back to my first ever visit here ten years ago. At that time I knew absolutely nothing about this cave, but underwent a profound and revelatory experience through the energy, life and remarkable draughtsmanship of the relief carvings etched into the wall here. I was very powerfully moved by the extreme proximity to these wall reliefs, their preservation and their immediacy. At Les Combarelles I experienced a sense of temporal compression and participation in a continuum – cultural, artistic, imaginative, affective and human. Visiting it again today I am more than a little anxious that it would not live up to my earlier visit. But this proved groundless.

We walk in the half-light some distance into the cave, along a low, narrow and winding shaft, the guide calls us to stop and then illuminates the first wall relief with his torch – it is a horse. Upon seeing this beautiful rendered animal I am immediately transported back to where I had stood ten years ago, and where the artist had stood 14,000 years ago. It hits me extremely hard, and makes me breathless. Or am I holding my breath? I find that I do this during moments of intense emotional affectivity. I don’t know why.

The guide on today’s tour is outstanding. He draws our attention to the superb economy of line, the speed of execution, the dynamism and figural fidelity of the animals (beginning with this horse). In broken English he talks enthusiastically of ‘horse-energy’, ‘horse movement’, ‘horse alive’. And it is, without question, alive.


As he moves the light around the sculpture it literally dances and shifts before our eyes. The contours of the rock, and the interplay of light, shade, carved lines and incised holes gives birth to a beautiful animal. Arrested within the rock, it gestates into being with the advent of (moving) light. What the artist has managed to inscribe upon the rock is not a static two-dimensional representation, or even a static three-dimensional sculptural relief. Rather, it is a figure capable of movement, change, dynamism. It is a shape-shifting being. At Les Combarelles the technique for summoning the dynamic variety of animal forms from out of the rock has been somehow perfected, refined beyond many other examples. Quite simply, Les Combarelles is a uniquely strange and arresting place.


I remember feeling this strange, almost occult, atmosphere the first time I visited. And today the feeling is even stronger. There is a strange admixture of bio-diversity, hybridity, elemental fusions, symbolic overlayings, sexuality and secrecy here. As we progress through the various parts of the cave, a reindeer is revealed, two reindeers facing one another, superimposed reindeers, a mammoth, a lion, vulvas and phalluses, fragments of human figures and symbols (e.g. ‘V’s’ and tectiforms), it feels as if we are going deeper into a mystery – where secrets are being figured. Secret associations, symbolic identities and a fluid and hallucinogenic sense of life – of things being alive, their being-aliveness intensified in the half-light, dancing off the wall and into vision. The guide talks of the place as one of initiation, of ritual and of magic. And it is hard to see it any other way. Of course, one can only speculate as the details of the myths are lost, but strong clues remain.

Animal spirits brought to life, brought into movement, at various stages of the cave. Made visible, but also creatures rendered tactile, as things one could touch in the darkness, guiding one incessantly onwards towards inexorable mystery deeper and deeper in the cave. The superimposition of different animals, perhaps suggestive of a notion of a hybrid collective form of animality – a bringing together into a horse-reindeer-bison-bear creature. The extraordinary visual hybridity between human beings and animals – one particular complex superimposition suggests a four creature hybrid – two reindeers, a horse and a backward facing mammoth sharing legs – and then miraculously, with the play of the light, the mammoth becomes a crouching human figure resting on its outstretched hands, emerging as if out of the hind quarters of the reindeer-horse creature. The triangular union of the vulva and phallus, beside the fragmentary female forms, as if dancing, which are etched above a standing pool of water long-disappeared but the mineral deposits remaining as evidence of its presence – sex, birth, animality, becoming, water, mirroring, shimmering, glowing, dancing. By this point the affective quality of these works is quite vertiginous.


The guide talks of the possibility of oxygen deprivation which occurs as you go deeper into the cave – hypoxic hallucinations surely added power to these experiences. And who knows what other mind-altering substances were imbibed before venturing down here during an initiatory rite.

These are some of the most enigmatic, beautiful, emotionally moving and spiritually enervating artworks in existence. It is as simple as that. Anyone who doubts that needs to simply come here. They are still alive. Their magic still has an affective potency that is profoundly ancient and mysterious. To visit these caves is to be haunted by the spirits of ancient animals, and to allow oneself to be inhabited by the original spirit of humanity.

I leave the cave with tears in my eyes. Little outside this cave can match the degree of intensity to be found here. Actually, nothing can. And that is from the perspective of someone living in 2014. One can only imaginatively transport oneself into the degree of violent intensity, vertiginous terror and spiritual growth these images inculcated amongst human beings 14,000 years ago. The fact that they still speak to us, have the capacity to profoundly disturb, elate and energize us, as well as fill us with the most intense form of wonder would suggest an absolute refinement of aesthetic intentionality here. From their perspective one must travel forward into the present, and carry their lessons outside the cave into now.

Certain thoughts and questions persist in the aftermath of seeing this cave. The whole idea of transformation, metamorphosis and becoming-animal remains as one of the strongest themes. The sheer dynamism with which the animal forms have been artistically rendered is another. The two do not seem unrelated. Transformation, a symbolic and metaphoric exchange, chiasmus, between man and animal, is rendered ‘real’ – or intensely alive. Concept, idea or belief made sensibly affective – a knowledge transfigured and embodied in sensible material. Knowledge brought to life through intense aesthetic affect. Here we are pushed from the threshold of the human into an animal. Or perhaps it was always a question of intensification. Perhaps the separation between man and animal was less emphatic than it is so obviously is now. Perhaps this threshold was thinner, more porous once, less drastic and fixed as it is now.

Do the fluid exchanges, superimpositions and transformations express a yearning, a certain nostalgia that existed here 14,000 years ago, for a return to the animal realm, to cross the threshold back to what once was, to how it had been, or do they express a lived mythological certitude – this is not what once was, but what still is. This is a collective realization – life is one, a unity, an ecology composed of a multitude of diverse individuated creatures – reindeer, bison, horses, lions, ibex, owls, fish. But these things are us. We are them, and they are us. An ontological continuum. A plural and multi-directional becoming – we came from them, or are somehow born from the same substance as them, but equally they are born from us, they emerge from the same substance as us. Becoming flows both ways – it is not simply a question of configuring a fixed historical sense of ‘origin’ as residing with animality, to which we yearn to return, but a living sense of an ongoing and fluid continuum. Perhaps what is being graphically and affectively embodied here is precisely this kind of profound collective truth.

Is this what one was being initiated into? Is this an initiation into an idea of a single, all-encompassing sense of life as one animal – the animus of the one, linked to the individual’s sexual awakening. Sexuality and reproduction through the confrontation or encounter of sexual opposites (masculine/feminine) is repeatedly dramatized in the cave, whether it is through the symmetrical encounters of reindeer, mammoths, bison, horses, etc., or the triangulated juxtaposition of sexual organs (vulva/phallus). This sexuality/reproduction is contextualized within a certain affective knowledge of its overall place in the ontological continuum. It is how life is propagated, continued, both linked to the past and future, to all other species and our own. Immanence and then the idea of sexual duality. An immanent principle of life sustained through the coming together of sexual dualism. There seems to be a thorough and complex understanding of gender (both human and animal), sexual behavior and its role in the genesis of life, and in how life (immanent animality) is sustained in its magnificent glory.


Could this association, link, exchange between sexual opposites (male/female), between all animals (humans included), between elements and across time be the key enigmatic message conveyed through the various stages of the cave. An attempt at a visual, graphic, tactile, imaginative, affective configuration of ‘philosophical’ knowledge. A sense of collective belief, endeavor, commitment, striving, meaning, purpose and desire amidst being in the world. Is this an attempt to figure a flourishing sense of human meaning? Our growth in understanding the life within which we are embedded, its almost metaphysical as well as physical mechanisms, its ecological interconnectedness, its depth and breadth, our contingent place within a larger ongoing dynamic schema? It would seem as if this is some kind of ontological testament figured as a mythological/spiritual/aesthetically affective spectacle – a refined condensation of the foundational tropes, accumulated wisdom and understanding and realization of one’s place in nature. It is unquestionably, to my mind, underpinned by an animist and immanantist sense of nature , life and being.

Life is linked to animation, movement, becoming, transformation, change, exchange (sexual) – to flow and kinetics as opposed to stasis. A certain vitalism seems evident here. It is as if part of what the artist is figuring here in the cave is a story of the vitalist movement of life’s emergence or becoming, its springing into being from a seemingly lifeless matter. There is, as well as an implicit immanence, an implicit vitalist cosmology. It is as if the artist is trying to express the idea of life’s emergence from matter as a kind of spiritual spark – suddenly through the movement of light and shade the inscribed outline, together with the topography of the cave wall, bring into being a breathing enfleshed horse or lion. It is there, as if brought magically to life before one’s eyes. Shimmering, breathing, become soft flesh infused with life, dynamism and movement. Perhaps this was once accompanied by an initiatory narrative that told of the very moment of the advent of life – the instant that life emerged into the animal forms we see, encounter and hunt outside the cave, and ultimately the creatures we are. Perhaps it was some kind of story about how the principle of life’s power, the spark that animates life, the force that breaths life into all things, resides in all matter – in the rock, in the earth. Perhaps it was configured as a life force beyond the rock, or behind it, a metaphysical principle beyond material – a transcendent spiritual vitalism. Or perhaps there was no accompanying narrative at all. Perhaps it all occurred as affective drama. Knowledge and instruction through the wordless affect – seeing, touching, experiencing and feeling the knowledge of the world, of nature, of life, of origin. Of the senses and the emotions.


Does it suggest that there is some kind of unbreakable genealogical link between the configuration and fundamental expressive component of art developed here, its efforts to provide a graphic, tactile, expressive, affective experience of immanence and vitalism and all human art? Is the continuum between a type of affective configuration of profound, all-encompassing, transcendent and transfiguring knowledge and understanding of existence (all existence, not just contingent human culture, but one that speaks of out place within Being) and the attempt to convey this in such a manner that it is transformative, empowering, enriching, and sustaining? Is art somehow born of these kinds of desires, objectives, needs and thoughts.

Which brings me back, again and again, to the link between thought and affective aesthetic activity. There seems to be a link forged here in Les Combarelles, a link that is not only still recognizable, comprehensible, but one that is truly haunting, overwhelming and resonant with elements that are both familiar and close. Yet, at eh same time, enigmatic, mysterious and perhaps ultimately lost forever? This last ‘question’ seems to be the guiding one for me, the one that I think remains the most important question for all of us now, both as artists and those hungry for aesthetically affective experience and transformation.

Despite the fact that it may well be another decade before I am able to return to see this cave again (if at all, ever), the images in this cave, and the affective qualities they possess, will remain with me always. I remain haunted, inhabited by their life, their form, their energy and their mystery. As I leave the cave, I think about how strange it is that I have in some sense been initiated deeply into their inscrutable mysteries, into half glimpsed, half imagined myths, that I have encountered symbols, images, feelings, energies and movements that are part of the very fabric of my being as a human being. The basic configurations of ourselves, our place in nature, our relation to animality, to the ecology of things, the fabric of the cosmos – our ancient and forgotten foundations – our grounding in Being – are to be glimpsed here, are somehow revealed here. This may be transhistorical intuition – a shared sense of Being – a thread thrown across time. Just how important is it to participate in this foundational knowledge again – to feel alive – to be inspired by the breath of something eternal and enduring. It is all about cultivating our implicit capacity for experiencing this – to feel a participation in a truly dynamic movement of life, development and vital energy again, and to be reminded of the truly transfigurative potential of thinking and feeling immanence.



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