Saturday 2 March 2013

Ice Ageism

So I went to see the British Museum exhibition about Ice Age art.

It's brilliant, and the skills and craftsmanship of people 40,000 years ago with the most primitive of tools left me slightly freaked out. These were NOT primitive people. These were sophisticated, intelligent, skilful, artistic human beings.

Not only were they able to craft amazingly beautiful and evocative pieces of art, but they also came up with some amazing bits of engineering. There is a doll with moving limbs. There is the use of levers to increase the effectiveness of their spears when hunting. There were cave drawings that behaved like movies in flickering firelight.

So I'm really not sure why the British Museum thought these amazing accomplishments were in any need of modern art to jazz them up.

If that was the intent, then I'm pretty sure they've failed - all that it has made me think is that the now-famous modern artists like Moore, Mondrian and Matisse are just a bunch of derivative copiers.

It's also amazing to think that the finest artists using techniques developed over thousands of years have failed to find a way of recapturing motion in painting that cavemen in front of a flickering fire could manage. We needed to get motion pictures before we finally outdid that.

But the most powerful emotion that gripped me was a creeping sense of fear and of wonder: what happened 40,000 years ago that turned us from apes into fully-fledged humans with such incredible talents apparently overnight? That question remains unanswered and still haunts me powerfully.

Unusually for art, it left me questioning the very essence and origin of humanity. It is quite possibly the most powerful art I've ever seen.


JuliaM said...

It was indeed awesome. As so much 'primitive' art tends to be.

Cingoldby said...

Absolutely stunning. I can't help feeling that we haven't really advanced in art since the ice age.

And I'm not even being facetious, I really do think that the fine skill, extraordinary observations of the natural world and deep emotional insights of the ice age artists surpass almost all of the stuff we call art today.

Anonymous said...

" happened 40,000 years ago that turned us from apes into fully-fledged humans with such incredible talents apparently overnight?"

A feasible theory is the controlled use of fire.

1. The vast majority of animals die not from disease and definitely not from age but from predation. Anything not at the top of the food chain is living its life in constant low grade fear with an ever present hair triggered fight or flight response (sneak up on a cat and watch its reaction). The most vulnerable time for most animals without nocturnal vision is night time, without the ability to see in the dark you have little choice but to clamber up a tree and cling on till dawn. But fire changes all that and has a resulting cascade effect.

Every other animal is naturally scared of fire and avoids it, so having it keeps the predators at bay.

So now not only do you have protection you also have a way of making your food much more digestible by letting the fire do most of the processing for you.

So now you aren't permanently shitting yourself or lying on you belly waiting hours for the acid in your belly to convert your food into energy.

Thus fire gives you something you've never ever had before. Time. Time to think. Just time, no matter how fleeting to sit warm, dry and not scared - a privilege which has been wholly absent for literally the previous millions of years.

So you and the others sit and stare at the fire (still one of the most primitive and satisfying pleasures to be had, be it camping or a pub on a Winter evening) and in those flickering flames the very first flickers of abstractions thought have time to form. You can start to reflect on the days events and maybe start to imagine the next.

Is it any wonder many of our words for smarts have light heat and fire as their source?

'enlightened', 'flash of inspiration' spark' 'bright', 'fired-up' 'glowing'

Just a theory!

@DrZeds said...

Love the fire comment.

Genetics would suggest it was down to a single freaky smart arse, which might explain a lot.

Robert Edwards said...

What impresses me is that Archaeologists have worked out that cave-painting, for example, was carried out in a place reserved for it, as opposed to being mere 'decoration'. Evidently, people went to visit it.