Cave Art These Days

Do you remember a while back we were riffing on the dystopian fantasy world, Warhammer 40,000, which, rather than being set a paltry fifty or one-hundred years from now like timid/typical sci-fi, is set forty-thousand years into the future?!

A comical, almost unfathomable span. Except: whenever I think about Warhammer 40K I think also about Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the incredible Herzog film exploring the art of Chauvet Cave—the oldest paintings ever discovered—which date from… more than 30,000 years ago. That is: We, now, are roughly equidistant in time from the artists of Chauvet Cave as we are from Warhammer Chaos Space Marines. (And, to these early human draughtsmen, surely we would be as freakishly post-human sci-fi as any 40K space marine—oh, if you’ll kindly excuse me while I update the RSS feed on my handheld device for an anonymous Yemeni blog about unmanned drone warfare… hmm, while I wait for that page to load (must be a slow signal from the telecom satellite—go figure) I’ll just read this week’s news about how the FDA approved 3D-printed synthetic skull replacements; the new worldwide network for robots to communicate and give each other advice; and how a rat brain in North Carolina remotely controlled the bodily functions of a rat body in Brazil via the internet.) (The thing, then, about Warhammer 40,000 is that we are Warhammer 40,000.)

One of Herzog’s basic contentions is that the wonder of the Chauvet Cave art rests not only in its extreme antiquity, but also its expressive quality—that is, the drawings are not only artifact, but art. The powerful, realistic drawings transcend the centuries and convey something essential of prehistoric experience.

A kaleidoscope of big cats, sketched 32,000 years ago

A kaleidoscope of big cats, sketched 32,000 years ago. The eyes…

..

The motion of a ferocious horn.

The ferocious motion of a ferocious horn.

..

The most iconic image from Chauvet Cave: the Wall of Horses. Among the noble team, note the smallest horse panting to keep up.

The most iconic image from Chauvet Cave: the Wall of Horses. Among the noble team, note the smallest horse panting to keep up.

Herzog argues that the drawings of Chauvet Cave announce the dawn of human culture.

I was happily reminded on the bus today of T.S. Eliot taking a similar line. In discussing the artist’s relation to her cumulative cultural heritage, Eliot draws the long line back to cave art. The cumulative cultural “mind” is a mind which changes, but “this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawings of the Magdelenian draughtsmen.”

At the time when Eliot wrote this (1917) it’s true that primitivism was en vogue, and appreciating Magdelenian cave art fit this aesthetic program. But Eliot isn’t praising Pure Premodern Man, pristine before all the muck of centuries piled upon him. He’s rapping about Premodern Man and all the subsequent stuff piled atop. For Eliot, the artist is situated in a long procession of cultural moments, and to become a mature artist

…involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year (LoL); and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

(It’s not a coincidence, I think, that this was written at the crest of WWI, when Europe was imploding. One senses an anxiety to gather and footnote all the achievements of culture, against the tide of oblivion.)

So, as the Mind of Europe crawls onward through the centuries it accretes new experiences, builds upon the past, and develops new tools for expression, but, crucially, Eliot contends, it does not improve. “This development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement.” Reflecting upon the past, the artist “must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.”

This is what Herzog is up to in the cave, right? He would not argue that Chauvet has been surpassed, certainly not by his own art. And, in a broad sense, he too is trying to capture, to corral, to hold still, the wondrous experiences of being human—in a meta sense (art about art) as is his wont—but not unlike the original cave artists. Yes, the “material of art is never quite the same”—in the Chauvet Cave Herzog ‘draws’ with 3D cameras, and his cave images are displayed to others on distant glowing screens, but he is up to the same game. (By echoing the “dreams” of his forebears, he shares in them). And I think he’d welcome this comparison/compliment, and roll with this last quote from Eliot:

One of the facts that might come to light in this process [of criticism] is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.

————

***

p.s. BUT. To get back to our Warhammer space homies…. Eliot & Herzog contend a certain universalism of human experience—that mature art in any period rings roughly the same bell. But as we increasingly become psychic cyborgs of our former selves old art might become impossible—or merely a quaint hobby. No more “human experience”! Do we not have a renewed existential anxiety—like Eliot at the crest of the Great War—of a new Great Divide & an old world irrevocably crumbling? Gather ye rosebud paintings while ye may, for tomorrow we’ll be disembodied algorithms stalking the holographic horizon hunting/gathering network information packets. [Oops, Nevermind: I just received communication from Dunru, a Paleolithic shaman and art critic: “You think we didn’t have disembodied avatars? After Barnak, King of the Valley, perished from the earth his spirit was transferred to an obsidian stone, which was consulted for major clan decisions and conferred powers of fertility.” I stand corrected! Humans, always forever weird.]

p.p.s. Here’s a shout-out track for the Warhammer Space Marines: “Space Cowboy” by Sly & The Family Stone (perhaps obsidian?). Got some nice funk yodeling in there! Also, if you gulp the new JT album, The Mad Dog 20/20 Experience, I think Timbaland has been feeling the Sly Stone lately. Check in particular the outro on “Strawberry Bubblegum”.

p.p.p.s. To soundtrack the gaping span from Chauvet to Warhammer it’s probably best that we turn to sci-fi honky-tonk. From the compilation Nashville Sputnik, Brad Wolfe “Changing Times” and Joel Mathis “Time Machine“.

Advertisements

3 Responses to “Cave Art These Days”

  1. segmation Says:

    Nice blog on cave art. I like Spanish Cave art as well.

  2. doomspirals Says:

    Re: our ouija board communication with Paleolithic shamans, it might be noted that Eliot begins the third section of the above quoted essay (his famous “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) with the disclaimer, “This essay proposes to halt at the frontier of metaphysics or mysticism, and to confine itself to such practical conclusions as can be applied by the responsible person interested in poetry.” Hilarious. Well, we hardly qualify as (the oxymoronic?) //responsible persons interested in poetry//. Let the Myst-Vision Mind-Freaq continue.

  3. TimB Says:

    Have you read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay on cave art?

    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2011/03/americas_ancient_cave_art.html

    I loved his collection of essays entitled “Pulphead” too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: