During our “Foundation” module at City, we have been looking at the story of documents and the intellectual tools we have developed to deal with them. Lyn Robinson defines documents as “the containers into which we put our representations of ideas/information/knowledge to give them some tangible permanence”. This then makes documents not just scrolls or codices containing writing or pictures or even electronic files containing data but instead tools for communicating information. So what then were the first documents? Some people would say that Palaeolithic cave paintings are the first documents, as one could argue that they convey information to others. We think the earliest of these paintings date from around 40,000 BCE, making them quite staggeringly old.
On a purely visual level, I must say I find these paintings stunning and I haven’t even been fortunate enough to see any in person. The hue of the colours in the Altamira paintings, for example, is so appealing even in reproduction. The depiction of animals has been a constant theme in human art and this too leads them to feel less remote. The fact that the people who painted these images had to venture so far into the caves also takes me aback. We do know by the fact we haven’t discovered any other artefacts that humans did not generally venture that far inside.
But what to make of these mysterious paintings? Could we say that they are works of art in any kind of modern sense? When these paintings began to be discovered in the nineteenth century (coincidentally around the time Darwin’s “Origins Of Species” was beginning to change preconceptions about human prehistory), scholars initially believed that they were purely decoration and that they were evidence of hunter-gatherers having free time on their hands! This seems like a huge generalisation to me and David Lewis-Williams’ brilliant 2002 book “The Mind In The Cave” is of great help to us here. I can only summarise incredibly briefly here but he makes very compelling arguments about the significance of these paintings and I would highly recommend it. One of the points Lewis-Williams makes is that we can’t understand art outside of its context. Just because we can’t see what these pictures of animals suggested to their intended audience doesn’t mean they weren’t attempts at communication. And perhaps we can then say that they are documents. They certainly seem to me that they must have been used for something, whether that would have been religious rituals or for magical spells.
I have an admission to make. The art that really speaks to me at least gives the illusion of effortlessness, whatever the far more laboured reality. I also relate to something that feels like it could be part of the fabric of everyday life, a work that has an element of pragmatism to it. That really self-conscious kind of art that insists on its own transcendence and total separation from the mundane tends to alienate me. I prefer artists that don’t feel the need to force their craft into the foreground in order to impress. People who create things for others to use. I think these seeming qualities are what have drawn me to cave art. I like the boldness of the outlines and the vividness of the colours. The fact that these incredible images might have had a purpose, even though we can never be sure what it may have been.
Note: Photo of Altamira Bisons is by Thomas Quine, taken from Wikimedia Commons