Friday, May 2, 2014

The Mind in the Cave


Currently I am reading The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art by David Lewis-Williams.
What a fascinating book!!  As much as it is about the origins of art, it is also about the origins of human consciousness.  Some of the themes of the book I find most interesting are his connecting normal, universal neurological activity to our conceptions of reality. For example, many, many cultures conceive of a three-tiered cosmos; a “normal” level at which “normal” life and perception take place, a lower level and an upper level (in our culture that might be hell and heaven).  The author believes this conception arises from neurological activity that affects our awareness in altered states, like dreaming and hallucinating.  They tend to take on either the qualities of pressure and sinking feelings or soaring and flying sensations.  Hence, they are later explained as an underworld and an overworld.
 


Another theory he develops is that mark making also follows universal tendencies, those being grids, stars, zigzags etc.  These “images” are what we see when we close our eyes and are called “phosphenes.”  (More on phosphenes here). 
As he states on P. 127, “People in this condition are seeing the structure of their own brains”. So, then when we make these marks, when we idly scratch away at notepads, we are drawing our own brain.  Whoa! Pretty amazing.
“Phosphenes”  28” x 24”, 2008  (yes, this is exactly what the inside of my brain looks like.  That's the whole point, is it not?)
But I am most interested in his theories on the origins of image making (and, by extension, art).  What’s interesting?  Well, one thing he says is that it could not have arisen from body art. Wow, jewelers, fashion designers, tattooists, scarification aficionados et al: you have just been demoted!  Could this be the origin of Craft vs Art?  There's a thought.

Lewis-Williams believes that 2-D representations, which he calls “parietal”  (stuff on walls) art are a wholly different paradigm. He says that order to “invent pictures”  (my quotes, not his) one needs a socially agreed upon context, something that relies on language.  He also notes that it’s a real chicken and egg dilemma: what arose first?  Our ability to perceive images as meaningful or our ability to make them?  He dispatches with some popular theories too: that drawing arose from cavemen with charcoal embers scratching in the ground out of boredom and happening to notice they look like something.  Or that the shapes of rocks looked like animals so they just kind of helped them along with pigment.  No, these images rely on there being an existing “database” for 2-D images having meaning.

OK, I am no anthropologist and I may wish I was a neurologist, but, sadly, I am not one!  How frustrating as I wish I had enough knowledge to really discuss this. I still find value in the theories he is disparaging.  What about all those facial recognition modules in the brain?  What about how we see shapes in clouds?  That is surely nature and not nurture  (although I gather his point is that without the social context of language, those images we see would remain “autistic” and locked away in our individual experience and even un-remembered as we would not have the language to codify them and to a great extent would be just more useless detritus of being alive.) 
He points out that there is no evidence of stages of inventing drawing/image making.  No evidence of an “artist” trying out different subjects or styles.  And this really gets me!  Why, oh why, is there so very little images of humans and of human faces?  What is with all the bison and aurochs?? I get it, bison and aurochs were very important to them, but surely so were their own faces and bodies. I am really astounded by the fact that we did not choose to draw ourselves!!!

One thing the author doesn’t discuss (but I am not finished yet, actually, so maybe he does in the last 80 pages) is how images making/drawing develops in children.  Children make scribbles for a while, which seem to gradually coalesce into something more meaningful.  Then they go on a trajectory of attempting “realism” and I think (but can’t say for sure since I am also not a child development expert) that they compulsively draw human forms.  Is that nurture?  Could be.  But I think the draw (pun intended) towards figuration is very deeply encoded into us…so why didn’t the cavemen do it??
Representation of a human puking by me at age 3 or 4.
Someone go do a Ph.D. thesis on this, please!

9 comments:

Sally Big Woods said...

I think about the cavemen a lot, and I studied Anthropology, but I'm not an expert! I wonder if drawing the whole human form was considered too powerful? Like, if we just show a hand, then the whole body/soul of the subject will not be captured. I may be putting too much emphasis on the urban legend (?) of photographers "capturing the souls" of their subjects. But I have a feeling that our cavepeople ancestors had v. successful spiritual lives, and that what we have "evolved" with is somehow lacking what they had. <3

Anarcissie said...

My totally uninformed theory about the cave paintings is that they were carried out by rather sophisticated artists with a definite purpose in mind, which was to contribute to a carefully-staged visionary experience. Music, liturgy, performance, and drugs probably contributed; being in a cave shut out extraneous experiences. The show would enhance the repute of the shamans who conducted it and might have been thought to contribute to a good hunt through sympathetic magic.

Anonymous said...

I am neither an expert but I visited several European caves and rock art sites in the SouthLibian desert. I could sometimes enter where other can't, together with someone who had special permission.

Cave art has always been very attractive to artists and others. It is so remote in time that we all can project our phantasies, romantic or (semi-) scientific.
Some interpretations are very close to ones subjective ideas, some have an anthropological approach. Being an artist (drawing) I can only give my version: when visiting Lascaux, I immediately felt like being with colleagues. I could see that they must have had fun , exactly in the way I have when I am drawing: little details, clever "finds", all this with the "sauce" of the sensation on the location.

Probably they must have had some kind of motivation, apart from enjoying drawing, but that will always be a guess. And a source of inspiration to people that came after them.

A few years ago I as looking for a quote to open my drawings book with. What I chose was by a French archeologist/friend who said (in French) something that ment: the further we move into the prehistory, the deeper and darker it gets.
But when I put this French quote into the Google translator this came out: "Prehistory, it's a free call back!"
It just illustrates how impossible it is to get any nearer to the minds of people so far away in time.

Hans Lemmen

Anonymous said...

I am neither an expert but I visited several European caves and rock art sites in the SouthLibian desert. I could sometimes enter where other can't, together with someone who had special permission.

Cave art has always been very attractive to artists and others. It is so remote in time that we all can project our phantasies, romantic or (semi-) scientific theories on it.
Some interpretations are very close to ones subjective ideas, some have an anthropological approach. Being an artist (drawing) I can only give my version: when visiting Lascaux, I immediately felt like being with colleagues. I could see that they must have had fun , exactly in the way I have when I am drawing: little details, clever "finds", all this with the "sauce" of the sensation on the location.

Probably they must have had some kind of motivation, apart from enjoying drawing, but that will always be a guess. And a source of inspiration to people that came after them.

A few years ago I as looking for a quote to open my drawings book "Meeting the Caveman" with. What I chose was by a French archeologist/friend who said (in French) something that ment: the further we move into the prehistory, the deeper and darker it gets.
But when I put this French quote into the Google translator this came out: "Prehistory, it's a free call back!"
It just illustrates how impossible it is to get any nearer to the minds of people so far away in time.

Hans Lemmen

Colette Langan said...

Dr Nigel Spivey addresses many of these issues in "How art made the world part 2" which you can find on YouTube. The theory is that the images came from altered states of conciousness from the hypnotic effects of dancing around the fire, and the first paintings came from spiritual experiences from trances.
I love your work Judith and as a stained glass restorer- now art student, I appreciate what you do

Anonymous said...

Judith, questions, is that your art i have noticed shown on a wall in the film blue velvet? Always wondered, as it looks like it might be. Also, in film twin peaks...a monkey takes off a mask as a voice says "judith". Beautiful work.

Anonymous said...

inspired by cat shelter: he was disappointed he still missed her after years of cruelty terrible unfashionable endlessly waiting always the wrong choices the wrong words doing exactly the opposite brooding unloved still loving her from afar trying and failing again and again with love from love hiding and a meow once in a while

Anonymous said...

Genius is the recovery of childhood at will. I have wept too much.
The dawns are heartbreaking. Love has to be reinvented, thats certain.
Being too sensitive I have wasted my life.
Im intact, and I dont give a damn...(Rimbaud)
-a single person is missing 4 you, and the whole world is empty...(joan didion)

Alison Bishop said...

Some of the best contemporary stained glass I've seen; beautiful and thought-provoking which is just the way I like it! Interesting stuff about the cavemen and the origins of art. Does the author discuss any connection between the caveman's use of image or the act of making the image as a means to connect with and influence their environment?