The Social History of Art
Translated in collaboration with the Author by Stanley Godman
THE legend of the Golden Age is very old. We do not exactly know the sociological reason for reverence for the past; it may be rooted in tribal and family solidarity or in the endeavour of the privileged classes to base their privileges on heredity. However that may be, the feeling that what is old must be better is still so strong that art historians and archaeologists do not shrink even from historical falsification when attempting to prove that the style of art which appeals to them most is also the oldest. Some or them declare the art based on strictly formal principles, on the stylization and idealization of life, others that based on the reproduction and preservation of the natural life of things, to be the earliest evidence of artistic activity, according to whether they see in art a means of dominating and subjugating reality, or experience it as an instrument of self-surrender to nature. In other words, corresponding to their particular autocratic and conservative or liberal and progressive views, they revere either the geometrically ornamental art forms or the naturalistically imitative forms of expression as the older. The monuments of primitive art that survive suggest quite clearly, anyhow, and with ever increasing force as research progresses, that naturalism has the prior claim, so that it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain the theory of the primacy of an art remote from life and nature.
But the most remarkable thing about prehistoric naturalism is not that it is older than the geometric style, which makes so much more of a primitive impression, but that it already reveals [page 2] all the typical phases of development through which art has passed in modern times and is not in any sense the merely instinctive, static, a-historical phenomenon which scholars obsessed with geometric and rigorously formal art declare it to be. This is an art which advances from a linear faithfulness to nature, in which individual forms are still shaped somewhat rigidly and laboriously, to a more nimble and sparkling, almost impressionistic technique. It is a process which shows a growing understanding of how to give the final optical impression an increasingly pictorial, instantaneous and apparently spontaneous form. The accuracy of the drawing rises to a level of virtuosity which takes it upon itself to master increasingly difficult attitudes and aspects, increasingly fleeting movements and gestures, increasingly bold foreshortenings and intersections. This naturalism is by no means a fixed, stationary formula, but a mobile and living form, which tackles the rendering of reality with the most varied means of expression and performs its task sometimes with lesser, sometimes with greater skill. The indiscriminately instinctive state of nature has long been left behind, but there is still a far journey yet to that state of culture in which rigid artistic formulae are created.
We are the more perplexed by what is probably the strangest phenomenon in the whole history of art, because there are no parallels whatever between this prehistoric art and child art or the art of most of the more recent primitive races. Children's drawings and the artistic production of contemporary primitive races are rationalistic, not sensory; they show what the child and the primitive artist know, not what they actually see; they give a theoretically synthetic, not an optically organic picture of the object. They combine the front-view with the side-view or the view from above, leave nothing out of what they consider worth knowing about the object, increase the scale of the biologically and practically important, but neglect everything, however impressive in itself, which plays no direct part in the context of the object. The peculiar thing about the naturalistic drawings of the Old Stone Age is, on the other hand, that they give the visual impression in such a direct, unmixed form, free from all intellectual trimmings or restrictions, that we have to wait until modern impressionism to find any parallels in later art. We discover [page 3] motion studies which already remind us of modern instantaneous photographs, the like of which we do not find again until we come to the pictures of a Degas or a Toulouse-Lautrec, so that for the eye unschooled by impressionism there must appear to be something badly drawn and unintelligible about these pictures. The painters of the Palaeolithic age were still able to see delicate shades with the naked eye which modern man is able to discover only with the help of complicated scientific instruments. Such ability had already gone by the time of the New Stone Age when the directness of sensations had been replaced to some extent by the inflexibility and stability of conceptualism. But the Palaeolithic artist still paints what he actually sees, and nothing more than he can take in in one definite moment and in one definite sight of the object. He still knows nothing about the optical heterogeneousness of the various elements or the picture and rationalistic methods of composition, stylistic characteristics with which we are so familiar from children's drawings and the art of primitive races, nor does he know above all about the technique of composing a face from the silhouette in profile and the eyes <i>en face</i>. Palaeolithic art apparently takes possession without a fight of the unity of visual perception achieved by modern art only after a century-long struggle; it certainly improves its methods, but does not change them, and the dualism of the visible and the invisible, or the seen and the merely known remains absolutely foreign to it.
What was the reason and purpose behind this art? Was it the expression of a joy of life insistent on being recorded and repeated? Or the satisfaction of the play-instinct and delight in embellishment -- of the urge to coyer empty surfaces with lines and forms, patterns and ornament? Was it the fruit of leisure or had it some definite practical purpose? Have we to see in it a plaything or a tool, an opiate and a luxury or a weapon in the struggle for a livelihood? We know that it was the art of primitive hunters living on an unproductive, parasitic economic level, who had to gather or capture their food rather than produce it themselves; men who to all appearances still lived at the stage of primitive individualism, in unstable, almost entirely unorganized social patterns, in small isolated hordes, and who believed in no gods, [page 4] in no world and life beyond death. In this age of purely practical life everything obviously still turned around the bare earning of a livelihood and there is nothing to justify us in assuming that art served any other purpose than a means to the procuring of food. All the indications point rather to the fact that it was the instrument of a magical technique and as such had a thoroughly pragmatic function aimed entirely at direct economic objectives. This magic apparently had nothing in common with what we understand by religion; it knew no prayers, revered no sacred powers and was connected with no other-worldly spiritual beings by any kind of faith, and therefore failed to fulfil what has been described as the minimum condition of an authentic religion. It was a technique without mystery, a matter-of-fact procedure the objective application of methods which had as little to do with mysticism and esoterism as when we set mouse-traps, manure the ground or take a drug. The pictures were part of the technical apparatus of this magic; they were the 'trap' into which the game had to go, or rather they were the trap with the already captured animal -- for the picture was both representation and the things represented, both wish and wish-fulfilment at one and the same time. The Palaeolithic hunter and painter thought he was in possession of the thing itself in the picture, thought he had acquired power over the object in the portrayal of the object. He believed the real animal actually suffered the killing of the animal portrayed in th_ picture. The pictorial representation was to his mind nothing but the anticipation of the desired effect; the real event had inevitably to follow the magical sample-action, or rather to be already contained within it, as both were separated from each other merely by the supposedly unreal medium of space and time. It was, therefore, by no means a question of symbolical surrogatory functions but of really purposive action. It was not the thought that killed, not the faith that achieved the miracle, but the actual deed, the pictorial representation, the shooting at the picture, that effected the magic.
When the Palaeolithic artist painted an animal on the rock he produced a real animal. For him the world of fiction and pictures, the sphere of art and mere imitation, was not yet a special province of its own, different and separate from empirical [page 5] reality; he did not as yet confront the two different spheres, but saw in one the direct, undifferentiated continuation of the other He will have had the same attitude to art as Levy-Bruhl's Sioux Red Indian, who said of a research worker whom he saw preparing sketches: 'I know that this man has put many of our bisons into his book. I was there when he did it, and since then we have had no bisons.' The conception of this sphere of art as a direct continuation of ordinary reality never disappears completely despite the later predominance of a conception of art as something opposed to reality. The legend of Pygmalion, who falls in love with the statue which he has created, comes from this attitude of mind. There is evidence of a similar approach when the Chinese or Japanese artist paints a branch or a flower and the picture is not intended to be a summary and idealization, a reduction or correction of life, like the works of Western art, but simply one branch or blossom more on the tree of reality. Chinese anecdotes and fairy tales about artists' relation to their works and the relationship between picture and reality, appearance and being, fiction and life, convey the same idea -- fairy tales in which it is related, for example, how the figures in a picture walk out through a gate into a real landscape, into real life. In all these examples the frontiers between art and reality are blurred, only in the art of historical times the continuity of the two provinces is a fiction within the fiction, whilst in the painting of the Old Stone Age it is a simple fact and a proof that art is still entirely in the service of life.
Any other explanation of Palaeolithic art, as, for example, decorative or expressive form, is untenable. A whole series of indications argues against such an interpretation, above all the fact that the paintings are often completely hidden in inaccessible, absolutely unilluminated corners of the caves where they would have been quite impossible as 'decorations'. Their palimpsest-like superposition, destroying any decorative effect from the very outset, also argues against such explanations. After all, the painters were not forced to paint their pictures one over the other. They had space enough. This very superposition of one picture over another points to the fact that the pictures were not created with any intention of providing the eye with aesthetic [page 6] enjoyment but were in fulfilment of a purpose in which the most important element was that the pictures should be accommodated in certain caves and in certain specific parts or the caves -- obviously in definite spots considered particularly suitable for magic. There could be no question of a decorative intention or of an urge to express or communicate aesthetic emotion, since the pictures were more hidden away than exhibited. There are in fact, as has been noted, two different motives from which works of art are derived: some are produced simply in order to exist, others to be seen. Religious art created purely to the honour of God, and more or less all works of art designed to lighten the burden that weighs on the artist's heart share this working in secret with the magical art of the Old Stone Age. The Palaeolithic artist who was intent solely on the efficacy or the magic will nevertheless have derived a certain aesthetic satisfaction from his work, even though he considered the aesthetic quality merely as a means to a practical end. The situation is mirrored most clearly in the relationship between mime and magic in the religious dances of primitive peoples. Just as in these dances the pleasure in make-believe and imitation is fused with the religiously motivated action, so the prehistoric painter will have depicted the animals in their characteristic attitudes with gusto and satisfaction, despite his surrender to the magical purpose of the painting.
The best proof that this art was concerned with a magical and not an aesthetic effect, at least in its conscious purpose, lies in the fact that the animals in these pictures were often represented as pierced by spears and arrows or were actually shot at with such weapons after the completion of the work. Doubtless this was a killing in effigy. That Palaeolithic art was connected with magical actions is finally proved by the representations of human figures disguised as animals of which the majority are obviously concerned with the performance of magical-miming dances. In these pictures we find -- as for instance in Trois-Freres -- combined animal masks which would be quite unintelligible without a magical intention. The connection of Palaeolithic painting with magic also helps us best to explain the naturalism of this art. A representation the aim of which was to [page 7] create a double of the model, that is to say, not merely to indicate, imitate, simulate, but literally to replace, to take the place of, could not have been anything else but naturalistic. The animal which was to be conjured into life was intended to appear as the counterpart to the animal in the painting -- but it could only come into existence if the copy was faithful and genuine. It was precisely the magic purpose of this art that forced it to be naturalistic. The picture which bore no resemblance to its object was not merely faulty but senseless and purposeless.
It is assumed that the magical age, the first in which we have evidence of works of art, was preceded by a pre-magical phase. The age of fully developed magic, with its fixed ritual and wonder-working technique already crystallized in formulae, must have been prepared for by an epoch of unregulated, groping practical activity and mere experimentation. The magical formulae had to prove themselves effective before they could be schematized. They cannot have been the result of mere speculation; they must haye been found without conscious seeking, and been developed step by step. Pre-magical man probably discovered the connection between the copy and the original by accident, but this discovery must haye had an overwhelming effect on him. Perhaps the whole sphere of magic, with its axiom or the mutual dependence of things similar, first grew out of this experience. The two basic ideas which, as has been emphasized, are the pre-conditions of art may have developed in the age or pre-magical experimentation and discovery, namely the idea of similarity and imitation, and the idea of producing something from nothing in fact the very possibility of creative art.
The hand silhouettes which have been found in many places near the
cave paintings, and
which apparently arose through the impress of actual hands, probably
first gave man the
idea of creating -- of poiein -- and made him aware of the possibility
lifeless and artificial could be perfectly similar to the living and
This mere playing about had, of course, at first nothing at all to do
with either art or
magic; it had first to become an instrument of magic and could only
then become a form of
art. For the gap between these hand-impressions and even the most
representations of the Old Stone [page 8] Age is so immense and there
is such a complete lack of records of a possible transition
between the two that we can hardly assume a direct and continuous
development of art
forms out of pure play forms, but must infer the existence of a
connecting link coming
from outside -- and in all probability this will have been the magical
function of the
copy. Yet even those playful, pre- magical forms had a naturalistic
reality, however mechanically, and can in no way be considered the
expression of an
anti-naturalistic, decorative principle.