Just back from a vacation in SW France where I had the great good fortune to see 3 caves with prehistoric art, Lascaux II, Rouffingnac, and La Madeleine. Lascaux II is an exact (within 5 mm) replica of the Lascaux cave discovered during WWII by some teenagers (one with a good dog who actually found the cave’s entrance newly uncovered by a storm) including some from Paris visiting the countryside of un-occupied France. The paintings deteriorated greatly over time and so the cave was closed to the public with this replica (90% of the cave and its paintings) standing in its stead. It was not a deep cave; the paintings have been dated to roughly 21,000 years ago (+/- 4,000). Remember agriculture had its good start around 10,000 years ago and then cities in the Middle East grew greatly around 6,000 years ago. Here is a Lascaux figure: Rouffingnac is a strange cave, very long and deep, and the drawings are several kilometers deep into the hillside. An extinct species of large bear markings have been found down there as well. In addition to the many drawings of mammoths and other animals, graffiti was painted on the walls and ceilings before its access was controlled. Someone named ‘Iris’ was there evidently. Here is one of the prehistoric drawings, author unknown, from around 13,000 years ago: La Madeleine is quite different. Here I saw rock etchings and carvings into the stone of an overhang. Archeologists figure the site was a village of maybe a 100 people around 11,000 (+/- 3,000) years ago. Stone and dirt covered the art over the years and it was discovered through archeological efforts. Here is a picture:
Now these artistic images present much food for thought. Our rather brilliant guide focused on the differences in how available the images were to someone beside their creators. La Madeleine would have been seen by everyone in the area, Rouffingnac only by those who went very deep into the cave, and Lascaux falls in between those two, in a cave but not so deep as to need many candles or torches to get to it (and possibly daylight would have penetrated almost to it). Why some very public and why some seemingly very private?
Indeed, why paint/carve at all? Humans had certainly been communicating with language (Langer’s discursive forms) for many, many generations by then. Remembering the timeline, fire-making, cooking, and burials had been done for tens of thousands of years. Susanne Langer posited two illusions underlying all artistic performance. The first is the primary illusion that is the creation of the medium itself, e.g., painting is virtual space, sculpture is virtual volume, music is virtual time and emotion. All permit the creation of vital forms rendering some specific complexity of life, or the secondary illusion, (Langer’s presentational form). By this line of reasoning, art arose when it did as our ancestors’ minds developed both the virtual capacity for rendering imaginary complex forms and the intuitive sense of ineffable vital, particular life, i.e., some feeling too complex and sacred (in a broad sense) to be spoken. And so a new learning curve began.
So why public/private? Perhaps the beginnings of some mystic sense of helping life forms emerge from stone and darkness or of some privileged caste protective of their medium (oh, those silly priests) or that the art lasted longer in private or that the cave ambience yielded a canvas and suggested palette conducive to artistic efforts or that fewer distractions helped the mind’s eye to awaken or even that perhaps the first artists were disapproved of and needed secrecy, e.g., the clan leader or shaman believed this new mode of expression was not good, that it was evil in some manner, and thus needed to be controlled, even curtailed. 10,000 years later Plato would ban poets from his ideal republic because of their nefarious potential, and goodness knows how many invading and conquering peoples have destroyed art that they believed pernicious. Consider ISIS today. The carvings of La Madeleine were thus more permanent and perhaps from a culture that first came to appreciate openly the value of good art and its function in forming community and its memes.
Anyway, it is a good trip that leaves so many paths yet to wander. Travel on.