Saturday, October 17, 2009

art: the lonnnngg view, the evolved sense

A frieze of horses and rhinos near the Chauvet cave’s Megaloceros Gallery, maybe 32,000 years old
Judtih Thurman's New Yorker piece on cave art is inspiring. What were our ancestors thinking 32,000 years ago when they drew animals on the walls by torchlight? Their art affects us so profoundly; does that mean they are close kin to us that we can inhabit in our imaginations, or does art transcend species and culture so we're safer admitting those strangers in the dark are incomprehensible? What does it say about art that five times more than recorded history later, no artist draws animals better?

Meanwhile, Denis Dutton wrote a New Yorker op-ed piece dubious about conceptual art, invented by grand old man Duchamp a mere 90 years ago. He mentions the 32,000 year history of representational drawing, and 100,000 years of decorative shell necklaces, but they're passing fads: he points out our ancestors showed off for 1,200,000 years by crafting attractive Acheulian hand axes. "Ooh, nice symmetrical chipping surfaces, let's mate."

It's interesting, but fails to make a case. So appreciation of skill has been around for 1.4 million years and we've only refined our aesthetic sensibility recently? That is no evidence that we'll regress to a more conservative primitive "if it ain't skilled, it's crap!" form of art appreciation. He says
Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of “chair”) or Mr. Hirst’s medicine cabinets. Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.
But I've never heard of those 1960s pieces —I'm already the future generation—and they sound beguiling and intriguing. One and Three Chairs is excellent! Meanwhile mere skill in the Renaissance religious painting (or in sexy hand axe tip chipping) leaves me lukewarm.
Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs
Back to cave paintings, they've inspired other fine art: Here's William Gibson speaking on the cave paintings as the precursor to movies, and Steely Dan's The Caves of Altamira lyrics.



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