Hi my name is Domino I’m in the second term at LFAS.
I’ve always been interested in art and spent most of my childhood drawing.
I’ve never really fitted into the school system and So I feel really lucky to study art at London Fine Art Studios. At first I was a bit apprehensive that I wouldn’t fit in and That I would be treated different because of my age (I’m still a teenager). But I haven’t been treated with anything but respect and kindness since I joined the school! :).
My art has progressed dramatically since I started
But the biggest advance I’ve noticed is in the confidence i have in myself. my art has grown significantly even to the point I’ve posted my work online before I was to to embarrassed to show family or freinds. I’ve found the teachers really take the time to help me and help me understand the technique and everyday even if I’m just painting beside them I learn something new. I’ve only just started my second term and I can’t wait to see what I learn next!
I reached out to LFAS to gain some work experience during a year out from University. I study Illustration Animation at Kingston School of Art which is a brilliantly open course, so my options following graduation aren’t at all limited. This meant I wanted to try out a number of different placements to ‘work out’ what I might be interested in doing in the future. LFAS gave me such a great insight into running a school as well as a physical and online art shop (and small café!), so I got three for one!
Both my tuition and art work differ from that of LFAS’ structure so I found my time there super eye opening in terms of the craft and intricacies of fine art painting, portraiture and more traditional means of making work. Moreover, the difference in my art education and the structure and teaching of LFAS furthered my interest in art tuition and education. Most of all, it was so inspiring to be surrounded by such passionate individuals, and I’m proud to say since helping out at LFAS, I’ve been inspired to dabble in a bit of painting!
Whilst I’ve written initially about how I completed a series of work placements to try and establish what my future work may entail, I’m not any more settled! But LFAS definitely made me realise I have a passion for art education so… perhaps an MA?!
Thank you to both the students and staff at LFAS, who were both generous and welcoming, and taught me a lot!
Evolution of consciousness in Europe: 1: Upper Palaeolithic art
Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of blog posts on the many functions of art
Statue of the seal woman Kópakonan, in Mikladalur, Kalsoy, Faroe Islands
Everything great in western civilization comes from struggle against our origins
The picture above shows a bronze and stainless steel statue, 2.6 metres tall, commemorating the legend of Kópakonan, the ‘seal woman’ or selkie of Mikladalur. She holds her seal skin in her left hand. Selkies (or silkies) are seals that come ashore at full moon or Thirteenth Night, shed their seal skins, and step out as human beings. Beliefs in selkies were at one time common in Scotland, Ireland, the Faroes, and Iceland. In one popular theme, a young man hides on the beach at full moon, hoping to catch for himself a selkie bride. The selkies come ashore, take off their seal suits, and dance naked in the moonlight. The young man steals the suit of a beautiful young woman, so forcing her to marry him. The woman, of course, eventually finds her seal skin, returns to the sea, and is lost to him forever.
You might like to check out Jean Redpath singing “The Grey Silkie” on YouTube: a traditional ballad about a woman who has a baby by a selkie father, with tragic consequences. Redpath sings the Orkney version in an ancient pentatonic scale (unlike the American ‘cooked’ version sung by Joan Baez, Steeleye Span, and most modern recording artists). Selkie tales are generally poignant or tragic, with themes of loss, death, betrayal and revenge.
In my last blog I wrote about perspectivism, which includes the belief that animals are humans wearing animal skins. Selkies are clearly a perspectival construct. The tragic outcomes of tales in which selkies are killed for food – like the legend of Kópakonan and “The Grey Silkie” – suggest a folk memory of perspectival guilt (maybe the remote ancestor of “original sin”). For if animals are human, all hunting is murder, and eating meat is cannibalism. Hence hunters’ propitiation rites are widespread among hunter-gatherer communities, and shamans may perform exorcisms after meals, to prevent the meat from ‘biting back’ (the English word ‘remorse’ comes from Latin ‘remordere’ – to bite back).
Selkie tales are just some of the evidence that our ancestors once had a perspectival worldview. Folk tales from five continents are populated by talking animals, animals that shape-shift into humans, and humans into animals – typical perspectival themes. The aim of this and subsequent blogs is to sketch how European culture, uniquely, evolved from a perspectival to a physicalist worldview. There were up to six discrete transitions, reflected and – at least in part – accomplished by art.
The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, carved from mammoth ivory.
31.1 cm (12.2 in) tall. Dated to 40 kya (forty thousand years ago).
The story begins during the Würm glaciation (popularly known as ‘The Ice Age’) 40,000 years ago with the first known sign of a perspectival world view – the lion-headed “man” from Hohlenstein Stadel in Germany. This is the oldest uncontested example of figurative art found anywhere, and it is a therianthrope – a figure combining human and animal features. There are seven transverse cuts across the left arm, perhaps indicating clan or tribal cicatrisation.
A recreation of this carving, using the stone tools available at the time, suggests the sculptor took over 370 hours to complete his work (it should be remembered that modern foragers, despite now living in the most hostile inhabited environments on earth, still enjoy plenty of leisure time). Debates over the gender of this piece have made it an “icon of the feminist movement”. A possibly triangular pelvic area might suggest that it is female, and most Upper Palaeolithic (UP) figurines are indeed female. On the other hand, most female images have prominent buttocks and breasts, and most therianthropes (there aren’t many) are probably male.
At one time, the relatively abrupt appearance of iconic art in Europe around 40,000 years ago (the dramatic transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic) was seen as a “human revolution”, perhaps caused by a highly un-Darwinian “macro-mutation” radically altering the way our brains are wired. However, it is now recognised that “culture of modern human type” originated in Africa, and the UP was triggered by the arrival of modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) bringing ‘modern culture’ with them, and gradually replacing the indigenous population of Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalis). The dawn of culture of modern human type – the true “human revolution” – occurred in Africa, perhaps as long as 300,000 years ago, and was probably perspectival from the beginning.
Nevertheless, something special must have happened in Europe because so far nothing comparable has been found in Africa older than 40 kya (forty thousand years ago). The oldest known iconic art in Africa is the Apollo II Cave Stones, which are less than thirty thousand years old, although the San (‘Bushman’) rock art tradition is of unknown antiquity. Further, no finely crafted iconic sculptures in durable materials have been found dating to the African Middle Stone Age, though there may have been wooden carvings which have since perished. But we need to bear in mind that Europe has been intensively investigated by archaeologists since the nineteenth century, whereas Africa – three times larger than Europe – has been much more recently and sparsely studied, and mostly in the south and east. So there must be a great deal of African palaeoart yet to be discovered. (Note that ‘Stone Age’ terminology is usually reserved for prehistoric African periods, whereas terms ending in ‘-lithic’ are used for everywhere else).
More pertinently, modern humans arrived in Europe around 48 kya with a second immigration around 45 kya, long before we see the first signs of UP art. So the spectacular cave art and fine sculptures appearing from 40 kya is a European development. However, ancient rock art also appeared independently in Indonesia and Australia, so all these distant populations must have brought their artistic abilities with them from Africa (unless you believe that an implausible “macro-mutation” coincidentally occurred on two or three continents around the same time).
UP culture also seems to be much more dynamic than anything in the African Stone Age or European Middle Palaeolithic (a Neanderthal period). For example, the Acheulian tradition in Africa endured for 1.5 million years with little evident change in technology or way of life, and the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe lasted for a quarter of a million years. In contrast, the UP shows a much more rapid rate of cultural and technological change, with major new cultures emerging every few thousand years – notably the Aurignacian (40-26 kya), Gravettian (26-22 kya), Solutrean (22-17 kya), and Magdalenian (17-12 kya).
Lions and rhinos in Chauvet Cave (32 kya: Aurignacian). The most impressive feature of UP rock art is its rich bestiary of animals portrayed with superb artistry throughout this 30,000 year period. However, the Aurignacian has the most portrayals of dangerous animals like lions, rhinos, bears, and mammoths, whereas later periods are increasingly dominated by herbivores. The most numerous are horses – even when the people were mainly eating reindeer. The horse seems to have had special spiritual significance.
When anatomically modern humans migrated out of Africa they colonised Asia and even reached Australia by 65 kya – twenty thousand years before they entered Europe. Clearly, Europe was a daunting prospect for these early colonisers, probably in part because Neanderthals were much better adapted to the Ice Age climate. They eventually did enter Europe during an interglacial – a relatively warm spell during an ice age – around 48 kya. But the second wave of immigrants (ca. 45 kya) faced winter temperatures of -20 to -30oC.
Neanderthals were stronger than early modern humans – adapted to a more strenuous lifestyle – and were adept big game hunters, killing mammoths and rhinos at close quarters with spears. The new arrivals, however, had sophisticated weapons including long distance projectiles. They too were culturally adapted to big game hunting, but they also captured small mammals, probably using snares or nets. They wore tailored fur clothing for warmth, and built shelters with hearths to heat them using animal bones as fuel. They also dug ‘refrigerator’ pits into the permafrost to preserve meat and bones, which suggests a relatively settled existence in contrast to Neanderthals.
Signs of stress in Neanderthal teeth, and extreme femoral neck shaft angles, might indicate that entire communities travelled together, frog-marching their children in arduous treks across the sub-Arctic steppe; whereas early moderns almost certainly had a gendered division of labour, with men hunting and women gathering and perhaps harvesting small game. Theoretically, this would mean that Neanderthals would have no need for rituals ensuring that male hunters brought the meat home to meet the dietary needs of pregnant and lactating females. It would also mean that Neanderthal children had less time to play. Neanderthal childhood was also shorter than in modern humans, and Neanderthal mothers may have had less free time to encourage and scaffold their children’s play. This could mean that role-play was less developed in Neanderthals – role-play being the core pre-requisite for human ritual and the hypnotic ability necessary for ritual trance. This could be the reason why modern humans eventually replaced their Neanderthal cousins, although they did also interbreed with them. Non-African people living today have two to four percent of their DNA derived from Neanderthals.
Early Aurignacian people wore beads fashioned from ivory and soapstone, played flutes made from bird bones and ivory, and most probably had other instruments in perishable materials like foraging people today. One can imagine them in the evening, sitting round the hearth, telling stories and singing in the firelight as do modern foragers in most parts of the world. I think they could have had a very agreeable lifestyle despite the harsh climate. Maybe they developed sufficient leisure time, combined with a belief in the spiritual power of caves, to account for the flowering of UP art.
In my first blog I suggested that the Berekhat Ram and Tan Tan “Venuses” (over 230,000 years old) and Makapangsgat pebble (3,000,000 years old) may have been children’s playthings. We know that paint was being systematically manufactured in Africa since 100,000 years ago. San rock art in southern Africa includes paintings around 20,000 years old, but because most paintings were made on exposed surfaces, older work has almost certainly perished. We also have rock art in Europe apparently 64,000 years old, but if so it is the work of Neanderthals. It is also non-figurative and difficult to interpret. I think it is no coincidence that the oldest known undisputed iconic art, clearly made by adults for adult purposes (in view of the enormous effort involved), should reflect shamanism and ritual culture. In tribal societies today, iconic art – well-crafted ‘toys’ for dedicated grown-ups – is almost exclusively created for ritual purposes.
A further point to note is that the most common images in UP cave art are non-figurative geometric shapes such as aviforms (bird-like), claviforms (club-like), and penneforms (feather-like). Such conventional glyphs are twice as common as the beautiful animals so admired today, and the earliest rock art is entirely non-figurative. Curiously, according to recent research. there are only 32 such signs, used repeatedly throughout Europe and across 30,000 years of cave art – though there have been changes of ‘fashion’ with some signs falling out of favour and others becoming more common.
Spanish tectiforms (‘roof-like’ glyphs) and lines of dots from El Castillo. The signs are large – many of them are two to three feet in length. Throughout prehistory, red ochre has been the preferred pigment used by hominins. This has been invoked to support the menstrual sex-strike theory of cultural origins, or the Female Cosmetic Coalitions Model. In the UP, people used fire on iron oxide to get the most intense reds.
David Lewis-Williams has compared these glyphs with those from three other sources: (1) San rock art; (2) the art of the Coso who practice ritual trance today; and (3) visual phenomena experienced by people entering trance using meditation or hallucinogenic drugs. He called them ‘entoptic phenomena’ (images formed ‘within the eye’), though a more correct term is ‘phosphenes’ (images formed in the brain regardless of optical input). He concludes that UP and San rock art represents the visionary experience of shamans in trance. The rock walls, he suggests, were seen as portals to the spirit world. An intriguing feature of rock art is the way that artists repeatedly drew, painted, or engraved across the work of earlier artists, even where there were nearby blank surfaces apparently suitable for such art. These over-worked areas, according to the spirit portal view, were the most permeable to the spirit world, where artists in trance repeatedly saw the spirit animals emerging from the rock, and turned them into durable images.
Parallels noted by David Lewis-Williams, implicating shamanic trance in the creation of rock art.
Human figures, on the other hand, are extremely rare in UP art. Where they do occur, they are never represented with the impressive naturalism shown in portrayals of animals. If the art was used in hunting magic, representing humans realistically might have threatened human lives. Some figures are so sketchy that we can’t be sure they are human, However, in the Magdalenian, there are several groups of dancing women engraved in a highly abstracted style, emphasizing buttocks and occasionally breasts whilst omitting heads, arms, and feet. Some of these figures have been repeatedly over-drawn, re-emphasizing their outlines, as if to derive ritual power from images of synchronised female dance. In one from Lalinde, engraved lines connecting and crossing the women’s vaginas might indicate ritual power deriving from synchronised menstruation. There are also many vulvas throughout the UP, often inscribed within a highly conventionalised pubic triangle, and occasional phallic images.
Deeply engraved dancing women, from Two vulvas in pubic triangles, with cupules, from La Ferrassie Lalinde, Dordogne (Magdalenian) (Aurignacian)
Engraved stone slabs with dancing female figures (Magdalenian):
(1) and (4) Gönnersdorf (after Bosinski & Fischer 1974)
(2) and (3) Lalinde (after Marshack 1972, 308-9)
It seems likely that the 32 “signs” in UP rock art are not signs at all, as understood by today’s archaeologists. That is, they are probably not used to convey ‘information’ – otherwise why would anyone repeat numerous identical signs in the same place? If one sign conveys specific information, then half a dozen would be redundant. Redundancy is not a feature of a cryptic code. Repetition looks more like ritual re-enactment. Camilla Power interprets a row of claviforms (so-called “club-like” glyphs) as another abstracted line of dancing women, associated with a wounded and bleeding horse (see below). This has obvious shamanic parallels – but here, instead of a shaman (usually male) linked to a dying game animal, we have an entire coalition of dancing females. If Power is right, as I think likely, these claviforms are not phosphenes either.
The row of claviforms (‘P’ shapes) may represent dancing women superimposed on a bleeding horse, which seems to have been outlined more than once. From Les Trois Frères (Magdalenian).
Some of the other alleged ‘signs’ are also questionable. One such is the cupule – a roughly hemispherical indentation hammered or ground into the rock face. These are found across six continents, appear in large numbers long before the Upper Palaeolithic, and seem unlikely to be part of a 32-sign system. At Daraki-Chattan Cave in India there are more than 530 cupules on the cave’s quartzite walls, dated to the Lower Palaeolithic. Cupules have been claimed to be the ‘oldest form of art’, but there is no reason to regard them as ‘art’ and they certainly do not look like an attempt to convey ‘information’. It is not possible to interpret the motives of those who made them from archaeological data alone. For example, a rock in the Northern Territory of Australia, traditionally regarded as the body of Cockatoo Woman, has sixteen cupules hammered out during pulkarin rituals, in order to cause the pink cockatoo to lay more eggs. The dust released by pounding carries the cockatoo spirit from the rock which fertilises the hen birds. We cannot know what our UP ancestors believed in any detail, but their beliefs are likely to be no less complex.
Cupules on vertical quartzite wall in Daraki-Chattan Female hand stencils around life-size spotted horses in
Cave, India, securely dated to the Lower Palaeolithic. Pech Merle Cave, Midi-Pyrenees, France (Gravettian)
Fluting created by trailing fingers through soft deposits on cave walls has been included in the list of 32 alleged ‘signs’. One such pattern on a cave roof was made by the fingers of an infant, who could only have reached the roof if held up by an adult. That could have been done ‘just for fun’ – an instance of embodied play.
Two more of the 32 ‘signs’ – hand prints and hand stencils – are found all over the world and first appear well before the iconic rock art. Along with footprints on the cave floor, many are those of children. Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University, who studied the hand marks in the French caves of Pech Merle and Gargas, and in the Spanish rock shelter of El Castillo, found that a strong majority of the hands belonged to women. The European art world has been dominated by men for hundreds of years, and male archaeologists have tended to assume that UP rock artists were men. There are no grounds for such an assumption. We might even suspect that UP society was matriarchal. “Rule of women” myths are found on several continents, which claim that patriarchal authority today was achieved by appropriating the instruments of ritual power from women – including rites of synchronised male “menstruation” (whereas women are often obliged to menstruate in isolation huts). Logically, the original “human revolution” must have been engineered by women, because men would hardly give up their philandering inclinations and submit to a monogamous marriage system unless compelled to do so, nor would they willingly bring the meat home to meet women’s needs. If so, patriarchy must be the result of a “counter revolution”, probably as a consequence of climate change – such as the end of the Ice Age – profoundly altering foraging and hunting patterns.
“Venus and the Sorcerer” (on the right) from Chauvet Cave (Aurignacian: ca. 32 kya)
The “Venus and Sorcerer” from Chauvet cave has been drawn in charcoal on a conical limestone projection descending from the roof of the cave. At roughly eye level, there is a conspicuous pubic triangle with a deeply engraved vaginal slot, between legs which taper to points rather like the much later Magdalenian dancing women mentioned above. The female figure was drawn first, and then parts of this figure were deliberately erased in order to superimpose what appears to a bison-headed therianthrope. Several caves nearby have similar pubic triangles, and they always face the cave entrance, suggesting they have particular importance, perhaps as doorways to the other world. The “Venus and Sorceror”, like the “Lion Man” of Hohlenstein Stadel, belongs to the Aurignacian – the earliest UP period.
“The Three Graces” from the Roc-aux-Sorciers are the only known life-size and naturalistic UP “Venuses”, thought to represent (from left to right) a young pregnant woman, a mature woman, and possibly a young girl. This is a coloured diagram because the original bas-reliefs do not photograph clearly. Not shown are a bison behind the third torso, and a second below her thighs. These figures are clearly intended to be seen as a unit, and centrally placed in a 20 metre (65 ft) frieze, 2.6 m high, of well-carved animals. An intriguing detail is the non-associated head, engraved above the women, whose heads, arms, and feet were not portrayed. (Magdalenian). Two traditional Venus figurines were found in rubble nearby: these are small portable objects, carved in the round, 33 mm and 75 mm tall.
Also from this early period are the oldest “Venus figurines”, though they become much more common in the Gravettian (ca 26-21 kya), across a vast area extending from western Europe to Siberia, suggesting cultural continuity and exchange networks crossing remarkable distances in an age when people travelled only on foot. This was also a bitterly cold period, coinciding with the Last Glacial Maximum, when northern Europe was mostly covered by ice.
Venus figurines are usually modest in size (3-40 cm tall), with exaggerated buttocks, bellies, and breasts; whereas faces, hands, and feet – everything that could express individuality and volition – are often missing or underemphasized. Some have vaginal slits. Feminists might see this emphasis on sexual characteristics as evidence of patriarchy, but it could equally be argued that the apparent suppression of individuality is an expression of collective female power – for in a coalition, as in a synchronised dance or ritual performance, individuality is submerged in the solidarity of the group.
From the later Magdalenian period comes another image linking a procession of apparently wounded women with a similar procession of wounded bison (from what remains on this fragment, we can only see that one woman is pierced with an arrow. and one bison pierced with two – but the parallels are so striking that this is unlikely to be of minor significance). From what we know about hunting magic and blood-related ideology among modern hunter-gatherers, it is hard to resist seeing something very similar in the meaning of this piece. When the rib is held horizontally and rotated between the fingers, the women turn into bison, and the bison into women. The ‘wounded’ women (by ethnographic analogy) would implicate menstruation; and they are being linked to – or transformed into – bleeding bison.
Engraved rib fragment with two women and two bison. Isturitz Cave, France, (20-12 kya)
In what appears to be the most primordial hunting ideology surviving today, a hunter is not allowed to eat the meat he has killed himself. He must hand it over to the women to be cooked and shared out. Two root metaphors of hunting ideology equate eating with sex, and women with meat. So the hunter’s own kill rule is metaphorically identical to the incest taboo – both mean you must not ‘eat’ your own ‘meat’. Incest is regularly equated with cannibalism for the same reason. There is a further association between menstrual blood and the blood of a dying game animal. Just as women are sexually inviolable when menstruating, so meat cannot be eaten until it has been surrendered to women and its bloodiness removed by cooking. There is a yet further link to ritual, in which dancers commonly wear animal costumes and, in accordance with perspectival belief, are actually transformed into the animal portrayed. When a shaman ‘dies’ in trance, he may likewise be transformed into a dying game animal. In the Great Dance of the San (‘Bushman’), men entering trance often bleed from the nose, as commonly happens when a game animal is killed. This psychosomatic phenomenon might be compared with the bleeding stigmata which can occur spontaneously in devout Christians.
Left: San trance dancer apparently transforming into an animal. Right: Tracing of a shamanic figure with blood smeared back from the nose. The line from his mouth leads to a group of eldritch (‘weird and scary’) figures – presumably shamanic. Rock art from Storm Shelter, Drakensberg, South Africa.
Following the Last Glacial Maximum, as climate became warmer, the Gravettian age gave way to the Solutrean and then the Magdalenean. During the Solutrean, stone tool technology became much more sophisticated and, perhaps partly as a result of this, cave art became much more dominated by engraving and bas-relief sculpture. Some fine animal painting also comes from this period, but there was a shift in the animals portrayed. Dangerous animals like rhinos, bears, and lions become rare, and the focus shifted much more to game animals such as horses, aurochs and bison. It might be inferred that these people were much more in command of their environment than their Gravettian ancestors, perhaps because of their finely crafted weapons.
Abbé Henri Breuil’s drawings of two “Sorcerers” from Bison-headed human figure from the cave of Gabillou
The Sanctuary in the cave of Les Trois Frères (ca 13 kya) (Dordogne, France): Magdalenian (15-8 kya)
The Magdalenian period sees a hunting culture at its zenith. The lines of dancing women mentioned above belong to this period, but we also see unmistakeable therianthropes which may represent individual male shamans in animal costume or transformed into animals (in perspectival belief, ‘costume’ and ‘transformation’ are synonymous).
The Sanctuary is the most remote chamber in the cave system of Les Trois Frères, 400 meters (1,300 ft) from the entrance, and it seems to have been a very special place. The most famous image from this chamber is “The Sorcerer”, 75 cm (22 in) tall, engraved and painted on a prominent overhang, four meters (13 ft) above the cave floor, and dominating the crowded mass of animal figures that cover the walls of the chamber. The artist must have used some kind of ladder or scaffold to reach it. This is a human figure, with features of several animals. He has antlers in Abbé Breuil’s drawing (this has been contested – and defended, especially by the distinguished Jean Clottes, who says he has seen it twenty times and the antlers are definitely there). His masculine genitalia swing back from between his thighs, and there are signs of X-ray vision (note the left knee cap). He has been variously interpreted as a “horned god”, “great spirit”, or “master of animals”. His prominent position might suggest that he is something more than just a dancing shaman.
In the midst of a panel below is “The Small Sorcerer” (on the left in the drawing above), almost buried by a jumble of animals engraved one on top of another in a haphazard manner – including bison, horses, stags, reindeer, ibex, and mammoths – no doubt superimposed in successive enactments across a long period of time. This ‘sorcerer’ has human legs and posture, a tail, an animal muzzle, and bison horns. He is commonly interpreted as playing a nose flute, though it could be a musical bow, His hoof-like hands, however, are not holding the assumed instrument, and it might even represent a spurt of nose blood.
Many of the animals surrounding this figure are pierced with arrows, and one bear, riddled with spears, is vomiting blood. Some are surrounded or covered by claviform “P” signs (the horse pictured above is one of them) which Camilla Power interprets as dancing women. Elsewhere in the cave, above an arch, is a large “P” sign, 40 cm (16 in) tall, painted in red ochre “like a trail of blood” (Bégouën, 1920).
Entranced shaman from the Shaft Scene at Lascaux (ca 19 kya)
A few thousand years earlier than the therianthropes of the Sanctuary is the shaft scene at Lascaux. This is painted at the bottom of a shaft, five meters (17 ft) deep, where there is no room for more than one person to stand with any comfort. So public display would not appear to be a priority for the artist. A bison, with drooping head and disgorged intestines, appears to have been wounded with a spear and dying. Relative to the matchstick figure of a man, it is portrayed naturalistically. The man has the head of a bird and an erect penis. Beside the man is a staff topped with a bird and an indeterminate linear object. This scene was initially interpreted as a hunting accident: the man had supposedly been killed by the bison. But that would not explain such curious features as his bird head, prominent erection, and bird-headed staff. In shamanic societies, birds often represent the flight of the shaman’s soul as it leaves his body in trance and ascends to the sky world. A likelier interpretation is that we have an entranced shaman associated with a dying game animal. There are clear parallels in San rock art.
So what can we infer from the UP art?
First of all, nothing created at this time is a “work of art” in the modern sense. There is no attempt at “composition” and rock art was not curated – some pictures have been modified repeatedly over long periods of time and artists imposed new pictures on top of old ones with little regard for the value of prior work. What was important, it seems, was not public display but the act of image-making itself. This is a kind of ritual in its own right – as was the case with San art. San informants have reported that pigment had to be ground by maidens at full moon, and blood from the sacred eland had to be mixed with red ochre to increase the spiritual potency of the paint. According to David Lewis-Williams, rock paintings exuded power which “electrified” shamans, driving and empowering their trance activities. There can be little doubt that UP art had spiritual functions that we would call magical today, and powers (real or imagined) which the art of historic times could never aspire to.
In regard to the imagery, two things are certain: animal portrayals are essentially concerned with hunting and carnivory; and human portrayals are massively dominated by female imagery. Female figures associated with game animals seem to be a convention of UP art. I think we are looking at a matriarchal society – unlike anything that exists in the world today – where women are exploiting their sexuality to exert power, forging a link between menstruation and meat, and so maintaining a perspectival belief system and the grand metaphors of blood that characterise foraging ideology to this day. There are even traces in post-industrial cultures, such as the way we refer to our kin as ‘blood relations’, and the tales we tell to our children at bedtime, which get their magical fascination from perspectival phenomena.
According to Chris Knight’s menstrual sex-strike theory, dancing women in the first ritual performance – the one that launched the “human revolution” – synchronised their menstrual periods. It is a striking coincidence that the duration of the lunar month closely matches the average human menstrual cycle (28.25 days). According to Knight’s theory, synchronised menstruation was phase-locked to the new moon, so coordinating ritual dance displays which signalled to men that they should go hunting and bring meat home if they want to enjoy sexual relations. To this day, the waxing moon is known as ‘the hunters’ moon’ because it extends the effective hours of evening light. If we reverse-engineer the rituals, beliefs, and myths of present-day foragers, we must arrive at something akin to this theory.
Foraging women seldom menstruate, because for most of their fertile years they are either pregnant or lactating (menstruation has been dubbed ‘the urban disease’). Hence the Female Cosmetic Coalition Model is a modification of Knight’s thesis, holding that menstrual synchrony was mostly faked using red ochre as ‘blood’, so explaining the predominance of the reddest ochre in the archaeological record.
There are technological advances during the UP (every five thousand years or so) but no evident revolutionary change in culture, though there are some shifts in frequencies of motifs. It is interesting that the Gravettian, coinciding with the Last Glacial Maximum, should be so uniform across so vast an area, and that Venus figurines were much more common in this period. As climate got subsequently warmer, the Solutrean was much more localised (limited areas of France and Spain). Gravettian people were highly mobile, roaming over greater distances in search of prey, and were probably more nomadic. Hence they would contact distant groups more frequently, and may have favoured the small Venus figurines because they are highly portable. By the time of the Magdalenian, Homo sapiens sapiens was undoubtedly the top predator in Europe, quite capable of dealing with large and dangerous animals. It is probably they who drove Europe’s megafauna into extinction, though climate change was also a likely factor.
Therianthropes – probably male shamanic figures – are present in the earliest Aurignacian, though rare, but become somewhat more frequent in the final Magdalenian. Some of them, as with female figures, are associated with dying game animals. There are clear parallels in the San rock art of southern Africa, linking shamanic trance with dying game animals and animal transformation.
As I have argued above, there must have been a patriarchal counter-revolution because, logically, the “human revolution” – the origin of modern human culture – must have been engineered by women, whereas all surviving cultures today are either egalitarian (with a slight patriarchal bias), or outright patriarchal. However, I don’t think this counter-revolution occurred during the UP, although the presence of male shamans does suggest some degree of power sharing (as among the Mbendjele today – see the video link below). Truly dramatic changes occur later, at the beginning and end of the Mesolithic leading to the so-called “agricultural revolution”.
I will examine these two in my next blog.
Jerome Lewis has been studying pygmy peoples for decades. In collaboration with Bruce Parry (of the TV series “Tribe”), he and his wife Ingrid made a film for the BBC. The video linked below was never broadcast but is particularly illuminating in regard to gender relations among the Mbendjele, who are still living in something like the African Middle Stone Age.
In the following 4 to 6 lessons, we can choose the more complicated human torsos or plaster casts by ourselves to practice, which the drawing methods are the same as what we learnt from the previous lessons. We also changed to draw on the white paper rather than the brown paper, which makes the contract between the light and dark more obvious. It’s a shame that I missed the fourth class because of personal reason. So that I skipped the practice of the simple torso drawing and went straight to the cast drawing. This makes me lose one tutor’s guidance and lose the transition of the skill’s practice. It actually makes me a little bit confusing for a moment when I started to draw the ‘Fisher Boy’, which was quite a challenge for me. So, I would suggest that if no necessary, don’t miss lessons! It really makes a difference.
The method is the same as we learnt how to draw the geometric blocks – to find the proportion of the whole object, and use straight lines to set the position, size and shape. The purpose of these lessons is to consolidate the practice of mass, proportion, shades, value, tones and stereoscope degrees. The feeling and enjoyment of drawing on white paper are much better than on brown paper. The effect will come out quickly, especially sometimes will let me have a sense of achievement.
But I don’t know if it is because the dark parts of my drawings are always not deep enough, or the contrast is not obvious enough. The cast drawings I’ve done in these two lessons look not very clean. Or perhaps because my daubing technique is not decisive and mature, so I repeatedly modified too many times.
Moreover, from the ‘Cherub’ drawing I did in the sixth lesson, can be seen that I still have problems in proportion. I was too hurry to enter the shadow daubing stage when I did this drawing, ignored that to get a more accurate proportion is the most important. The result is that the feeling of the character is not right – the little girl was drawn into the feeling of an adult. I will pay attention to this for the oil painting study next week!
第四到六周的Foundation课程 – 我在London Fine Art Studios工作和学习的日子
Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of blog posts on the many functions of art
Many shamanic societies believe that humans can transform into animals, and vice versa. This was once true in Europe – such ideas survive in fairy tales and today inspire many horror movies.
After I gave my talk last November, someone questioned a claim I made, asking: “How can art falsify consciousness?” I did not give a full answer at the time – that would have required a recap of my entire talk. This blog is mainly about how art is used in cultures very different from our own, but it will also help to answer that question about ‘false consciousness’ (not a new idea: cf. Marx & Engels, The German Ideology, 1846).
There is no doubt that culture profoundly influences human awareness through belief systems that are often illogical and counter-intuitive. Dan Sperber, during ethnographic research in Ethiopia, was taken aback when a Dorze informant told him that “All the local leopards are devout Christians.” He concluded that this idea must be “symbolic”, and coined his own rule-of-thumb definition: ”That’s symbolic.” “Why?” “Because it’s false!” However, the belief in Christian leopards does not “symbolize” something else that is not Christian or not a leopard. In fact it’s an example of a perspectival belief. Such beliefs originate in animism and shamanism, and reflect a profoundly unnatural disturbance of body image and understanding of bodies. You may recall that in my last blog I suggested that art, as part of a system for developing self- and other-awareness, is most likely to influence the development of body-image and body-understanding. I also noted that all human cultures maintain false beliefs about humanity and the world humans live in. This is true even for the culture of modern science, which has its fair share of ‘Christian leopards’.
Let me first define animism and then explain perspectivism:
Animism is the belief that non-human entities – including animals, plants, the sun and moon, rocks, mountains, rivers, and even trade goods such as potlatch coppers – are conscious beings with human-like minds and articulate powers of speech.
Perspectivism goes a step further – not only do non-human agents have human-like minds, they also see themselves as human beings and perceive the world from a human perspective. So, where we might see a jaguar lapping the blood of its prey, the jaguar sees itself as a human being drinking manioc beer. A vulture sees itself as human, and maggots in rotting meat as grilled fish. A beaver in its lodge sees itself as a human being living in a human village, complete with chief, shaman, sacred rituals, and clan-based marriage system. And just as animals see themselves as human, they see us as animals – and it all depends on relations of carnivory. In South America, jaguars and spirits eat humans, and humans eat white-lipped peccaries. So jaguars and spirits see us as white-lipped peccaries, and white-lipped peccaries see us as jaguars or spirits. So all beings are simultaneously spirits, carnivores, prey animals, and humans, living in parallel worlds, according to the perspective of the viewer. And these worlds are not just appearances as distinct from reality, they are all equally real. Which means there is no essential self and no essential concept of bodies or even substance.
More than a work of art: an eagle costume transforms a dancer into an eagle. Why the eagle cannot fly, apparently, is not a question that concerns people with perspectival beliefs.
Perspectivism also includes the paradoxical belief that when humans, during ritual, don animal masks or costumes, such disguise does not mask their identity – it creates it. The human being is transformed into the animal portrayed. Further, animals are conceived to be human beings wearing animal costumes. No matter how big or small the animal, it is still a human wearing an animal suit. This belief persists in hunter-gatherers who regularly butcher meat, and never find the human inside. The animal transformation, it seems, goes right through to the bones.
There is nothing “primitive” about such beliefs. Scott Atran has done cross-cultural research showing that four-year-old children know perfectly well that a horse in a zebra suit is still a horse. Children everywhere have an essentialist understanding of bodies – if you shave off a lion’s mane and paint it with stripes, it does not become a tiger. It remains its essential self, and is still a lion. The same extends to objects – show a three-year-old a candle that is shaped and coloured to look like an apple, the child will tell you it’s a candle. Ask if it looks like an apple, the child will say “No – it’s a candle, and it looks like a candle.” So perspectival beliefs are unnatural and counter-intuitive. We do not spontaneously develop such beliefs, merely because we don’t know any better. Culture scrambles our innate and primordial cognitive heritage, in quite sophisticated ways. The enculturated state could be described as wholly-believed-in role-play, which just happens to be a widely accepted definition of the hypnotised state.
Animism also is counter-intuitive. After reading Puss in Boots to my daughter, aged around four or five, she asked “Why do animals talk in stories? They don’t in real life.” I told her that this is a magical story, in which magical things happen. She then commented, “It makes the stories more exciting!” My eldest son, at a similar age, asked a similar question after hearing Grimm’s tale, The Griffin, even adding the comment “It makes the stories more exciting!” Colwyn Trevarthen, after decades studying pre-school children, observed that, unlike the cognitive self-awareness of the scientist, children strive to understand the world “in active negotiation of creative imaginings that are valued for their human-made unreality”. The curious conclusion seems to be that we are pre-adapted from birth to value counter-intuitive human fictions, and live in worlds of wholly-believed-in make-believe.
This forces me to conclude that the hypnosis-like effects of culture, which scramble our innate powers of reasoning and create surreal beliefs such as Christian leopards are by no means entirely negative. My children are not the only ones who find counter-intuitive events exciting. Popular media reveal a widespread interest in the miraculous and paranormal, and there seems to be a near-universal hunger for magic that transcends mundane reality. I think that the paranormal beliefs of our ancestors, which probably originate in ritual trance, allowed the first enculturated humans to discover their spirituality.
Ciudad Perdida (the “Lost City”), was built by the ancestors of the Kogi people, who have sent a warning from “The Heart of the World” that we must stop hurting and wounding our Mother, the Earth, before everything dies.
Whilst it can be shown that animistic beliefs are “unnatural”, it is also true that animistic people live in close communion with nature. Their survival depends on it. Their belief that everything is alive gives them a deep reverence for nature, which makes them “the best conservationists” (according to Survival International, the charity that defends indigenous rights). Take the case of the Kogi, who live on a mountain which they call “The Heart of the World”, on the Caribbean coast of Columbia. Central to their belief system is Aluna – a living cosmic mind who created everything through her thought. She is also the soul of Nature and our Mother, the Earth.
The Kogi use divination to select babies who will be trained to become Mama, or “enlightened ones”. They will be raised from birth throughout their formative years in total darkness, so that they will learn to see with true spiritual vision, to connect with cosmic consciousness and respond to its needs in order to keep the world in balance. Aluna created human beings so that we can perform the vital work of protecting the Earth and all living things. Seeing the mountain snows getting less each year, which threatens their rivers and breaks the water cycle, the Kogi are aware of global warming, as well as the ecological damage caused by power stations, logging, and mining operations. So they (“the elder brother”) decided they must send a warning to the rest of us (“the younger brother”) so that we will stop hurting and wounding Mother Earth – via a BBC film and, twenty years later, a second film because we clearly didn’t understand the first one. The films are worth watching. You can find them here:
Clearly, culture could not influence us without the social displays that enable us to share feelings, emotions, and ideas. Human culture is virtually built out of social displays. It exploits all of them, including many kinds of art.
We might begin with body art. Homo sapiens is the only animal species that alters the appearance and sensory qualities of bodies in so many sophisticated and culturally varied ways.
Homo sapiens is the only species that alters the visual and sensory properties of its own bodies in so many culturally varied ways
One significant influence on body image is sexual modesty. No known human society is without sexual modesty in some form, and it usually involves concealment of the genitals. No self-respecting chimpanzee would think this a good idea. When chimps want to mate, they display their genitalia, whereas humans seldom do this in public unless in a culturally falsified way – like the codpieces of Tudor England, the penis tubes of New Guinea, or rituals such as the Ida ceremony in New Guinea where men wear artificial vaginas on their heads. In Koisan, Hadza, and Mbendjele rituals, girls sport penises. Check out this very entertaining ten-minute video:
Making our genitalia less salient (or highly salient in fictive ways), with a powerful taboo against their public exposure, must influence the way we perceive and think about ourselves and each other. But body art – loosely defined – must also have profound effects. Many of us may think that the way we dress is a form of self-expression. This is sometimes true, but always within strictly defined cultural limits. Even a few decades ago, people dressed differently, and very differently in Tudor times or in different cultures. Human life is a costume drama, and what you wear is very much determined by society.
Biologically, there is not much difference between these two women. But the Elizabethan queen is required to appear unassailable and plays her expected role, whereas the dolly bird pretends to be what men in her circle want her to be. Because human beings are highly social and highly suggestible, we tend to believe we are the roles we play, and what we believe others believe us to be.
When we turn to art in other cultures, the first thing to realise is that the western concept of “fine art” (curated in museums, sold for vast sums of money, etc.) is highly aberrant and inevitably colours our view of what art is and what it can do. There are an estimated five or six thousand languages spoken in the world today, of which only about half a dozen are spoken by populations centrally involved in the origin of the fine art concept. That’s around 0.1 per cent. The number of non-western societies that have produced art forms remotely comparable to western art is not much different. China is one example, but even here calligraphy is traditionally regarded as the most sublime form of visual art, superior to all others. Even in classical Greece, though poets were highly esteemed, sculptors, who work with their hands, were regarded as mere artisans.
Because of his western notion of “art”, the anthropologist Jeremy Coote could write, in 1992, “The cattle keeping Nilotes of the Southern Sudan make no art objects and have no traditions of visual art.” Yet he acknowledged that they had a strong aesthetic sense, evidenced in their rich vocabulary of terms describing the colours, patterns, and textures of cattle (their hides, horns, eyes, etc.) which abound in their highly visual poetry. He also noted that if you give a Nuer boy a ball of clay, he will use it to fashion a cow or other animal. Nuer children make toy corrals for their toy cattle and play at cattle herding and marriage (a Nuer man cannot marry unless he owns cattle to pay the bride price). Dinka children play with dolls which, if an archaeologist dug one up, would almost certainly be interpreted as a “ritual figure”. These cattle herders also dress in textiles with bold colourful designs.
So we can see that these cattle keeping Nilotes have both forms of art which I have pointed out in child development and human evolution – iconic representations which are not necessarily aesthetic, and decorative patterns which are. Coote simply did not regard toys as “art” or clothes as “art objects”. As I noted in Part 1, representational art most probably had its origin in toys improvised or made by or for children to use in pretend play. Child art is the universal and fundamental manifestation of art, and I believe toys are the primordial iconic art objects.
Yolngu paintings on eucalyptus bark show the snake that bit Gurrmirringu (the Yolngu Adam) and his body prepared for burial in the first funeral ceremony. The Yolngu say that “The Gurrmirringu ‘spirit man’s’ power is in the ground and is listening forever.”
One peculiarity of western art is its current valuation of “creativity”. Very few societies share this value. In medieval Europe, artists were expected to portray sacred stories in prescribed ways. A stained glass window was intended to be beautiful, but it was not expected to be “creative”. In Balinese tourist art, if a particular painting is seen to be selling well, other artists will not hesitate to copy it repeatedly – no one cares about “copyright” or “originality”. Others, such as the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land, actually despise creativity. They believe that if a man paints something just to please himself, it could not possibly be of interest to anyone else. Yolngu artists paint what the ancestors require them to paint. That is, they value the archetypal – the opposite of the creative. They do not believe in anything “new” – even trucks and bulldozers introduced by white people always existed in the eternal Dreamtime, until the ancestors decided to deliver them into our world.
Similar paintings applied to the bodies of boys whose personalities are about to be irrevocably changed by initiation.
Unlike western art, which is curated and displayed in galleries, stately homes, or municipal spaces, traditional Yolngu art served transient teaching or ritual purposes. There is no need to conserve paintings because the imagery is conceived to be eternal. Wäka Munungurr, from the Yirrkala community, explained: “The painting that you see today in the bark paintings or whatever, we have it all the time. It is in our body. Whatever we do the painting is there. That represents who you are and what we are and what clan we come from… That’s my painting and it represents my land at Waṉḏawuy. It talks about the river, the land, the nature and it’s really important. I have that painting all the time in me wherever I go, I can’t lose it. I can’t lose that one.”
Spirit painting showing the “rarrk” hatching technique
Detail showing the regularity and continuity of hatched lines across colour transitions.
Yolngu paintings acquire enormous spiritual power through a hatching technique called “rarrk”. After flattening and drying a section of eucalyptus bark, this is primed with a coat of red ochre. When this is dry, the basic painting may take a few hours to complete. It is then painstakingly covered in fine hatched lines using a blade of grass, a process which may take months or the best part of a year, transforming the painting from “dull” to “brilliant”. A rarrk painting would not be looked at directly, because its spiritual power could kill. Such paintings may be deliberately smeared over before they can be seen by women or uninitiated persons, who would be unable to cope with such deadly power.
Malangan funeral figure, collected 1882-3: made of wood, vegetable fibre, pigment and shell.
Malangan funeral sculpture represents an extreme case of art which is intended to be displayed for a few hours only, and then burnt or left to rot in the forest or a cave. Nowadays, selling a sculpture to a western collector is considered to be equivalent to its destruction. Malangan is a cycle of rituals of the Nalik people of the north coast of New Ireland, an island in Papua New Guinea. The rituals are extremely complex, requiring months or years to prepare, and are so expensive to stage that several funerals may be combined into one. The Malangan sculptures are made of distinct units, each of which “belongs” to a specific family, who will instruct the sculptor on how to make each component. The sculptor will then have dreams in which the ancestors will provide further instruction. He will create the work in a secluded hut. No one is allowed to see his work until the proper moment of the ritual, and then they must pay in shell money for having seen it. The primary function of the Malangan figure is not display, but to house the spirit of the deceased and then release it to the ocean underworld from which all life comes.
Kanak children of New Caledonia
One of the most telling points concerning art and altered self-awareness comes from a study of the Kanak people of New Caledonia. In 1949, Maurice Leenhardt, a protestant pastor and anthropologist, published a book called Do Kamo: Person and Myth in the Melanesian World. In it he reports a discussion he had with a sculptor called Boesou, about the impact of colonialism in New Caledonia. Summing up, Leenhardt (being a devout Christian) concluded: “In short, we introduced the notion of spirit to your way of thinking?”
“Spirit?” Boesou retorted, “Bah! You didn’t bring us the spirit. We already knew the spirit existed. We have always acted in accord with the spirit. What you’ve brought us is the body!”
It may seem surprising that a sculptor – whose job is to carve representations of bodies – should feel that bodies are not self-evident. Leenhardt linked this to the disarticulated sense of body revealed by New Caledonian body terms – and by the associated art which crystallizes bodies into geometric fragments. He attributed this to a ‘primitive lack of depth perception’. This interpretation is typical of anthropology at that time, but today we know that babies have fully functional depth perception from an early age. As soon as they can crawl, for example, they will not cross over a ‘visual cliff’. And there is clearly nothing ‘primitive’ about New Caledonian art. Pictures spontaneously created by children – which might with some justification be thought of as ‘primitive’ – are relatively naturalistic. They are perhaps ideographic – a style which cartoonists wilfully imitate – but they do not show fragmented or disarticulated bodies. The same might be said of Upper Palaeolithic cave paintings. Here, animals are portrayed with perfect naturalism. Leenhardt was probably nearer the mark when he hinted that ego boundaries are erased in ritual, “when the time of the living being mingles with the time of the ancestors.”
Representations of ancestral figures in Kanak sculpture
Fragmented bodies also appear in the art of Northwest coastal America, where animals are regularly portrayed as though seen from several viewpoints simultaneously. First Nations artists also often depict animals and plants with ‘X-ray vision’ – showing bones and muscles, or the hidden roots of plants. X-ray vision is one of the powers bestowed by shamanic trance, enabling the shaman to ‘see’ the cause of an illness, and ‘extract’ the noxious object – often a tiny claw, feather, or crystal – from the patient’s body. Shamanic healing is not entirely innocent of deception – the item to be extracted is secretly palmed by the shaman before healing begins.
Haida painting of a shark in “exploded” view: the head viewed from the front with both side views to the right and left. The eye-like shapes on the fins represent joints, and ribs are shown in X-ray view. Much indigenous art of NW coastal America, as here, disjoints each part of the figure within black “formlines” with standardised shapes such as ovoids, U-forms and S-forms.
Tlingit house showing a bear in similar “exploded” style. In both the bear and shark pictures a human face is inserted at the top of the head, reflecting the belief that animals are humans in animal guise.
Fragmented art styles such as those of Melanesia and elsewhere were briefly imitated by Picasso and Braque during their cubist period, though with little ethnographic insight – Picasso thought he was learning to paint ‘like a child’. Westerners have regularly misperceived preliterate cultures as ‘childlike’ or ‘primitive’. As I have noted, children do not produce such art and it certainly cannot be regarded as ‘primitive’ – rather, it represents a sophisticated and systematic assault on perceptions of bodies. Wherever we have ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’ – especially on the monumental scale seen in NW coastal America and many western art galleries and municipal spaces – it is inevitably political, inextricably entangled with issues of class, power, authority, and prestige
East Sepik Tamburan house, New Guinea. Tamburan spirit images.
Anthony Forge, who has been very influential in the anthropology of art, reported one particularly impressive example of the way art can influence perception. He found that Abelam children in New Guinea had no problem understanding photographs of themselves and of their friends and family, but adult Abelam men — after repeated initiation ceremonies in which they were exposed to vivid two-dimensional images of spirits (tamburans) — lost the ability to understand photographs. When shown a photograph, their immediate reaction would be to turn it over and scrutinize the back.
Drawings of “a person” by two Bushmen who have never experienced ritual trance.
These drawings are normal for someone who has never drawn before.
Drawings of “a person” by three Bushmen who trance once or twice a week, showing disarticulation and omissions of essential body parts. They are dominated by spiral representations of boiling N/um energy, rising like a Kundalini serpent up the spinal column.
Just as art can influence awareness and conceptions of bodies and the world, such conceptions can influence art. Richard Katz asked a number of Ju/’hoansi men (a “Bushman” or San people) to “draw a person”. Up until the nineteenth century, when the San had lived in the Drakensburg mountains and other rocky areas, they created the most plentiful rock art anywhere in the world, spanning a period of around four thousand years. This is comparable in quality and style to the cave paintings of France and Spain, with the advantage that present day Bushmen can interpret the pictures for us. But today farming and urban societies have driven foragers into the most inhospitable environments. Bushmen inhabit the Kalahari desert where there is no opportunity to paint. Katz found that men who had never experienced ritual trance drew figures that included the essential parts (head, body, arms, and legs) all attached in the normal manner. But healers who entered trance once or twice a week produced disarticulated figures with missing heads and limbs. The only common feature was a spiral motif representing boiling N/um energy, which rises (like the Kundalini serpent) from the sacrum bone during trance dancing, and ascends the spinal column. When it reaches the brain, the dancer “dies” – meaning that his soul leaves his body, travelling to investigate distant places or ascending to the sky to argue with God.
San rock art at Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa. Naturalistic portrayals of eland are reminiscent of Palaeolithic cave paintings in Europe but the running figures across the top are similar to European Mesolithic art. Behind the eland are figures that may be entranced dancers wearing karosses, with diminutive heads, animal ears, and torsos inflated with N/um energy.
When people produce images of bodies which are not naturalistic, I am not suggesting that there is anything physiologically wrong with their vision. Retinas, optic nerves, and visual cortices function in pretty much the same way everywhere. It is more a matter of conception (what the artist regards as essential, often including invisible things like internal organs or spiritual power) and attention. When children first draw “tadpole people” with head and limbs but no torso, this is because their earliest explorations of the world involve contact organs, so that is what they pay attention to. They are simply not aware that they are omitting the torso until this is pointed out to them, or they grow older and more experienced. But concept and experience are very much shaped by culture, including art and associated beliefs.
In this blog I have mentioned a few cultures to illustrate how differently art is regarded and used in most societies known to anthropologists. In contrast to the western notion of “fine art”, few communities curate their art, it is not primarily created for display as such (sometimes only being seen by initiates), and only since contact with the west is it sold for monetary gain. It certainly is not conserved as a financial investment. Creativity – a relatively recent value in western art – is not valued at all. What is primarily valued is the archetypal – the very opposite of the creative – and the imagery is revealed by the ancestors, spirits, or gods, who communicate to the people through divinations, dreams, visitations, and trance experiences. Consequently the main functions of art are ritual and spiritual. After use, artworks are commonly discarded.
I have also noted that many societies see themselves and the world in ways that can seem extremely bizarre to us and which can be shown to be counter-intuitive, counter-logical, and counter-natural. At the same time, people with such unnatural beliefs live in close harmony with nature. They conceive of everything on the earth, in the waters, and in the heavens above, as alive, and have a deep reverence for everything around them. They are also deeply spiritual; for them, spirits are just as substantial as bodies, or – more accurately – bodies are just as insubstantial as spirits. Nothing has “substance” as “we” (post-urban and post-industrial people) understand it. What seems biologically paradoxical is the curious fact that human beings everywhere seem to be fascinated by the counter-intuitive – magic and miracles – which seems to be a consequence of an innate motivation that we call “spiritual”.
As I have explained, there is no way for culture to exert such effects other than through social displays, which enable us to reveal and share feelings, emotions, perceptions, ideas, and beliefs. One of our most impressive social displays is art – or rather two kinds of display that we classify as “art” – aesthetic non-figurative designs, and iconic representations of real or imagined things. The latter in particular are important for the development of body-image and bodily understanding. People who make fragmented images of bodies seem to have fragmented bodily self-images. During childhood, social displays are essential for the development o f self- and social-awareness, and human cultures use the same means to alter such awareness.
What I have not mentioned is why this should be so. Why should human societies falsify perceptions? What possible benefit could this provide? Karl Marx reasoned that the ‘dominant ideology’ in any society is that of the ‘ruling classes’, and serves to make the inequities of social hierarchy and privilege appear natural, inevitable, and ‘right’. This is what he called ‘false consciousness’ – blinding the proletariat to the way they are being exploited. But Marxian theory does not explain counter-intuitive beliefs in egalitarian societies with no ‘ruling classes’ and no exploited labour force. Something much more ancient is involved.
Marshall Sahlins pointed out that in apes society is controlled by sex, whereas in humans sex is controlled by society. He inferred “the greatest reform in history” – a human revolution that turned an ancient ape-like social order on its head. In order to persuade our selfish ape-like ancestors to behave in anti-biological ways, it must have been necessary to falsify their perceptions of themselves and the world. Endless competition and conflict over sex and food had to be replaced by cooperation. Among modern foragers this is accomplished by monogamous marriage rules and obligatory food sharing.
The likeliest reason why human culture emerged in the first place was to ensure that children are properly cared for. Human childbearing and rearing are especially problematic in humans. We have a narrow pelvis adapted for bipedal locomotion, but give birth to large-brained babies. Women have wider pelvic arches than men, but even so the birth canal is so narrow that babies’ heads get squeezed out of shape during birth, with painful and dangerous consequences for mother and baby. In most human communities, the assistance of a midwife is necessary. Following the trauma of birthing, women must then carry the burden of breast feeding, during which they must supply the dietary lipids essential to sustain the baby’s rapid brain growth. Since these essential lipids can only be obtained from animal fat, it follows that culture of modern human type must have been initiated by women, in order to ensure that male hunters bring the meat home, rather than eating the best parts at the kill site, as do other social carnivores. This is in fact what happens in foraging communities to this day. I have no space here to discuss the menstrual sex-strike theory of cultural origins, or the Female Cosmetic Coalitions Model, but the ten-minute video I have linked to above will give you some idea.
In my next blog I will outline how it is that western art and consciousness are so different from that of the peoples I have discussed so far, and how western culture evolved from a perspectival to a physicalist world-view.
I’m a kind of lucky person that finds a full-time job immediately when postgraduate from Camberwell College of Arts. And, even fortunately, the workplace is an art school with a strong artistic atmosphere, and also a warm family that everyone gets along with harmony.
From July 2019, you will notice that there was a new girl in Chinese face working in the coffee area in the shop, that is me!
At that time, I was still in an ignorant state that I had never worked formally before. Thanks to Ann and Scott’s absolute tolerance and understanding, Anna’s detailed handover and explanation of my work, and millions of help from Emma, Nada and other colleagues. I quickly adapted to and familiar with the school and my position.
I’m so happy that Ann provided me with this opportunity for studying foundation course here. Even though my majors are Art and Design and Illustration in my grad- and post-graduation. However, I never received professional and systematic fundamental art training before, either in China or after coming to Britain. I moved to England since high school, art subjects from high school to university here are mainly self-learning research, there is no professional art training of drawing and still life courses like in Chinese art schools. My drawing and painting skills and knowledge are acquired through self-study and practice. As a result, I have never been so confident in my professional skills.
And in the university, people still take the contemporary and modern art as the leading role, and pay more attention to the concept and effect of expression, as well as the meaning that the artist intends to convey and interact with the public, and also the resonance from the audience. The technique is the secondary. However, I still reckon that if you want to successfully express your ideas through artwork, a skilful technique is indispensable. Whether it is abstract painting or freehand brushwork, all the evolution should be based on a solid foundation and artistic aesthetic.
Studying foundation course in LFAS is a great opportunity for me to start to learn the basics of traditional painting systematically. Besides, I always think that the way of traditional Chinese and western oil painting and the final presentation is slightly different, and I have always been curious to find out the steps and methods of traditional western painting. So next, I will give you a brief introduction to my learning achievements and feelings in the 10-week foundation course I have done in LFAS.
1-3 Weeks Foundation Course – Shirley’s work and study life in LFAS
The Foundation Course is compulsory for all newcomers who want to study at LFAS, regardless of your art level and experience. The school has a special and systematic teaching method. After mastering it, it can be used in all subsequent art creations, whether it is the control of the object’s structure, composition, the use of colour or the contrast between light and dark.
The first two classes, tutors will demonstrate the introduction step-by-step, and ask us to practice by drawing the structure, shape and proportion of the geometric blocks with straight drawing lines. To observe and feel the overall size and proportion with eyes, and determine the fixed height of the top and bottom on the paper, then to determine the overall width. Use drawing lines to connect points and points to find out the relationship between each object. In the class, we will repeatedly practice the proportions of shapes and compositions by changing the placement of objects and changing the shapes of objects, for example, from a geometric block to a still life bottle or some simple shape torsos.
The third class, tutors will teach us to only consider the light and shadow. Continue to use the straight-line method to draw out the shadow side and fill in all the dark side of the object with charcoal, which also mixes with the background’s shadow. This can be more intuitive to deepen the observation of the structure of the object.
The female torso charcoal drawing below is what I did after several shadow block practices. Tutors taught us how to use different levels of values to represent different body brightness and darkness. By daubing with the fingers to make the connection between each part more natural and closer to the object we are drawing. It is a very exciting and enjoyable process to watch my work gradually getting better by daub the charcoal and correct the values to get close to the drawn object.
前三周的Foundation课程 – 我在London Fine Art Studios工作和学习的日子
Notes following a talk by Charles Whitehead at LFAS on Wednesday 20th November 2019
From the age of 8, children’s representational art becomes increasingly naturalistic, though decorative features are still common.
After puberty, children want to emulate adult art, but computer games are a more likely source than art galleries.
“Art” – however you define it – is a social display. By “social display” I mean any behaviour that enables us to show and share experiences and thoughts (sensations, moods, emotions. perceptions, ideas, beliefs, etc). That includes not only language and facial expressions, but also childhood play and all the cultural arts. By this definition, even giving someone a hug is a social display – a demonstration of affection.
Scientists confess that they find it “difficult” (they mean “impossible”) to define precisely what makes us human. But my kids, at the age of four, knew what makes us human, because they laughed at cartoon movies where much of the humour depends on animals behaving like humans, and our implicit awareness that this is absurd. Children know that animals don’t talk, but what makes Bugs Bunny funnier is his Bronx-cum-Brooklyn accent and other human-like behaviour. He chomps carrots with the aplomb of a tycoon smoking a cigar, struts around showing off his street-wise savvy, and even dresses in drag without loosing his cool. He hatches ingenious plots to outwit Elmer Fudd. Biologists call this “tactical deception”, and search for evidence of it in animals. Only great apes seem to have this ability, which depends on awareness that individuals can have false beliefs, part of what they call “theory of mind” or “mindreading”.
One clip that made my kids laugh (redrawn by my son Jon because Warner Brothers could not identify the original). Surprise is uniquely human. The last frame (a wordless “Did you see what I saw?”) is a simple example of social mirroring.
Cartoon animals express surprise, which also requires insight into mental states (their own as well as others’). Autistic humans, having limited insight into false expectations, fail to express or understand surprise, often mistaking the surprised face for an expression of fear.
From the above examples we can see that much of the humour in animal cartoons concerns uniquely human social displays, along with the self-awareness and insight into the minds of others which depend on such displays.
Social mirror theory holds that mirrors in the mind require mirrors in society. That is, social displays (or social mirrors) make subjective states objective and salient so that, as children, we begin to notice that we and others have such states. We become self-conscious (aware that we are aware) and other-conscious (aware that others are aware) at the same time. “Cogito ergo sum” should read “Cogitamus ergo sumus” or even “Sentimus ergo sumus” (“We feel therefore we are”).
Our unique abilities to share experience is what makes us human. Humans have a formidable armamentarium of social displays – we have three broad classes of social display, each of which comes in at least four modes (depending on how you count), making twelve or more categories in all, often with more than one kind in each category. The table shows some illustrative examples, including two kinds of visual art and their cultural applications (in red type). No other animal comes close – two or three types of display at the most.
So art is part of a system that makes us human.
The complexity of the human mind and brain led scientists to expect that the human genome would have many more encoding genes than other animals – maybe 100,000 base pairs at least. So they got a surprise when human DNA was finally mapped. It turned out that we only had about 22,000 base pairs – little more than the genome of a mouse. It would seem that the differences between human and mouse minds and brains require very little in the way of genetic programming, and that the human mind and brain must be underdetermined by genes.
The genetic code carries the basic instructions for making babies. But genes can never do anything on their own – they need a provident environment to supply them with the building blocks and fuel (delivered through the placenta), and the chemical machinery in the mother’s egg to start the process off.
Then other factors start to play a role. Even in the womb, babies start to learn the sound of their native language. They hear their mother’s voice transmitted through her body, and turn their heads when they hear other vocal sounds – even coughs and sneezes. And they turn their heads more often to hear voices speaking their mother’s language than those speaking a foreign tongue.
After birth, babies get turned into adults by a process called “childhood”. The power of childhood has been uniquely expanded in humans.
First there is “secondary altriciality”. “Altricial” is the opposite of “precocial” or “precocious”. Many herbivores have precocial infants who can run with the herd soon after birth. Many others have altricial babies who have to be nursed or carried around until they are mature enough to fend for themselves. “Secondary altrciality” means more than that. Human babies are not only born with immature bodies, but also rapid brain growth continues after birth. So much so, that in humans 75% of brain growth occurs outside the womb.
Secondly, human childhood is extended by slowed bodily growth and delayed sexual maturity. After puberty, an adolescent growth spurt puts human bodies back on the growth curve they would have followed if they had no childhood.
These two factors give our social displays unprecedented power to sculpt our minds and brains. Which means genes do not have the final say on the functional anatomy of our brains. The brain sculpts itself through two phases. In each phase neurones grow lots of connections to other neurones (branching or arborisation) and then many of these are pruned away. Connections that get used a lot get strengthened, and those which are rarely used are eliminated.
1. The first phase begins before birth. The most rapid spurt of arborisation occurs between 18 months and 2 years, followed by a period of extensive pruning. The greatest change in brain structure occurs between the ages of 2 and 5 years.
2. The second begins just before puberty, with the most intense branching and connecting around the age of 11 or 12 years. Subsequent pruning begins to tail off around the age of 15, but continues throughout life. Maturation of the frontal lobes in particular is not complete until the early 20s.
So human infancy and adolescence each has its own phase of intensive restructuring. I think these two phases have distinct functions: the first establishes human levels of social awareness (which are indeed established by the age of five), and the second is particularly necessary for enculturation and adaptation to adult life in a given culture (again, this fits in with developmental changes).
These changes are driven by the individual’s own behaviour. One of those behaviours is art. Even if children are not given any art materials they will spontaneously make marks on any surface, including their own bodies, whether with jam or faeces. Mark-making starts around nine months. In their third year they will also make pictures and patterns, drawing in the sand or earth if necessary, or mould figures out of clay. The following pictures illustrate the progression during childhood, taken from my own children:
I don’t want to repeat the details here, but the take home message from this part of my talk is that there is a spiral co-development of social displays and self/other awareness. That is, the build up of displays in one mode scaffolds a higher mode of self/other-awareness, and this makes possible a higher mode of social displays. In the diagram below, the diagonal arrows represent the major watersheds in child development, which have no obvious parallel in non-human apes. The first transition around 9 months is the shift from primary to secondary intersubjectivity, the second around 24 months is the onset of the “terrible twos”, and the third is the emergence of explicit “theory of mind” – which means intersubjectivity at the level of epistemic mental states (such as knowing, believing, imagining, guessing, etc). The fourth is the more gradual adoption of “economic-moral personae” – the roles we are obliged to play in adult life. This developmental spiral is powerful evidence supporting social mirror theory – as opposed to other theories which are more popular with cognitive scientists, who don’t want to know about anything that doesn’t work like a computer.
The spiral co-development of social displays and self/other-awareness
I think this developmental spiral takes the form it does because this is the only way of achieving human levels of self/other-awareness. If so then human evolution must have followed a similar spiral path. The archaeological record is not inconsistent with that idea (see Part 1).
If you want to know more you can download most of my publications from my website, www.socialmirrors.org. Go to the page “About Charles Whitehead” (near the bottom of the menu) and scroll down to “Selected publications”. I particularly recommend:
Whitehead, C. (2016). ‘Health, development, and the culture-ready brain’. In The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience (New York: Oxford University Press). Download DOCX
Whitehead, C. (2014). ‘Why humans and not apes: The social preconditions for the emergence of language’. In The Social Origins of Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Download PDF
To summarise: Art is a social display, and social displays (including two kinds of art) function through infancy and adolescence to sculpt the brain, to shape its functional architecture, to achieve human levels of self/other-awareness, and to mould the minds of enculturated human adults. I might add that visual art, in contrast to other kinds of performance, seems specifically apposite for the development of body image, and how this can be modified (in the eyes of others) through costume, self-adornment, and design.
In Part 1, I noted that two kinds of art can be seen developing in the archaeological record, and the same can be seen in child art. Mark-making develops into iconic representations (which are not necessarily aesthetic) and decorative patterns (which are necessarily aesthetic). Both features often occur in the same artwork (in “house” above, Phyllis folded the top corners of the paper to represent the roof and a door is shown on both sides of the paper, with windows and curtains on the inside view – but the rest is jubilant decoration. Notice also the fanciful hats in the last picture, which is a detail from a computer painting of a firework display).
Patterns occur throughout nature, which is why physicists can describe natural laws with “beautiful equations”. Mathematics is a system for describing patterns, and modern maths teaching begins by encouraging children to make and discuss patterns using peg boards, blocks, crayons, etc. Educators point out that all aesthetic arts feature patterns – music, dance, poetry, and visual art (even in iconic “fine art”, composition is carefully judged, and must depend on some kind of intuitive geometry). So pattern seems to be one generic aspect of aesthetics, explaining why mathematicians, scientists, and engineers – as well as artists of all kinds – find beauty in their work. Linguisticians find poetic structure even in the most mundane human conversation. As long ago as 450-420 BC, the classical Greek sculptor Polykleitos wrote an influential Kanon describing the mathematical proportions of male athletic beauty, based on symmetria (relations of the parts to each other and to the whole), isonomia (balance), and rhythmos (rhythm). He may have been the first to use contrapposto (the way the hips sway one way and the shoulders the other as the weight falls on one leg). Many artists have attempted a mathematical understanding of human beauty, Leonardo da Vinci’s VitruvianMan being an example, and modern cosmetic surgeons claim to have mastered this, commonly invoking the Golden Section. Of course, canons of beauty vary from age to age and culture to culture, so many of these mathematical conjectures are probably wrong.
But regularity of pattern cannot be the whole story. Musicologists point out that the regular patterning of music enables us to predict what will come next, but really satisfying music has to include some surprises – things we do not expect but which, after the event, still make musical sense. So you need patterns which are not obviously regular, but have novel and interesting twists and turns, for full aesthetic satisfaction. Take a tree, for example. There is a roughly logarithmic progression in the thickness of trunk, limbs, branches, and twigs. But countless tiny (or major) influences, caused by the prevailing wind, the dappling of light and shade, and a myriad unknowable accidents, cause the branching and leafing pattern in a tree to deviate in multiple ways, which enhance the beauty of the tree.
There are mathematical relationships between the wavelengths of light in a sunset, but truly dramatic sunsets result from the fortuitous fall of light on nearby clouds. Clouds have characteristic shapes – which means we can always identify a cumulonimbus cloud from its shape, and yet no two clouds are ever the same, being endless variations on a theme. If you look at the patterns created spontaneously by children, they seldom have the regularities desired by the teachers of mathematics. In Phyllis’s “House”, there are certainly rhythmic and repetitive patterns, but also wild juxtapositions of geometric and colourful invention. They are not predictable, but at the very least are aesthetic explorations. Some children’s patterns are so irregular that it is difficult to understand why they are patterns at all, yet they are certainly impactful and aesthetic. I give a couple more examples below, by Aspen:
Maybe children just know more about aesthetics than the scientists and philosophers do.
Le Petit Prince is a book by Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1943), based on an experience he had of meeting an imaginary child after being shot down in the desert during World War 2. It’s said that everyone should read this book twice – once when a child, and once when forty years old or so. Children recognise the magic, and older people discover just how profound the wisdom is. Here are a couple of quotes:
Here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye