One of the problems of the weak avant-garde is in its tendency to reject the spiritual, existential and social origins of art itself. This dynamic can be found both among would-be “art entrepreneurs” and among progressive artists (who wrongly believe their role is to demystify art and all that surrounds it). Both, in the end, risk becoming the Thomas Gradgrinds of contemporary art. [i]
The Austrian art critic and Marxist Ernst Fischer, building on Frederick Engels’ “The Role of Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” invoked art’s pre-history in his 1959 book, The Necessity of Art. Largely a polemic against the cultural policies of “communist” Eastern Europe, Fischer attempted to describe how the origins of art were “magic” – the product of a great leap forward in human consciousness. The mastery of tools produced in humans a social knowledge – the abstraction and generalization of the world. This created a wealth of practical knowledge but it also created a method of knowing that far surpassed the empirical data that “primitive” humans had accumulated. Mythology and art were the product of this contradiction. “With the use of tools,” Fischer argues, “nothing is, in principle, any longer impossible.” Worlds themselves became “magic.” Early humans named the seasons, aspects of sexual reproduction, named the flora and fauna. This gave our ancestors a feeling of immense power. Naming those things that could not be fully understood (death, life, love, etc.) would logically extend that power. [ii] “[I]n creating art,” prehistoric man (sic), “found himself a real way of increasing his power and enriching his life. The frenzied tribal dances before a hunt really did make the warrior more resolute and were apt to terrify the enemy. Cave paintings of animals really helped to build the hunter’s sense of security and superiority over his prey.” [iii] Fischer’s overall thesis is correct, although his thinking is limited by the assumptions of his own time. He is wrong about the motivations of pre-historic cave painters. The “magic rite” explanation has been discredited – although it was a commonly held theory in the 1950s and 1960s. [iv] The biggest blow to this theory is the evidence that a majority of pre-historic cave painting was likely done by female artists.
Various ideas have replaced the “magic rite” explanation for cave art. Possessed by a post-structuralist fear of generalization, some of these theories over-emphasize the data of a particular location – the San Rock Art of South Africa or Chauvet Cave in France for example – and refuse to draw wider conclusions (even when the data demands such generalization). A debate ensued between the so-called “pluralists” on the one side and the “shamanistic” model on the other. [v]
Cave painting and shamanism
Davis Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson were among the first to argue that much cave painting and rock art was shamanistic [vi] – based on studies of San Rock Art and the analysis of phosphenes and abstract motifs. [vii] Phosphenes are light patterns that are not caused by external input – usually the product of hallucinations caused by hunger (fasting), movement (whirling dervishes or dance), intoxication or sleep deprivation. They evidence one of the central features of shamanism – entering altered states of consciousness to visit the “spirit world” in order to bring lessons and narratives back to the group. “Amongst hunter-gatherer… communities” Lewis-Williams argues this “is called ‘shamanism.’”
The world derives from the Tungus language of central Asia. Today this is a disputed word. Some researchers feel that the term has been used too generally to be of any use… I, and many others disagree. We believe that “shamanism” usefully points to a human universal – the need to make sense of shifting consciousness – and the way in which this is accomplished especially, but not always, among hunter-gatherers. [viii]
Jean Clottes, former director of research at Chauvet Cave, agrees with Lewis-Williams. “Clottes and Lewis-Williams,” David Whitley writes, “argued, in essence, that the caves themselves were topographic models of the trance experience. As the ‘entrails of the underworld,’ they were the vortex that, through ritual trance, the shaman used to access the supernatural.” [ix]
The post-structuralists counter that this interpretation ignores the specific cultural experiences that produced each artifact. But as Whitley argues:
That the art is in caves as different as Chauvet and Lascaux could reasonably be interpreted as shamanistic in origin… is no small conclusion. As Jean Clottes has repeatedly pointed out, this speaks to the fact that Paleolithic art reflects an extremely long cultural, artistic, and religious tradition – one that lasted for more than twenty thousand years. [x]
David Whitley, however, is wrong when he asserts that shamanistic cave painting and rock art reflected an “inner” vs. “outer” practice. [xi] The function of the shaman, based on observations in North America, Siberia and Australia, was multi-faceted. The pre-historic shaman was a priest, healer, joker, historian, storyteller, magician and scientist. Any quest to the spirit world was taken in a dialectical relationship with the needs, material and spiritual, of the hunter-gatherer group. [xii] This leads Derek Hodgson to argue Lewis-Williams’ shamanistic interpretation theory requires a “substantial leap of faith.” [xiii] Nevertheless, the fact that cave painting does not limit itself to the marks associated with phosphenes and that such paintings are also “processed by different regions of the visual cortex” [xiv] does not negate the shamanistic interpretation thesis. The modern and bourgeois impulse toward categorization and specialization did not exist in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies. Shamanistic art metabolized the complex social, existential and cultural dynamics of early humans. Lewis-Williams answers this charge by looking at the interplay of mythology and ritual in San Rock Art, [xv] arguing that posing the question as either/or (myth vs. ritual) misses the point. [xvi]
Metaphors of trance permeate many myths… Certain components of trance experience derive from the functioning of the human nervous system. For example, sensations of floating or flying in a realm above (sometimes suggested by feathers or wings) and penetrating the ground below via some sort of tunnel (or through water) are hard-wired human neurological experiences… They structure not only many San myths but mythology worldwide; all religions have an ecstatic component, though extreme altered states of consciousness are not necessarily experienced by all adherents. [xvii]
Both a collective social-narrative and an individual subjective experience permeate the work. There is no categorical separation between the unique existential individual and the collective social mythology. They both exist at one and the same time.
There is… no evidence than an independently generated mythology determined trance experience. What the San talk about after trance experiences… and what is painted in the rock shelters both concern the same spiritual realm, the one in which many myths take place… The San painted neither generalized ‘mythology’ nor specific narratives, but rather their own forays into the spirit realm. [xviii]
The idolatry of shadows
Of course there are fundamental differences between contemporary art and the art of primitive communism – but art continues to hold a dual social-spiritual functionality as well as a “profound negotiation between subjective vision and collective mythology.” Among the anthropologists it is those arguing for the shamanistic interpretation that are following a dialectical materialist approach to their subject – using empirical data toward probable generalizations of social and cultural movement. The post-structuralists, with their devotion to specificity, are trapped by their philosophical idealism. In their upside-down Platonic cave they obsess over shadows and refuse to consider the light.
[i] Referring to the humorless schoolmaster from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times – Thomas Gradgrind tormented his young wards for their impractical love for horses, flowers, etc.
[ii] Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (London and New York: Verso, 2010) 28-31
[iii] Fischer, 47
[iv] see David Whitley, Cave Paintings an the Human Spirit (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2008) and David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002)
[v] see Whitley, Lewis-Williams and Derek Hodgson, “Shamanism, Phosphenes and Early Art: An Alternative Synthesis,” Current Anthropology Volume 1, Number 5 (December 2000)
[vi] Hodgson, 866
[viii] Lewis-Williams, 132
[ix] Whitley, 47
[x] Whitely, 76
[xi] Whitley, 77
[xii] See Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God Volume 1: Primitive Mythology (London and New York: Penguin, 1991
[xiii] Hodgson, 870
[xiv] Hodgson, 869
[xv] Lewis-Williams, 105
[xvi] Lewis-Williams, 105
[xvii] J.D. Lewis-Williams, “Rock Art: Myth and Ritual, Theories and Facts,” The South African Archeological Bulletin Volume 61, No. 183 (June 2006) 107
[xviii] J.D. Lewis-Williams, 108
"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.