I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the past. For better or for worse, I'm more of a future-oriented person. So I'm not usually grabbed by stories about what happened a long, long, time ago.
But I gotta say, the New Yorker story about the cave paintings, well, that created an exception for me.
I knew there were cave paintings, but I didn't know they were so freaking old - like, what, 32,000 years old? That is something crazy. And it sounds dumb, but I didn't know the paintings were so beautiful.
A photo from the Lascaux cave. (According to Wikipedia, this image is in the public domain.)
Judith Thurman wrote the essay, and she made the pictures sound so interesting -- she made them sound, indeed, beautiful.
One of the things she describes is the academic infighting over what the correct interpretation of the paintings is, and over whether there ever could be a correct interpretation of the paintings, given how little we know about the people who made them.
In a way reading about the debates made me feel very powerfully how much the paintings are "art" just in the same way the stuff in the MOMA or the Pompidou is.
You've had this experience? You're in a museum, and you read some curator's description of some artwork, and you feel both grateful for some context, without which the work seems diminished, but simultaneously skeptical, because the context you're being offered seems, itself, immediately diminishing. And you read the interpretation offered, and you think, "Really? The artist meant to question the politics of abstract expressionism? How do you know? And what makes you think it's so simple?"
The two main interpretations of the paintings Thurman talks about are 1) that they are spiritual/religious/tied to rituals and 2) that they are the pre-historic equivalent of graffiti -- created by teenagers looking to make their mark and get laid.
You see what I mean about creating context, but also diminishing the art? Before I encountered these interpretations, I had a lot of fun imagining these early artists, getting all exciting to make their paintings.
'Cause really, doesn't making these things just seem really cool and fun? Lots of the pictures are highly emotive, most of them depict animals and not people, and lots of them show a kind of animated sense of movement. And they're in caves. You'd have had to struggle to get there, and everything would be seen by the light of fire.
If you could take some pigment, and go into some crazy cave with a bunch of other people, and create this utterly singular experience for people -- how cool and weird is that? If you could do that, you would, and it would be awesome.
Thinking that makes me feel very connected to these artists in a way that the interpretations don't.
The other great thing in the Thurman essay is when she's talking about the intended audience, and she points out that part of that audience is us. This is a deliberate attempt on the part of the artists to connect not only with their ancestors, and their contemporaries, but also with their descendants -- to make something we would look at.
That kind of gave me a chill down my spine.
It makes me want to say,
Dear prehistoric cave painters,
We think the paintings are awesome and beautiful. We understand why you left them for us. And we are so grateful that you did.
Thinking of you,