Friday, October 31, 2014

The Asian Artistic Tradition

The Power Of Narratives.

There has been an interesting discovery of prehistoric art made in caves of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi that has thrown some doubt on the long-accepted narrative of how art originated as a practice and as an indicator of the development of abstract thinking in the evolution of the human mind. Until this most recent discovery, the oldest examples of cave art had only been found in Western Europe and have been dated back to around forty-thousand years. The Sulawesi cave art is at least as old - if not older - than all of the cave art found in Europe.

Although interesting in and of itself, there is another aspect to the phenomenon of prehistoric cave art that is worth talking about. I have written many times about how history and the historical experience are cornerstones of culture and identity. Personal history defines our individual view of the world and is further shaped and given context by the norms outlined by cultural narratives of society that are drawn from the historical experience. For instance, our American historical experience of fighting against unjust British rule contributes to the ongoing cultural narratives of  freedom-loving American individuals who reject and stand up to tyranny at home and in the world, fostering a national identity of a society of individuals who are fundamentally on the proper side of moral choice who make personal decisions based on an internal mechanisms of reason, and not some social conditioning determined by factors beyond our immediate consciousness. It's all about the narrative.

As this interesting documentary from the BBC suggests, cave art marks a point in human cognitive development when the race began to see, and express through art, deeper meanings in the objects and things around them and thus expand their understanding of their place in the world through abstract thinking about the real world. In other words, cave art reflects an awareness of differences between humans and other animals, hence, art is the indication of an evolving or developing agency. In Western thinking, this notion of personal agency has been a huge influence on social and political ideas.

On the positive side, personal agency lies at the root of the idea of individualism and the concept of individual rights. At the same time, imperialism and white supremacist thinking have justified themselves partly by denying or downplaying the existence of, or potential for, personal agency among the world's non-white races. Although these ideas existed long before the discovery of prehistoric European cave art, the idea that Europeans "invented" art and, thus, became the first group or race to make the cognitive leap into a more sophisticated conceptualization of agency, fits nicely into the narrative of the mature and superior agency of the white race.

As this BBC article covering the story suggests, European cave art marks a significant milestone in human cognitive ability, the implication being that there was some kind of tradition of European reason that can be traced all the way back to the prehistoric era......
For decades, the only evidence of ancient cave art was in Spain and southern France. It led some to believe that the creative explosion that led to the art and science we know today began in Europe.
Similarly, the BBC documentary proposes a narrative that implies a continuity of creative lineage from the cave art of prehistoric France to the remarkable sculpted megaliths of Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey several thousand years later, that extends further back into antiquity the more familiar  narrative of Western Civilization beginning in what is now Iraq - a region that somehow was "western" in antiquity, but is now Middle Eastern.The narrative implies continuity and associations that can only be described as hopeful and tenuous. But it all supports the narrative and that is what is important.

The BBC article again.....
The discovery of 40,000-year-old cave paintings at opposite ends of the globe suggests that the ability to create representational art had its origins further back in time in Africa, before modern humans spread across the rest of the world........"That's kind of my gut feeling," says Prof Stringer. "The basis for this art was there 60,000 years ago; it may even have been there in Africa before 60,000 years ago and it spread with modern humans".
The cynic within wonders if the idea of an Asian origin to art and reason is such anathema to the western narrative (and present-day political sensibilities) that accepting Asia as the birthplace of creative expression is like daylight to a vampire. No, if Europe can't be the birthplace of art (and subsequently science), then the Asians certainly won't be allowed to claim it! They would rather give it to Africa.

Yet, the BBC documentary contradicts this hypotheses that there needs or is likely to be  common African origin. According to it, the imagery of cave art is the result of stimuli on the human brain that is experienced during "trance-like" episodes. That's why, it is suggested, cave art from 30,000 years ago in France resembles cave art from Africa 2,000 years ago - shaman enter the trance-like state and return with trippy ideas that they then paint onto the walls of caves. Similarity between cave art as distant as France is from Indonesia need not mean a common origin elsewhere - it could be the result of a common human physiological response to trance-like states possibly induced by hallucinogens (why else would - or could - anyone crawl into the deepest, darkest, recesses of prehistoric caves to draw polka dot covered animals and stencils of their hands unless they were fucked.up).

But cynicism aside, it is hard not to notice the parallel of the white-washing of Asians out of this country's  cultural narrative (itself occasionally a feat of historical revisionism) and what seems to amount to a similarly aversive ad-hoc denial of Asia as the birthplace of art. If it makes people feel any better about it, it is likely that the Asians who produced this ancient rock art were of a different ilk to present-day Asians.