Cave Paintings Are For Cave Men

Cave Paintings Are For Cave Men

I've been thinking about cave paintings lately. The first expression of human creativity. Part of my overarching theory of aesthetics links the function of art at its origin to contemporary media. Whatever art did back then it must be doing now... but, in other ways. That's the (sub)theory.

So I'm watching this TED talk about something that has fascinated me since stumbling on the cave art section of New York's Natural History Museum: the earliest human depictions of abstract symbols. The lecturer does a brilliant job of talking about the pattern of these symbols. How many of them repeat across Europe. How these graphical representations predate language - and are a kind of proto-language. She even hypothesizes that graphical representation itself is an invention from an original point in Africa.

She basically goes as far as to suggest that an Elon Musk-like caveman invented & spread graphic representation like a new Apple iPhone.

But then something kind of clicked: cave paintings are for cave paintings. The reason why the depictions of animals, abstract shapes, or fertility symbols appeared the way they did, and where they did, was because they were drawn specifically for the audience in the cave. Sometimes that's a mass audience, close to the entrance. Sometimes it's only for an esoteric audience far deeper into the cave. But the cave art was always for the cave dwellers.

There was no worry of future perception.

There was no worry of self-esteem.

There was no worry of market appeal.

The art appeared as it appeared when it appeared because it needed to appear, and communicate a certain thing in a certain way to a certain group of people.

This limited, extremely functional use of aesthetic technology is quite inspiring.

It means humans have a drive to create art - for a multitude of reasons.

It means humans make art for pragmatic, practical reasons - although the art itself extends beyond words & logic.

It means humans make art for other humans - a specific group of other humans.

It means the art comes from the medium specificity of the thing, while slavishly obeying the law of aesthetic function (art is for specific groups of people).

It's not art if it's not for a communal purpose.

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Cave paintings are for cave men in caves.

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