The Pursuit of Knowledge through the Aesthetic

Reading “Art: A New History” by Paul Johnson

In the first chapter, Painted Caves and Giant Stones, Paul Johnson focuses on Paleolithic Magdalenian art and Neolithic Megalithic architecture, with most space dedicated to the former. His description of the earliest recorded art in caves has captured my attention and caused me to start a bucket list with ‘visit Altamira caves’ (although I will probably have to make due with the replica). There is a kind of mystical appeal in seeing these earliest artifacts of human experience and as an artist, it is impossible not to feel a kind of kinship with these distant ancestors and to sense their blood still coursing through my own veins 20,000 years later.

Sketch after Female Figure, c. 20,000 BC, sandstone sculpted figurine

Perhaps part of what makes this ancient art so intriguing is the mystery surrounding its purpose. The cave paintings are striking images and Johnson explains some of the pains that went into creating them, noting that some of the animals are 20 feet long, others painted 14 or more feet up, requiring scaffolding. Of course they were also painted in caves, which meant lamps and/or torches had to be used for lighting. We don’t know what these painting meant for humans at the time and Johnson briefly touches on some of the prevalent theories (while also suggesting their inadequacy) including utilitarian (to teach about hunting) and shamanstic (painting the prey for good luck in securing it). He suggests that it was done for their own satisfaction and that it probably caused them to think about their origin.

Sketch after Horse, c. 15,000 – 10,000 BC, cave painting in Lascaux, France

One of the things I most enjoy about this ‘new history’ is that it is a passion project for the author. Art is clearly something he has a deep personal connection to, which makes the history more engaging to read than a textbook (which it is certainly rivaling in size) – – – but still, with the gravitas of a trained historian.

Paul Johnson’s premise in this work is that “art is fundamentally about order” which he mentions in his discussion on Megalithic architecture when he suggests that humans were trying “to make sense of a chaotic universe” and asserting their own power in their destiny through creating order. This seems like a broad enough definition to encompass many different theories and is also consistent with human curiosity and thirst for knowledge. That art appears to be one of the earliest records of human scientific advancements is incredible and reminds me that, in creating art, I am joining a strong and ancient lineage of those who sought truth through the aesthetic. I hope that I too can find something true in what I create.

Sketh after painted pattern on earthenware vessel, c. 3,000 BC, China

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