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Jean Clottes

WHAT IS PALAEOLITHIC ART?

Cave Paintings and the Dawn of Human Creativity


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Clottes is an archaeologist who has probably seen more prehistoric art than anyone else, and here he offers his view of what it means. The book was published in French in 2011 with the title Pourquoi l'art prehistorique?. Why the present publishers chose to change this for the English translation isn't clear since Clottes was certainly concerned with answering the why question.

Not everyone agrees that it is even possible to know why our prehistoric ancestors made these extraordinary pictures in the way they did, but many people have put forward hypotheses to explain the work. These include art for art's sake (now largely out of favour), totemism, and sympathetic magic to assist in hunting, to preserve animal fertility, or to eliminate dangerous predators such as lions and bears. But Clottes finds all of these to be wanting or at least incomplete. He favours the view that an essential clue to understanding prehistoric art is shamanism. In this he is taking the same approach as David Lewis-Williams, with whom he has collaborated a good deal over many years.

The parietal art of the Ice Ages and the beliefs that prompted their creation as we know it simply cannot be reduced to a single explanation, regardless of which it is … In all likelihood [the artists] held shamanistic beliefs. Here, there is a very broad explanatory framework. It cannot explain the details of of the representations or their precise significance, but it can account for a multitude of observations that render it credible, and it fits harmoniously within the array of human religions.

There are just three chapters plus a conclusion. Chapter 1 reviews the various hypotheses that have been suggested. Chapter 2 is cast in the form of a travelogue and describes Clottes's journeys on different continents—the Americas, Australia, Africa—to see more recent rock art and often to talk to the artists concerned. Chapter 3 is about the palaeolithic cave paintings themselves, although Clottes makes the important point that these are all that remain from what was almost certainly a much larger amount of artistic activity in the open air that has not survived.

I began this book with a sense of pleasurable anticipation but I have to say that I found it disappointing. The tone is rather flat and uninspiring and the treatment is often rambling and lacking in precision. For example, the concept of shamanism is central to the argument but is never defined or even discussed critically, yet it is something on which there is much scholarly disagreement; see, for example, Shamans, by Ronald Hutton. And Clottes makes frequent references to the equally contentious term "spirituality", for which he does offer a definition but not one that I found very helpful.

To keep things clear, an initial problem is to define the concepts of spirituality and art. Rather than compiling the countless attempts that have been made to do this, it seems preferable to take their lowest common denominator. Spirituality can be regarded as the awakening of a thought that goes beyond the circumstances of everyday life, the mere adjustment to material necessities demanded by foraging, reproduction and survival. Human beings begin to pose questions about the world around them, and that is the essential point. They will often seek a reality other than that perceived by their senses, to which - like the animals from which they are descended—they have always responded instinctively. Here, we are not very far removed from art.
I think this definition would do quite well as a defintion of science. The problem may be in part one of translation: "spirituality" has a rather different connotation in French from what it does in English. And at another point things become even more difficult, when Clottes introduces the terms "etic" and "emic". Wikipedia tells me that these were coined in 1954 by the linguist Kenneth Pike and were later applied by anthropologists to describe how local peoples think. Possibly they are more familiar to a general audience in France, but I think they required an explanatory footnote for the English edition.

Anyone with even a moderate interest in palaeolithic art will probably want to read this book because of the depth of knowledge of its author, but I found my interest flagging and I had to make an effort to keep reading. For a fuller and more convincing account of the shamanistic hypothesis Lewis-Williams's book would be a better choice.

28-06-2016


%T What is Palaeolithic Art?
%S Cave Paintings and the Dawn of Human Creativity %A Clottes, Jean
%I The University of Chicago Press
%C Chicago and London
%D 2016
%G ISBN 13:978-0-26663-3
%P 207pp
%K archaeology
%O half-tone illustrations
%O translated by Oliver Y. Martin and Robert D. Martin
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