Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Visual art as old as human consciousness

Peter Campbell, writing in London Review of Books about Julian Bell's new art book, Mirror of the World, observes, observes,
Mirror of the World begins with the startlingly realistic images of people and animals found on cave walls in Europe and on rock faces in Africa. They suggest that visual art can draw on an ability to find pleasure in representation that is as old as the human race, and that the move from schemata to images which depend on detailed observation came very early. Both Gombrich and Bell illustrate naturalistic heads in three dimensions from South America (Moche pots from Peru) and Africa (a bronze head from Ife). These scotch the notion that, once achieved, naturalism will always successfully challenge formalism and distortion. Some things asked of images can be arrived at only by flattening, distorting and decorating: the cartoonist’s truth, the mask-maker’s and the photographer’s are different. Bell is particularly good at finding reasons for un-naturalistic strangeness.

The main reason for un-naturalistic strangeness is to focus on something that nature does not focus on. Human consciousness, once achieved, does not ascend some perpetual ladder of capabilities. Technology improves, but apart from that, we decide what we want to think about. The cave painters of Lascaux probably had different intentions from the sculptor of the "world's oldest" abstract art. Let alone, the sculptor of the Willendorf Venus.

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