Asking about the origin of art is like opening a doorway into other dimensions. When we look for the first artists, it’s easy to get sucked into a whirlpool of evolution, popular culture, psychology, esthetics, anthropology, archaeology and even philosophy.
We’re not going to follow all those byroads. Instead, we will take a systematic, hopefully scientific approach. The first part of the discussion, today’s blog post, will define a framework for searching out the origin of art and the first artists. Next week’s post will look at the (pre)historical evidence and see what can be postulated or concluded about the first art, and the first artists who created it.
Art Versus Science
Art and science are uneasy co-habitants on the planet. For example, in 1967 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art embarked on a four-year Art and Technology program. The project’s progress report reveals how difficult it was to negotiate the economic, aesthetic and reputational goals of the museum, the artists and the companies asked to provide the technology.
As a viewer of the finished artworks at LACMA, I perceived a different sort of disconnect: the art pieces using complicated technology were inoperative most of the time. Only the works using the most basic science were usually in viewable condition. For example, a popular piece was Robert Rauschenberg’s Mud Muse, a nine-by-twelve foot vat of mud, four feet deep, through which air was bubbled in response to sounds within the gallery. If you’re interested, you can hear the bubbling sounds HERE.
However you look at it, there is a cultural gap between art and science that is almost impossible to bridge. With Rodgers and Hammerstein we might ask:
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? … How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
The Definition of Art
If we want to find the first artists, we need to know what we mean by art in the context of our discussion. How wide is the net we’re casting, anyway?
The word “Art” has a number of meanings. We can immediately eliminate Art as in Art Chester and as an archaic form of the verb to be (e.g., “How Great Thou Art”). We can also cull out “skill acquired through practice” (“the art of conversation”), “an occupation requiring skill” (“the art of organ building”), and “skillful plan” (“they employed every art to soothe…”). Among the relevant meanings, here’s what I extract from Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionaries:
Art is the application of imagination and skill to create something intended to be appreciated for its beauty or its emotive power. Art is most often used to describe visual forms such as painting or sculpture, but by extension is also applied to other creative activities.
Note that although the craft of tool-making may also be considered art, non-human animals also construct and use tools. Thus tools themselves don’t necessarily indicate the work of an artist.
Creation, Cosmology and Evolution
In our discussion of the first artists, we will need to touch on the origin of intelligent humans, or, as we call ourselves, “wise man,” Homo sapiens. [Are we misnamed? Let’s defer that question for another occasion.]
Every culture has a tradition that describes how the universe and mankind were created. The fact that scholars use the term “creation myths” does not imply that these stories should be dismissed as fictitious. On the contrary, they are generally held to convey deep truths, whether symbolic, metaphorical or literal.
Scientists themselves form a culture, as has been commented on by Richard Feynman. Those who want to think about what this really means would benefit from the view of an outsider’s view of European scientific culture, as expressed in a lecture by Prof. Sengupta of India. Suffice it to say here that Cosmology and Evolution constitute a creation myth for Western scientific culture.
Of course, science is not the only viewpoint. Those who favor a literal reading of the book of Genesis estimate the age of the universe at around 6,000 years and reject notions that mankind took eons to evolve all the way up from unicellular life forms. However, they recognize the existence of the fossil record. They explain it by proposing that when the Creator did his seven day’s work, he not only created the birds and the beasts, he also provided a few billion years worth of bones and artifacts in the ground. The Creator’s motives are not known to man. Perhaps for his own reasons he wanted to provide material that scientists could use to develop their own story of Creation, or perhaps he provided a fictitious record as a test of faith. [A Creationist would probably capitalize “he” and “his” in the previous few sentences.]
We have previously discussed that science does not, or at least should not, hold “beliefs.” A scientist, as an individual, may have faith, but should not confuse it with the analytical approach prescribed by science. For example, a scientist may choose to “believe” in the “truth” of Evolution as a matter of personal faith. However, if he does so, he has no moral ground on which to criticize a person who holds another faith, such as Creationism.
Faith derives from evidence, such as revelation or teachings; however, it does not rely upon proof. Science, on the other hand, is always questioning, always looking to prove or disprove a proposition. Science does this by adopting theories that appear to be useful, meaning theories that make predictions that turn out to agree with experiment. Scientists should be willing to discard them when they are disproven or superseded by better theories. (However, this does not generally happen smoothly.)
To seek the origin of art, we will look within the framework of Evolution. Not Evolution as a system that we assert to be true, but Evolution as a theory that appears to explain many features of the fossil record. We don’t need to choose whether Evolution truly describes the creation of humankind (I lean this way), or whether Evolution is a fictitious record left by an indulgent Creator for our study. Either way, we can work within Evolution’s framework and ask what the fossilized record suggests about how, and why, human beings came to make art.
Timeline for the First Artists
To learn something about the first artists, we need to fit them into the evolutionary record. What follows is an extremely compressed timeline for the emergence of people, including the first artists:
– 3.5 billion years ago: Prokaryotes (single-celled organisms)
– 2.1 billion years ago: Eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus)
– 590 million years ago: Animals
– 530 million years ago: Vertebrates
– 220 million years ago: Mammals
– 75 million years ago: Primates
– 15 million years ago: Great Apes (Hominid family)
– 2.5 million years ago: Humans (genus Homo)
The last two categories include many now-extinct subspecies. In our search for the first artists, there are only four of these subspecies that we need to take note of, as we shall now see.
Portrait of the First Artists
One of the later Great Apes, A. afarensis lived in East Africa from 3.9 to 2.9 million years ago. The famous fossil “Lucy,” discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, belongs to this subspecies. This creature resembled a modern chimpanzee, but walked upright like a modern human. Males averaged 4’11”, females 3’5”. So far as we know, they did not make tools. The reconstruction shown above is from a display at the CosmoCaixa Science Museum in Barcelona (courtesy of user “1997”). This photo may resemble some of the first artists, although it does not look like any artists I have met.
Homo erectus (“upright man”):
Homo erectus lived in East Africa and Eurasia from 1.9 million to 70 thousand years ago. This early species of man used primitive tools and, by about 700,000 years ago, also used fire to bake clay vessels. Its height ranged from 4’9” to 6’1”. The reconstruction above was exhibited in 2006 at Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany (courtesy of user “lillyundfreya”).
Homo neanderthalensis (“Neanderthal man,” after its discovery in the Neander valley of Germany):
Neanderthals lived throughout Europe from 400,000 to 50,000 years ago. The Human Origins website says:
“Neanderthals made and used a diverse set of sophisticated tools, controlled fire, lived in shelters, made and wore clothing, were skilled hunters of large animals and also ate plant foods, and occasionally made symbolic or ornamental objects. There is evidence that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead and occasionally even marked their graves with offerings, such as flowers.”
Neanderthal males averaged 5’5” in height, the females 5’1”.
Although the Neanderthals were not primary ancestors of modern humans, genetic studies show that they did contribute to our DNA, presumably through interbreeding. The model above of an adult Neanderthal male comes from a display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., courtesy of user “Tim1965”.
Homo sapiens (“wise man”): This, our own species, arose in Africa around 200,000 years ago. With a lighter build and larger brain that its predecessors, H. sapiens spread rapidly and eventually took over from all earlier forms of genus Homo. Our species is listed as of “least concern” on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which seems to represent the triumph of optimism over logic. We are all familiar with many examples of this species.
In next week’s blog post we shall see that, surprisingly, all four of these early hominids may be considered among the first artists.
Science Speculation. The definition of art given above is an idealized one, one that treats art as an integral part of being human. However, the creation of art can’t be separated from other activities.
Art requires the expenditure of resources, time or money that could be otherwise employed. So it’s not surprising if we discover that the first artists (or the artists’ employers) have additional intent beyond self-expression. Motivations for making art that have been proposed include:
– Social or political change or subversion
– Social causes
– Healing and therapy
– Advertisement or propaganda
– To attract a mate
As we explore the origin of art and the first artists, we will look at the physical evidence that dates back before recorded history. Not only are the first artists long dead, they generally did not leave any records of what they were thinking. Therefore as we look at prehistoric examples, we will keep in mind not only the definition of what we mean by art, but also the motivations that may have helped inspire the first artists.
Next week’s blog will show examples of work by these first artists.
Do you think we can look at the work produced by the first artists and understand their motivations? Or are we simply projecting our own notions upon them?
Australopithecus afarensis, Reproducció d’una Australopithecus afarensis a Cosmocaixa, Barcelona, Catalunya. User/photographer: “1997”
Homo erectus cropped from plastische wissenschaftliche Rekonstruktion eines Homo erectus, Westfälisches Museum für Archäologie, Herne. User/photographer: Lillyundfreya
Homo neanderthalis: A model of an adult Neanderthal male head and shoulders on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. User/photographer: “Tim1965”
Featured image: Australopithecus afarensis, Reproducció d’una Australopithecus afarensis a Cosmocaixa, Barcelona, Catalunya. User/photographer: “1997”, plus the following additions from openclipart.org: beret from “Painter penguin” by Moini, and palette and brushes from “Paint Palette” by Arvin61r58.