I’m spending a bit of recreational time pulling out and dusting off old bits of Art and Art History from what passes from my memory and education . Why? Because the govt. has decreed that the study of Art as a subject, is pointless and I respectfully disagree.
Art it seems is old hat, worthless in this age of digitisation. As a counter view, I’d like to suggest that digitisation means we need fewer people who can do sums and a more who can evaluate and think of the next original widget; an eccentric view I grant you, but there it is.
Art is about thinking, and therefore should be relevant. Alas even Art colleges have consigned traditional art to the dustbin.
Despite that and then, this time – really old – and therefore presumably really worthless art.
Now you won’t generally find this piece, or anything of its ilk, in an art gallery, but then again you will find influences of it everywhere after Picasso. I’m alluding to neolithic and primitive art of course.
You see Primitive art wasn’t really considered art at all, at least not with a capital A, more like anthropology I suppose, but as Picasso pointed out, and then went on to demonstrate the ‘idea of primitive in Art is an illusion.’ Or to put it another way, there is no link between chronology and progress in the visual arts.
The Victorians of course saw it otherwise, Giotto was ‘better’ than his master Cimabue, and by the same token Rembrandt would be ‘better’ than Titian I suppose, but ‘worse’ than Constable. Which makes me or you better than Turner…See what I mean?
Chronological progress in art is clearly nonsense. I’ll add that to my list of reasons to dislike the Victorians.
Now, if you accept that old can be the next new thing this gets really interesting, because there are tens of thousands of years of great visual ideas out there just waiting for you to pick them up, and make of them what you will. And of course, we needn’t restrict ourselves to Western European Art , Africa, Asia, Oceana, The First Nations of the Americas , these were all – could only ever have been – visual cultures.
The piece I’ve chosen for this chat is one of my favourites, The Venus of Willendorf, thought to be some kind of fertility figure. Goddess? Shamanistic Item? Ornament? Scholars argue pointlessly about these things, but one thing’s for certain it’s definitely supposed to look female.
No, in fact I’ll rephrase that it’s Female with a capital F: pendulous breasts, pregnant belly, prominent vulva, childbearing hips; this is absolute visual clarity. Nothing in this image is superfluous, and in the visual arts, that in itself is rare.
It’s very instructive to compare the Venus of Willendorf with other depictions of women. Here’s a famous one, The Mona Lisa.
Now ask yourself which is the better visual depiction of women? The Mona Lisa has more fame, it’s arguably a more technical image to create, it’s definitely more nuanced in its composition, paletisation and so forth. But do those things really matter, or is the essential femininity of these subjects the key thing?
Tricky isn’t it? Or rather it isn’t. The Venus is clearly and far more obviously female, in fact many have argued that the Mona Lisa (and all of Da Vinci’s women for that mater), is very androgynous.
The big idea here is this: Prototype Form. That is to say the perfect visual representation of not an instance of woman such as Botticelli’s Venus, or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. but all Women.
Da vinci and Boticelli painted instances of men’s ideas of women in their time, the creator of the Venus depicted the essential nature of all women, in all ages on all continents, for ever. Quite an accomplishment.
I’m no expert, but the Venus is the same thinking behind the famous analogy of Plato’s Cave.Here’s the entry from Wikipedia:
The Allegory of the Cave, or Plato’s Cave, was presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work Republic (514a–520a) to compare “the effect of education (παιδεία) and the lack of it on our nature“. It is written as a dialogue between Plato’s brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, narrated by the latter. The allegory is presented after the analogy of the sun (508b–509c) and the analogy of the divided line (509d–511e). All three are characterized in relation to dialectic at the end of Books VII and VIII (531d–534e).
Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison; for they know no better life. The prisoners manage to break their bonds one day, and discover that their reality was not what they thought it was. They discovered the sun, which Plato uses as an analogy for the fire that man cannot see behind. Like the fire that cast light on the walls of the cave, the human condition is forever bound to the impressions that are received through the senses. Even if these interpretations (or, in Kantian terminology, intuitions) are an absurd misrepresentation of reality, we cannot somehow break free from the bonds of our human condition – we cannot free ourselves from phenomenal state just as the prisoners could not free themselves from their chains. If, however, we were to miraculously escape our bondage, we would find a world that we could not understand – the sun is incomprehensible for someone who has never seen it. In other words, we would encounter another “realm,” a place incomprehensible because, theoretically, it is the source of a higher reality than the one we have always known; it is the realm of pure Form, pure fact.
When Picasso started his affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, he saw her as the very embodiment of a Young Woman. Beautiful, vital, sensual, feminine. His study of her in a red armchair reveals his absolute mastery of the Primitive.
By thinking about prototypes, and being beyond instances (shadows as plato would have them), we can strip away all of the extraneous, unnecessary and distracting details, and visualise things as as they really are, and then as we wish them to be.
Using this type of thinking we could for instance redesign the health service to suit our current needs rather than political pre-conceptions, , re-imagine transport in this age of home working, reconsider the role of family units. Strip away the tradition, do away with the sacred cow of what we’ve always done before, and you get a clean sheet to work from.
Now that seems to me to be just the kind of thinking we need if we are going to be innovators not imitators. As Steve jobs remarked, innovators are the curious, the thinkers, the ones who immerse themselves in great ideas.
“Ultimately, it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you’re doing. Picasso had a saying: good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas, and I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”
I’m off to step outside of my cave…