Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind

prehistoric art cover

Prehistoric Art:  The Symbolic Journey of Humankind by Randall White

You might recall that a few weeks ago I resolved to read more textbooks to brush up on my knowledge of art history, should I ever teach an art history survey course again.  I decided to begin at the beginning with prehistoric art, which I find a very difficult subject to teach.

I generally don't find aesthetics very interesting because I think that it's largely self-evident.  Usually I teach about the social, political, and cultural implications of art.  And also all the gossip about the artists, because that's fun.  But with prehistoric art, there isn't much in the way of gossip or socio-political implications, because we don't know much about the culture that created it.  So all I'm left with to talk about is aesthetics:  the long neck is elegant!  Etc., etc.  Ergo it's a struggle for me to spread 40,000-ish thousand years of art history out over a whole week.

That's why I thought Prehistoric Art:  The Symbolic Journey... would be a good bet.  Symbolism!  That's always interesting.  White's goal with the books seems to be convincing us all that 1. we do know a great deal about prehistoric peoples (and by "we" I mean, you know, the giant brain that feeds on all our thoughts), and 2. because of this, We can make a good guess about the meaning of prehistoric art.  Unfortunately, I find the former statement questionable and was never convinced of the latter.

The thing is, this was a really strange book.  When I first got it, it seemed like one of those TimeLife coffee table books that you get mainly for the pictures (which were fabulous, btw); so when I started reading it, the academispeak kind of blindsighted me.  This is some serious, hardcore academic writing.  I have a feeling White was trying to make it more accessible to a general audience, but he didn't succeed very well.

Once I got adjusted to White's writing style, I was able to get into the book more.  And it is chock-full of information.  I really enjoyed chapter two, actually (the title of Emile Cartailhac's essay in which he admits that the Altamira caves are genuine made me laugh out loud), but then it started to lose me.  Like I said, there are aspects inherent to prehistoric art that simply don't interest me.  Although I did find the idea that cave art was placed to correspond to good musical acoustics intriguing, for the most part archaeology and the prehistoric art studies where everything has to be categorized and labeled and measured is 1. tedious 2. boring as heck 3. seems fairly pointless, and 4. sucks the soul and enjoyment out of everything.  And please don't ask me to explain it more than that, because just typing that last sentence was painful for me.  Pick up a book on rock art or cave art and you'll see what I mean soon enough.  If you enjoy putting things into boxes, rock art is the art for you!

Ironically, the one thing I really wish White had addressed was aesthetics (although to be fair, he might have done so and I just skimmed over it).  Often in books about prehistoric art one sees statements like, "These beautiful and amazing images...," which always makes me go, "Hur?"  I mean, they're all right, but amazing?  Don't you think any other image from ye olde art history tome survey textbook is just as amazing, if not more so?  Some day I would like someone to explain exactly what makes prehistoric art so special and lickable, other than the fact that it's older than Moses. 

art history 101 reading project

So, so far my reading project hasn't been very successful, since I learned next to nothing from Prehistoric Art (admittedly, this was my own fault).  I think I'm going to read a book about a non-European Art topic next, since that is another one of my major weaknesses (and also since I haven't found a good book about Ancient Near-Eastern Art yet).  I suppose the little kiddies will just have to put up with my sub-standard understanding of prehistoric art.  Oh well!

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