We live in a world that is saturated with images. We take them for granted and can hardly imagine a world without them. Just look around the page you're reading this blog on. Logos, ads, photographs, symbols, video, art -- they're everywhere -- telling us what to do, where to go, how to dress, what to buy and what to think. We churn out new images at an unbelievable rate with 24-hour news cycles, digital technology, internet, films and print media. These images have the power to inform, entertain and inspire us -- or conversely, misinform, repulse or terrify us.
But how and why did ancient humans take that first step toward capturing three-dimensional reality in a two-dimensional space? How did people who had never seen a two-dimensional image know what they were looking at? How have those images from ancient times evolved over the course of human history and shaped the world we live in?
These are some of the questions that the epic five-part BBC series, How Art Made the World sets out to answer. Dr. Nigel Spivey takes us on an incredible journey across five continents and countless millennia to examine the origins of human creativity and how images have influenced and even formed our society. Spivey, a classical archeology professor, attempts to answer these questions by presenting theories augmented by recent findings in archeology, anthropology, art history, psychology and neuroscience.
Spivey begins with the Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000 year old statuette of a female figure, discovered in Austria in 1908. He theorizes that the statuette, with its exaggerated breasts, abdomen and vulva, is not a fertility symbol as is widely held, but evidence of a hard-wired need in early humans to represent and exaggerate the human form. From there we travel to ancient Egypt and the temple of Karnac where we begin to see the first non-exaggerated images of the human body.
Spivey transports us to Altamira in northern Spain where in 1880 a nine-year-old girl first discovered prehistoric paintings of oxen on a cave ceiling, sparking a public controversy that lasted for 20 years about whether or not the paintings were a hoax. We visit the San bushmen of South Africa, where we find similar cave paintings -- not prehistoric, but done a mere 200 years ago. Records of late 19th century interviews with the bushmen indicate that the paintings were not depictions of everyday life but of altered states of consciousness achieved in a trance-like state.
Cave painting suddenly stops about 12,000 years ago. Why? Spivey turns to the archeological site of Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey for the answer. A hill-top sanctuary erected by hunter-gatherers about the same time that cave painting stopped, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest human-made place of worship yet discovered. Huge monoliths are decorated with carved reliefs of animals and of abstract pictograms. DNA analysis of wheat shows that it was first cultivated in this very spot at the time the temple was being build. Spivey claims that farming first came about to feed the workers and the worshipers who came from all over to worship at Göbekli Tepe. This, he claims, is what sparked the agricultural revolution in human history.
We learn that Augustus Caesar was the first ruler (but certainly not the last) to promote a lie to manipulate and unite his people. In figure 1 below we see what I call "big hair Augustus," sporting the flamboyant style of the Monarchists. This style was seen as threatening to the Republicans, a more traditional and austere people. In figure 2 we see the do-over, a humbler, gentler, and more mature Augustus, the peacemaker, who was much less threatening and thus able to unite his people. He restored the outward facade of the Roman Republic, with governmental power vested in the Roman Senate, but in practice retained his autocratic power and royal lifestyle.
figure 1: Augustus Caesar, Vatican, Rome
figure 2: Augustus Caesar, Vatican, Rome
These are just of few of the highlights of How Art Made the World. One criticism I have of the series is that Spivey tends to present his theories as proven fact, when, at least from the evidence shown, they remain very interesting theories. That having been said, this series is intelligent, thought-provoking, beautifully photographed, and makes for compelling viewing. I recommend it to both the lay person, as an introduction to art history, and to the arts professional, for its substantial contribution to the dialog about how and why we make art.
Cross-posted from Jane Chafin's Offramp Gallery Blog