The faux pas of primitivism

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“Lascaux 170”by Ma Boîte à Image is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In post war France, prehistoric art got people talking. At least it got intellectuals talking, but this being France we can imagine that the zone of interest was widespread. The basis for this post, about primitivism in the years following the Second World War, is an important paper by Douglas Smith called Beyond the Cave.

While many in France thought they’d found the origins of humanity, three figures called into question the simplicity of that conclusion: Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and René Char. Smith quotes poet Char on the dubious quest for orgins: “Cette espérance de retour est la pire perversion de la culture occidentale, sa plus folle aberration.” (This hope of going back is the worst perversion of western culture, its maddest aberration.) But all three writers complicate the notion of origins. They assert, in various ways, with critical subtlety, that the works at Lascaux are both origins and originary non-origins. Bear with it.

Smith concludes that Lascaux was indeed an ‘impossible origin’, given the efforts of the parties who wanted to find the descendants of the modernist White Cube in the Hall of the Bulls. This was the general idea behind the second wave of primitivism in French culture in the 1940s and 1950s. In the first wave, modern artists looked to exotic cultures for the origins of modernism. But now, figures like artist Jean Dubuffet, photographer Brassaï, and architect Le Corbusier were taking inspiration from the indigenous primitivism of prehistoric art, as if the first artists were already modern without realising it.

Writer, politician and former Resistance fighter, Andre Malraux claimed that the caves at Montignac were used as an arms cache for his comrades in arms. Lascaux was thought to be a place of anachronistic goodness. This was to ascribe a spurious innocence to prehistoric art, in the face of the guilt which humanity shares in the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

How authentic is cave painting?

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I have been reading a correspondence between Spanish academic José Díaz Cuyás and Dean MacCannell. MacCannell is a former soixante-huitard who lost faith in a 1960s style Revolution. But as he observes, some fifty years later: “‘The revolution’ and especially the romantic figure of the revolutionary is a myth that effectively disables the left today.”

The public are not totally alienated consumers, as Marx suggests, but more like ‘readers’ (Cuyás) faced with supermarket shelves rather than books. There will be no uprising of organised workers, as in Russia in 1917. But there are still ways to fight climate change, to accommodate migrants and to one day depose the right wing populists who govern us.

In 1976 MacGannell published The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. In doing so he instituted an entire field of academic research, tourism studies. This too is a book about revolution. In a response to Cuyás, its author quotes a passage in which he imagines a totalizing revolution in which every habit of mind is rethought, every book rewritten, every city rebuilt. The end of capitalism is only half of this unthinkable scenario.

“And yet,” writes MacGannell, “our laws have undergone total change and our cities have been rebuilt block by block. Our masterpieces are remade in each new genre.” So might I also add, our paleolithic  art has been thoroughly replicated, and  reinterpreted. In this light my history of the caves and their mediation could be a history of revolutions.

And while we may bemoan our lost access to the caves, our passive alienation under capitalism, and our confinement within hyperreal simulacra, MacGannell argues it was ever thus: “No human group, not even the most primitive, has ever lived in anything resembling objective reality.” So if prehistoric art marks the very emergence of the symbolic order, access for its original audience was in a sense as indirect as ours.

Perhaps MacGannell believes it naïve to want authenticity. He writes: “Without the symbolic, society does not exist”. It underpins science as well as art. It gives us language, law, face to face interaction with other subjective beings. And ironically, one presumes, without it we would be too primitive to ascribe any value to authenticity.

The author of the tourist even refers to cave painting in his prescription for art: “When it is framed as a vital organ of the symbolic, from the first outline of an animal on the wall of a cave, down to the present day, for better and for worse, all art must engage its audience and continuously demand that its audience complete it.”

Whether or not it be ‘art’, I intend to demonstrate that 20thand 21stcentury audiences have completed the works found in Franco-Cantabrian caves in a number of ways.

Lascaux: an intangible monument

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I’ve been reading an essay by Rosemary J Coombe about world heritage in an age of neoliberal politics.

Whereas a monolithic state may once have strived to preserve monumental artefacts and artworks of supposed universal appeal, we now have a web of agencies both within and outside of government that connect around artefacts that may not even be tangible.

Efforts to preserve a rare language or a local cuisine are now validified, and the actors who lobby to give them listed status with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are as likely to be from the community as from the corridors of bureaucratic power, or so it is hoped.

Intangible cultural heritage even has an acronym (ICH) and ICH has comprised many of the efforts of a 21stcentury UNESCO, in a bid to redress the 19thcentury bias towards Western Europeans which ‘monumental heritage’ is said to represent.

  • But what about a monument which is 20,000 or even 40,000 years old? Is it possible to ‘inherit’ culture which predates written history?
  • If Lascaux is closed to the public, and virtualised in the form of digital reproductions and multiple nearby replicas, how tangible do the original caverns become?
  • And given the little we know about correlatives to the parietal art (which many believe included storytelling, music and/or dance), is Lascaux largely intangible? If so, do the caves represent lost ICH?

Whatever the case, one cannot today conceive of Lascaux without UNESCO World Heritage Status. Even if it remains to be seen how the network of bureaucrats and heritage practitioners line up to support its preservation, presentation, and promotion around the world.

The Minister for Culture may once have closed the caves to the public , but the arrangement in place to keep them closed is described by Coombe as an ‘assemblage’ of interests from the public-private, local-national-and-global joint ventures who compete and collaborate to manage the site at Montignac.

How French is Lascaux?

cheese and salami

In a hypothetical word association game, I predict that food, the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa would all get a mention long before Lascaux. The cave at Montignac seems French only insofar as a specimen of moon rock appears to be American.

Today I was reading about the heritage industry and wondering just who might be the heirs to Lascaux. Surely it was once recognisably ‘French’. Indeed it is said to have been a prop in the post-war rebuilding of the nation. See Douglas Smith (2004) on the New Primitivism of the 1940s and the 1950s and the reconciliations of Lascaux, modern art and tradition.

But now, sealed off, and replicated several times, the 17,000 year old cavern resides on a UNESCO list of Sites of Outstanding Universal Value. It belongs to us all, in theory. But this ‘world heritage’ status is ironic given that only a handful of scientists see Lascaux first hand.

If we are heirs to the world’s first art, we have to put up with the idea that it is held in trust for us in perpetuity. Easier to inherit the intangible pleasures of French gastronomy, be you French or not, than the mysterious paintings of Lascaux, so hard to domesticate.

Review: Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1991)

Although Latour’s contentious book is a mere 145 pages long (in fact he calls it an essay), the notion that, after one reading, this fledgling researcher is qualified to review this for you feels like hubris. However, We Have Never Been Modern reads like a manifesto and, as such, the pages call for a response.

Latour is known as a thinker within the canny niche known as science studies. It is a branch of enquiry which shares with anthropology an interest in human cultures and examines networks in order to grasp the impact, and limitations, of science. Put this way, science studies appears to be a somewhat marginal endeavour. But the arguments set out in this title, put the specialised discipline centre stage as Latour gets to grips with the differences between premodern societies and the modernism in which technology seems to have wrenched us away from nature. (That’s an oversimplification to be sure).

Science studies appears to offer a way out of some dead ends which have arisen from modernist thinking and which lead to the playful branch of nihilism we call postmodernism. But the disenchantment of the world appears to be greatly exaggerated. In our attempts to be modern, we are wallowing in a certain self pity, a certain self-dramatisation. Says Latour:

“Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world? Haven’t we frightened ourselves enough with the poor European who is thrust into a cold soulless cosmos, wandering on an inert planet in a world devoid of meaning? Haven’t we shivered enough before the spectacle of the mechanized proletarian who is subject to the absolute domination of a mechanized capitalism and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, abandoned smack in the middle of language games, lost in cement and formica? Haven’t we felt sorry enough for the the consumer who leaves the driver’s seat of his car only to move to the sofa in the TV room where he is manipulated by the powers of the media and the postindustrialized society?! How do we love to wear the hairshirt of the absurd, and what even greater pleasure we take in postmodern nonsense.” Latour (1991) p.115

Unsurprisingly this is one of the easiest passages in a thesis which, at times, is so topographical that only a scientistic diagram will do. Indeed Latour uses diagrams to map the relations between nature and society, different types of relativism, principles of asymmetry between nature and society, the origins of the divide between nature and society, and so on. If these visuals and the dogged investigative text have a single message, it might be this: the perceived divide between the West and the rest of the world comes down to a rupture brought about by revolutions in science. These changes in the Western self image, date back to Hobbes and Boyle and their experiments with the air pump in the 1660s. There is a scientistic culture originating with these findings, which now sets us apart from the world’s various ‘primitive’ or premodern peoples. So the circumstances around the creation of scientific revolutions are clearly a field which bears examination. This exploration of context is the vital activity of science studies.

Latour’s book was written in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an event which bookends the whole essay and, according to the author, it reflects, “the conjoined failure of socialism and naturalism”(ibid, p.145), as if neither society nor nature can win out in the false opposition between these two terms. In this context, by way of conclusion he writes:

“If we do not change the common dwelling, we shall not absorb in it the other cultures that we can no longer dominate, and we shall be forever incapable of accommodating in it the environment we can no longer control.” (ibid, p.145)

This call for inclusivity and environmentalism has never been more relevant. But it strikes the reader that since 1989 there have been two more ruptures in the march of history: 9/11 and digital tech. It will be interesting to see if Latour’s later works get to grips with a social landscape that could not be guessed at when pundits, like Francis Fukuyama, were predicting the end of history in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Latour, it should be noted clearly doesn’t buy this. In fact this book attacks the notion of a “coherent temporal flow” (ibid, p141).

Whatever your interests, this book is compelling and one of Latour’s strengths is to give his writings personal relevance. This is apparent from the opening line here: “On page 4 of my daily newspaper, I learn…” (ibid, p1). But since my own research interest is the work of paleolithic man, it opens vistas which previously one might not have previously dared consider. If we have never been modern, perhaps we have never been prehistoric. His is an essay, and a call to arms, that will bear re-reading and I hope to find new applications for it in the field of archaeology; a discipline growing ever more technologically advanced around the study of prehistoric caves.

I’m keen to hear from anyone else who’s read Latour. If I’ve got anything wrong, do point it out. And if you have any observations or additional points of interest, the comments section is always open!

 

A neanderthal in agnès b.

Last week I visited the Neandertal exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. The show was instructive and lively. And reasonably busy, for a Friday morning. There is clearly public interest in our nearest prehistorical kindred. Just why this should be, I’ll hazard a guess at the end of this post.

There wasn’t too much about parietal art. But I did learn plenty which cast a new light on the eras in which Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira were created. Perhaps you already knew, but Neanderthals were the first hominid species to bury their dead. Neanderthals and homo sapien interbred and as a result most of us have a slice of their DNA. And given that, it is a disturbing fact that our evolutionary cousins practiced cannibalism.

At the end of the show we were met by this young woman, the work of French sculptor Elisabeth Daynès. She has the physique of a neanderthal, but the gaze and the expression of a contemporary. More confusing still, she’s dressed in a Parisienne fashion brand, agnès b. In her left hand is a magazine in which she graces the front cover. She’s so smart and upbeat, one is quickly drawn to her. But then since she also looks something less than fully human, one becomes confused and slightly spooked.

There are any number of neanderthal mannequins in museums around the world. Some of them may be made by Daynès, since that is her artistic focus. But the neanderthals who take their place in your average archaeology display are beetle-browed savages; a world away. But his cave person walks among us, the most stylish individual in sight. This sculptor highlights our common ground. Then leaves it to you to sense your radical difference from this model.

So how can a major museum sustain a major show on a topic like this? Well, for a start there is a greater interest in prehistory in France. The country has much of the world’s most celebrated cave art. And, I saw for myself that Bookshop Gilbert Joseph, on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, boasts an entire section given over to the Stone Age. But perhaps more than anything, Neandertal fascinates because its subjects are extinct. They are as tragic as dodos, and perhaps more instructive. Hard to imagine a future in which we feature in a museum display, but surely we must hope there is one.

Neandertal is at the Musée de l’Homme until 7 January 2019.

L’abbé Breuil and Bisonte cigarettes

Henri Breuil (1877-1961) has been called the father of prehistory. Little known in the UK, he should really take a place alongside Freud, Darwin and Marx as one of the scientists who sent shockwaves through 20th century thought; he changed the way we see our place in the world for good.

Breuil was a cleric, a scientist, and an artist. His copies of prehistoric parietal art gave the public its first glimpse of subterranean masterpieces aged between 20,000 and 40,000 years, He is reputed to have spent 800 days underground, at sites like Lascaux and Altamira. And he squared the facts of prehistoric life with his Catholic faith, just as he put his gifts as an artist or copyist at the service of his scientific mind.

Some work was done on the back of a proverbial fag packet. Having spent this week at the archive of the Muséum nationale d’Histoire naturelle, I come away with an uneasy sense that the first draft of prehistory was written on miscellaneous scraps of paper. Breuil threw away nothing and wrote, and drew, on whatever came to hand. But whereas his subjects reached for bone, antler, and rock face, Breuil was happy with recycled calendar pages and wine lists. From time to time, at least.

Breuil even writes on a literal fag packet (see picture): “Ce qu’on a fait de mon bison d’Altamira!”. In some other words, Zut alors! Look what they’ve done to my Altamira bison! This iconic image, from the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art in Northern Spain, echoes one of Breuil’s own copies. In his lifetime he published some 600 drawings, watercolours, pastels or oils. Plenty of material to inspire a graphic designer. It can be clearly seen that the newfound facts about man’s long history were marketable enough to sell a product with the clear potential to shorten your future.

Breuil was, by all accounts, a chain smoker. But it is hard to know what he felt about this instance of cultural theft. At least, the cigarette packet, as seen in box BR-7, demonstrates that knowledge percolates out of the academy by unexpected means. And that cave painting, a matter of national pride in Spain upon the discovery of Altamira, is no less likely a marketing hook than the 14m high roadside bull silhouettes which have, since 1957, advertised Sherry in Spain. But this love of the bovine goes way back.

If this has reminded you of any other marketable reproductions of cave art, please send them through to me at mark [at] criticsimsim [dot] com.

Q&A: Anna Jaxe

As a Brighton-based blogger, criticismism is underpaid when compared to millionaire video blogging neighbours like Zoella or PewDiePie. So I’ve been quite curious about the format, and keen to see if the moving selfie can work for art.

Well, the good news is that it can. As demonstrated ably by Anna Jaxe, whose Creoddity channel on YouTube contains posts with 10,000 or even 20,000 views. Her appreciative audience proves an appetite out there for demystifying the life of an artist, or hers at least.

I spoke with Jaxe via Skype from her London studio as she prepared for two forthcoming art fairs. 

criticismism: You’ve showcased plenty of artists on your channel, do you feel you’ve got enough from it for yourself?

Anna Jaxe: I kind of took a bit of a break from making those videos. I hadn’t realised how much of my life it had taken up. And in that break I’ve started to really focus on my own work. And I think I needed that. But I thought, while I was doing the channel before, that if I was more of a success myself, it would probably mean more for other artists anyway in the future.

c: Do you still enjoy blogging?

AJ: Yeah, really. I’ve just started making videos again but it’s very much a side thing. I want to focus on what I’m actually making so, in a way, to show people what I’m doing. I think, to be honest, if I’d seen that when I was 20 or something it probably would have helped me to navigate around where to start being an artist, do you know what I mean? I think in doing this it might help others.

c: Did you study art?

AJ: Actually I did most of a degree and then I left in my 3rd year. But there was something about art education that I never really got on with, to be honest. I was never really 100 percent in with it. I can’t really put my finger on why.

c: The art school crit format sounds quite brutal…

AJ: That is quite intense, isn’t it. But that’s also the most useful part of it. Because you do get bogged down in your own head. That’s why, making work now, I ask for feedback. It’s too much in a bubble otherwise. But I think it would’ve helped me more to do an internship with an artist or a gallery. If the study was integrated with real life experience it might have helped me more

c: Just how much hard work is vlogging?

AJ: It takes over your life. I would say a couple days a week. You have to get an idea for a video and then prep the video and then make the video and edit it and then upload it and you have to also do comments online and then be really active on social media which takes up a lot of time. It’s really two days out of my week and if I wasn’t practically doing something I was thinking about it

c: Does art need a conversation around it, for example in the blogosphere?

AJ: That’s an interesting question. I think it’s the same in any creative industry, because I mean theatres have the same thing, don’t they? Music even. People write about those. I just think it’s just inspiring to read how other people think, regardless of whether it’s artwork or an album or a stage production.

c: No one ever got too intimidated by a record…

AJ: The whole idea why I’ve wanted to base all my art upon music… It’s because music is there to appeal to the masses, isn’t it? I mean I suppose there are music artists who don’t want to do that. But one song can reach all four corners of the earth and be interpreted in a million different ways. So a musician will build a song to be accessible to lots of different people. Recently people have stopped saying ‘he’ or ‘she’ in mainstream pop music, maybe for that reason, to appeal to more people regardless of sexuality or gender orientation. I think that’s what I like about music.

c: Can art be too accessible?

AJ: I don’t think so. I mean, the opposite, for me, of accessible art is the art that people use to better their status. I don’t think there is much good about that.

c: So why are people drawn to difficult art?

AJ: I think people buy for status. I mean I might be wrong. I’ve never sold a painting for a ridiculous amount of money. Those people are sometimes advised by other people. It’s a wise investment.

c: The art market is one thing, but does it govern the structure of the art world?

AJ: I think I would picture the art world as a hierarchy. But I’m not sure how, if you are on one level, you can change to go on the next level. I wouldn’t say it’s like a ladder; you can start at the bottom and go to the top. You can probably make a living from doing art fairs and stuff like that, but it doesn’t mean you can end up exhibiting at Frieze.

c: Would you rather sell a painting or show a painting?

AJ: Show a painting

c: But you’ve sold recently and met collectors…

AJ: Yeah,that’s really exciting. Generally I’m quite shy. I don’t enjoy meeting lots of new people. But I’ve found that, when I’ve got my art behind me, I really enjoy the process of meeting people. ‘Cos then they are really open and they just want to ask you questions. Most people have some kind of connection with a music instrument, for example. They can look at a trombone and say, ‘My cousin plays the trombone’. So, however loose it is, they have an instant connection with what’s there.

Anna Jaxe, aka Creoditty can be found IRL at two forthcoming fairs: Roy’s People Art Fair at Candid Arts Trust, between 14-17 September 2017; and #TRIBE17, the international fair organised by Chrom-Art at the Bargehouse in the OXO Tower; both events are in London.

Phil Collins, dűnya dinlemiyor (2005)

Dűnya dinlemiyor is Turkish for The World Won’t Listen, which as you may know is a 1987 compilation album by The Smiths. At the time of release, the world was listening. The album was a chart hit.

And that was just in the UK. As this work by artist Phil Collins reveals, the sentiment and the message of the album reverberated all the way from Columbia to Indonesia via Turkey.

The Turkish installation of this epic project was filmed over several days in an Istanbul nightclub, to which fans of The Smiths were invited to sing along with a karaoke backing to the 18 track album.

Thanks to the efforts of these volunteers, 30 years on, the audience for this work will be able to listen more closely to an album which Morrissey appeared to predict the world would ignore.

He was loved him all the more for it. And his imitable persona has made the 2,000 mile journey from Manchester for this hour long film. A local, for example, performs with a back pocketful of flowers.

More interesting than the inevitable Moz impersonators, are the millennials who take part in this exercise with good cheer. There Is A Light That Never Goes is joyous, rather than maudlin.

In a similar vein, we have a hard rocking version of London and a version of Half A Person which is equally good for a giggle. It’s comedic to be a Turk singing about Euston station or the YWCA.

When it’s not being funny or being awkward, dűnya dinlemiyor is a moving reprisal of a collection of songs that take one back to the 1980s, via this highly circuitous cultural route.

The final track on the album, Rubber Ring, features a warning that until now was buried in time: “Don’t forget the songs that made you laugh and the songs that made you cry.”

The singer is a middle aged goth who gives her all to the final performance of this artwork. Either she can’t let go of the music of The Smiths, or she has moved on and felt the consequences.

This work can be seen in Now, Today, Tomorrow and Always at Towner, Eastbourne, until October 8 2017. The show is an Arts Council Collection National Partner Exhibition.