“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.
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.
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.