Tag Archives: revolution

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.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, In Revolution Politics Become Nature (1980)

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A slogan is etched into a block of stone and the stone laid on a piece of red felt. There is something somewhat reverent about this inscription; the words carry weight and are to be handled with care.

You read the title off the block. And then you read it in a different way off the plaque on the wall. Just as you would read it in a different way again, if sprayed on brickwork. It’s unstable stone.

We all have our own reading. It’s the word nature which divides the audience. Is it human nature, as the Latinate letters imply? Or is it nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ as suggested by the crimson felt?

Perhaps it is even ‘second’ nature. It is as if, after the revolution, it will become habitual to think in political terms. It is as if it would take a revolution, not an election, to wake us all up in that way.

Finlay was a poet before he was an artist. Hence the gift for ambiguity. But the plastic elements in this work only add to the secrecy of his meaning. The poet is washing his hands of your response.

But the classical lettering must tell us something. At the very least it tells us that Finlay intends for his words to be around for millennia. To a blogger such as myself, that’s frankly scary.

The five terse words have been cut by his frequent collaborator Nicholas Sloan. A classical typeface suggests classical values. Social revolution was surely never among the values of Rome.

But the line is broken in three places. The tablet can barely contain the message. And so the artist’s sentiment, be it warning or promise, threatens to break free. As do we all from time to time.

Felt is a curious choice of material, more associated with the Asiatic barbarians at the gate. Or with Jospeh Beuys, another sloganeer. Beuys made a great deal of the healing properties of felt.

So as to revolution? You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, or even stones. But perhaps you can mop up the blood. And to say as much is as natural as it is political.

This piece can be seen at Manchester Art Gallery.

Sanja Iveković, The Disobedient (The Revolutionaries) (2012)

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The fifty donkeys were cute and the labels were amusing. But it was the third element in this piece which packed a real punch. A photo of a real donkey behind barbed wire in a town square.

It was a scene was staged by Nazi authorities in 1933 as a warning not to be stubborn and buy from Jewish shopkeepers. Or you too might end up in a concentration camp.

This shot was printed in a German newspaper in 1933, but for the purposes of this show it’s been blown up and displayed as forensic evidence on a lightbox.

Suddenly the donkey becomes the most noble of beasts. And the talent of these stuffed revolutionaries, the best examples of humanity, from Benjamin to Biko, becomes intransigence.

In the catalogue to artes mundi 6, essayist Natasa Ilic reveals that Bertold Brecht worked with a small wooden donkey on his desk to remind him of a critical section of his audience.

Hardworking donkeys are the salt of the earth. Which may be why, in the US political system, donkeys are democratic. It takes a tough hide, rather than a sharp mind, to make revolution.

The burden of so many of these cuddly toys, or the figures whose name they share, is to have had endured persecution, torture and in many cases execution.

As Manca Bajec points out on culture magazine B-turn, to see this piece is to realise that donkeys are unlikely heroes. Move aside Winnie, Eeyore’s in town.

Once again Ilic highlights something interesting. At least one philosopher has linked the spirit of revolution in the early 21st century to depression, withdrawal and exhaustion.

In the absence of any horizon of positive change, we must all learn from the donkey how to endure. Our only comfort, in the austerity age, might be a soft toy and a memory.

Just by way of an interesting aside: the German authorities may have overlooked the story of Balaam and the ass when they staged their 1930s photo op.

Balaam was of course a prophet on his way to curse the Israelites when the Angel of the Lord came down to turn him back and indeed destroy him.

His equine steed, a donkey as you will know, was granted sight of the Angel. And cut a long story short, Balaam ended up blessing the Jewish homeland. Spooky or what?

Iveković is one of nine shortlisted artists in artes mundi 6. The exhibition runs in various venues in Cardiff until 22 February 2015.