But is it Art?
by Han Boshi
There is no way to know with any certainty why our ancestors painted on cave ceilings tens of thousands of years ago. We simply don't have the knowledge to fully decipher their work. But what we do share with these painters is our intrinsic human nature. It weaves through all of our modern cultures and it came from somewhere. Perusing prehistoric cave paintings in Nuna Gallery-1 and understanding our own social drivers and interactions, we can imagine that they include a selection of motivations easily recognised today. The subject matter of many of the discovered cave paintings show animals, some of which were being actively hunted by our ancestors. It is easy to imagine wanting to capture being in the presence of a herd of buffalo on the move, or a family of lions on the attack. Countless pieces of contemporary art have been created to celebrate victories in battle. Success against other animals could be interpreted in much the same spirit.
Cave painting might also have served utilitarian purposes. Paintings of collections of hands (common across many cultures) may represent a form of census, a tallying of a population at a given time. There could even be a desire to leave a mark on the world that would live on after the people themselves have passed away. Hunting paintings, too, could serve utilitarian purposes. Are they an early form of recorded history? Or on a more practical level, could they be a way of comparing one season's hunt to another season's, possibly as a sort of competition with past hunters?
Animals in many of the cave paintings are portrayed in such accurate detail (amazing when you consider they were painted from memory and the canvas and paints they were using) that they suggest the possibility some of the motivation behind the paintings may have been similar to the rationales behind Da Vinci's sketches of human and animal forms. Were they studies of the animal anatomy, of their power, spiritual force, grace and sophisticated design? Were they pre-literate lessons in how animals interact within a herd and between different species? They might have been a way for our ancestors to plan out new ways to hunt, to learn from other species and improve hunting efficiency.
But, if we are being honest with ourselves, it is difficult to look at these paintings and not recognise in them a desire to create something of one's own that expresses individuality and a personal view on the world. We can readily recognise them as art. The more we learn about our ancestors, the more we discover what we have in common with them. While modern Homo sapiens may have learned new ways to harvest death and new ways to control our surroundings, our core desires—our interest in merging individuality with community, our desire to celebrate and leave a personal trace daubed on the historical record, have remained constant. It is not difficult to find a connective thread between the art left behind by women and men at the start of our path towards civilisation and the art being created today.Return to Essays