I'm interested in the psychology of art--why people do it, what it's meant to represent, and what people hope to accomplish with it. These are broad questions that I think have deep applications, at least toward understanding the nature of creativity and innovation. I am especially interested in our early ancestors, pre-agricultural (Paleolithic) and early agricultural (Neolithic) peoples. What was their relationship to art? How did art for them bridge the ineffable gap between their own activities and the natural (or supernatural) world? How did they come to make art?
Some of these questions I explored in earlier posts like "Why Do People Make Art?" And "A Biology of Sculpture?" It's interesting to me that my ideas about these questions keep evolving. My understandings (or misconceptions) continue to evolve and refine themselves.
In "Biology of Sculpture" I began to write about the transition from stone tools to figurative sculpture. I'd like to pursue that further here.
These thoughts are influenced in part by some readings I did this summer for the NEH seminar on Mesoamerica and the Desert Southwest. There were a couple of readings that discussed corn "celts" and their symbolic significance. Shaped like giant kernels of maize, celts were a symbol of power and wealth. Where a single kernel of maize held significance of its own, for example reproductive power, sustenance, and continuation, a kernel-shaped celt might represent a whole storehouse of maize. Or several storehouses, or the supply of a whole village. A kind of magnification of meaning, an amplification of value is inherent in the celt. But it is still abstract and highly symbolic.
What about a stone or wood or clay effigy? Perhaps one that connotes fertility, strength, or abundance? My guess is that effigies like these arose from, or were perhaps formed from used tools. They represent a leap from one kind of human control over the environment to another. Imagine a stone tool and its many capabilities. Digging, cutting, puncturing, furrowing, separating, scraping. All of these activities would extend the agency, the capability, the strength of the human hand. Effigies could do much more.
The tools of our ancestors are physically, aesthetically beautiful in and of themselves. They possess grace, balance, and a profound personal character that comes from the intimate contact our ancestors had with them. Here's my hypothesis: As our ancestors developed cultural understandings of the natural world and their agency upon it--they began to develop ideas connected to a supernatural force--something that went beyond their own ability to dig, scrape, and cut. They came to some understanding of forces beyond them that controlled or allowed their ability to reproduce, to obtain food, and to continue their lineage. And they wanted some connection to that control.
Perhaps this is when they started to reshape their tools into effigies--an exercise that represented a profound change in their relationship with nature and with themselves. By sculpting "supertools," figures that connected with the supernatural, our ancestors sought to build a bridge between their efforts and the uncontrollable environment they wanted to influence. Supertools, which somehow became objects of veneration-objects imbued with power--allowed our ancestors to somehow possess some of that power themselves.
As our ancestors continued to refine their art they sought greater control over it and over their world. Eventually this translated into their design of space and the built environment, large-scale coordinated artistic activities that accommodated and in a sense, embodied ritual.
The photos below project a kind of time-line of change from tool to effigy. And ultimately, to writing.