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The Science of the Origin of the Arts and the Aesthetic Feeling


Primitive Culture and the Use Of Magic to Cross the Abyss of Impotence

The origin of art is lost in the obscurity of time. That mysterious process took place between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. Primitive man, whose life was hard and joyless being daily struggle for survival, suddenly began to draw on the walls of caves by cutting lines on them, to put up stone and clay pillars (the proto-sculptures) and to represent scenes of hunting in theatrical action.
How does one account for these processes and their results? What caused the appearance of art?
The methods of investigating primitive culture and theorising on the problem of the origin of art are: 1) the study of archeological data and monuments of ancient culture; 2) the ethnographic study of peoples still at the primitive stage; 3) the study of atavistic forms in modern culture (superstitions, surviving ritualistic and magical ideas, etc.); 4) interpreting the ancient history of mankind; 5) theoretical "extrapolation into the past" from known later phenomena and forms of artistic culture, and 6) crossing the information gap, by theoretically fantacising, making hypotheses from known facts and checking them against new facts that come to hand.
The imitative arts began not from representation of figures but from what today is perceived as signs and symbols and what in the historical situation of the paleolithic man amounted to a duplication of the world. Examples in point are the symbols of wounds, hand prints which are "signs" of man's mastery over natural objects and "symbols" of his ability to act on the world purposively in accordance with social needs. In the early paleolithic period (40,000-50,000 years ago) the magic ritual preceding a hunt gave rise to the first symbolic representation, the "sign" of a wound which for the primitive man was a real wound anticipating, projecting and predetermining the wound to be inflicted on the quarry. The "sign" had a functional meaning: the hunter was preparing to deliver a blow at the animal hunted. That early image was in fact neither a symbol nor a sign (it did not stand for anything as a sign does), but a second reality reflecting the primitive man's world view. It was not so much an instrument of cognition as a means of forming the relationship between a primitive collective and reality through a magical change of the world.
In the history of human culture all peoples had three early images of related meaning: the hand1, a magical representation of man's function in providing food, the vulva, designating the woman's child-bearing function, and the wound, a magical realia disignating victory over the animal, success in hunting, a magical symbol of supremacy over the animal.
Thus, the earliest stage of artistic culture has to do not with signs and symbols but with the duplication of reality.
Figurativeness, representation proper are not essential, the important thing being not the sign referring us to a certain sense and meaning of phenomena but ability to cross the abyss of impotence in the face of the world effected by recreating the world which man was incapable of mastering. Magic images helped people to cope with the infinitely difficult and hazardous tasks in the real world (gaining the upper hand over animals, for example). Later, along with magical drawings there appear signs and symbols, representational figurative forms of primitive art which mark the start of art's image stage of development. It could be said that the first themes and problems in the history of art in its most ancient region were work and love (seen as child-bearing) i.e. the creative, constructive, life-giving forces of society. Ancient art glorifies man's hand as an instrument for creating key social values (dwelling, hunting weapons and food), the vulva as the means of creating new tribesmen, and the wound on the animal's body as a magic way of provoking success in hunting. These magical duplicates of reality determine the main narrative and thematic trends of the subsequent development of art in the early paleolithic period.
Magical representations (mimetic and imitative, the second hypostasis of reality) are neither signs nor images. They could be said to be magical realia. Later they evolve into sign images and these in turn into narrative images. Thus, a stone embodying an animal which provided a target for inflicting wounds later becomes a life-size model of the animal and then a sculptural image of it. Paleolithic art features the hunter, the man who provides livelihood. He watches the animal from his hiding place among the reeds (an engraving on the shoulder blade of an animal found at Maja d'Asila). That representation, for all its figurativeness, is not an image reflecting reality, not a sign replacing it but a method of duplicating reality and a magical means of mastering it. When primitive man shot arrows and threw clay balls at the representation of an animal he was performing a magical operation of "hunting". The image was identified completely, or almost completely, with the object. It was only later that the conventional cave representations of the object came to be perceived as the signs and images of the object.
Initially (for the earliest artist) the picture was not a sign, not an image of the object but the object itself, its other (magical) guise.
The process of the birth of visual art is similar to the ritualistic-magical process that gave rise to theatre. Man put on a mask or painted his face not to be a symbol or sign of an animal but to actually be that animal in a different guise, a magical embodiment of the animal. So, the earliest primitive stage of art should be described not as a sign stage but as a ritualistic-magical stage. Developed art does not expect that its images would be taken for reality. But the earliest, ritualistic-mythological stage of art, owing to the syncretic character of its products (and in particular to the fusion of artistic, religious-mythological and ritualistic-magical thinking), presupposes identification with real objects. That is to be found not only at the sources of theatre, painting and sculpture, but also at the sources of literary images. For, in calling something by its name, the primitive man gave substance to its essence.
The icon is not a sign of a deity, but a window into another world. It can be said that for a believer the icon is not a picture of god but its worldly hypostasis which enables man to communicate with him personally. The icon is a survival in modern culture of the ritualistic-ritualistic-magical stage of development. The non-sign character of the icon (which does not denote a deity, does not stand for it but is another form of its being, a window for communicating with the supreme spirit) is akin to the non-sign character of the ancient cliff drawings, which did not denote an animal but presented another form of its existence for a more intimate communication with it, for performing magical rituals on it. The non-sign cliff drawings of animals were not artistic in character and did not perform the function of art. The artistic function was "dormant" as a possibility. It was not until the 17th-19th centuries that these pictures came to be gradually perceived as highly artistic and included in the artistic heritage of mankind. That phenomenon (like any ancient process whose study takes us to the lowest genetic limit of the object, to its sources) highlights the active ontological role of artistic perception which not only involves understanding the art work but takes part in its creation. Why did it take so long to perceive the non-sign pictures as signs of an artistic culture and to include them within the body of human artistic culture? Because it is only in that period that the conditions matured for mastering these phenomena which is explained by
1) the accumulating scientific evidence providing that cliff drawings were widespread and their appearance in the culture of the primitive man was logical;
2) the accumulating experience in the perception of various art cultures due to travel, growing trade, mutual communication between peoples and the rise of an all-embracing global system of economic relations;
3) the rise of the need for integrating the artistic experience of different people as manifested, among other things, in the worldwide creation of museums as repositories of the art of different peoples.
The interpretation of an old cliff picture as a primitive artistic image of a real animal is a modernisation. In fact it was proto-art, pre-art which had ritual and magical functions. The pictures recorded not man's aesthetic attitude to the world (which was only beginning within the cultural process) but a magical attitude. An aesthetic attitude grasps the significance of a given object for mankind and the degree to which the human race has mastered that object. It expresses the degree of human freedom. But all these were close to zero. Man was not yet master of the world and its objects and was not free with regard to them. So he tried, with the help of a magical act, to break from total unmastery to complete mastery, to gain freedom at the cost of a colossal effort of the spirit. Art could not have appeared before a system of aesthetic relations, and with the birth of the latter the most ancient pictures were included in that system and acquired artistic meaning for people belonging to a given social group.
Magic is a desperate effort to overcome man's practical powerlessness. It is the attempt of the slave of nature to become its master for a historical instant. Magic is an attempt to solve material and practical tasks by a pure act of the spirit, a duplication of reality by creating a materialised mental likeness of it. Magic is an attempt to solve practical tasks by manipulating that mental likeness. The magical act is aimed at mastering an object. It is a desperate and valiant effort to master a formidable object with regard to which man is not free. Magic is freedom obtained by a slave of nature through a tremendous effort that focuses all his spiritual energy, like a laser beam, on a single area of life. Magic is a way of mobilising the spirit. It inherently presupposes telekinesis (influencing material objects with one's mind) and suggestion (influencing the minds of other people). Magic tries to solve material tasks (mastering the world and objects difficult to access) through spiritual activity. Art uses material and spiritual activity to solve spiritual tasks (transforming the human spirit). Art is a form of education of the spirit and suggestion is secondary and non-obligatory. Art owes many of its qualities to signs. An artistic image is an artistic statement constructed of signs although the image (statement) itself is not a sign. The sign is aimed not at mastering an object but of masteing others' or one's own behaviour. That is why art is semiotic and a work of art is a meta-sign aimed at mastering social and individual behaviour. Art is externally disinterested and functionless, although inwardly its function is broad and universal. Magical realia are geared to a function. They recreate the original in order to manipulate it. Magical realia gave rise to mythological thinking, a further step towards understanding the world. Mythological images are phantasmagoric including as they do animal-humans (sphynxes, centaurs, etc.). It was the hunter's male face that was likened to that of an animal because it was man who hunted and interacted with the animal, sometimes disguising himself as one by putting on animal skins. That situation prompted combinations of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic features in man's pictures and "theatrical" rituals.

Aesthetic Activity According to the Laws of Beauty
or Magical Activity According to the Laws of Super-Effort?

Dance in paleolithic culture was also not artistic but ritualistic-magical. This is borne out by archeological and ethnographic data which points in the same direction. Thus, in the Cave of Three Brothers there are vivid pictures of a sorcerer and disguised creatures combining features of various animals, birds and humans: deer's antlers and ears, owl's eyes, animal's paws, a horse's tail, human beard, trunk and legs. The sorcerer is polymorphous, super-fantastic in appearance combining features of a horse, a deer, a predator and a human. We see a picture of a ritualistic-magical dance and pantomime in which man imitates the ways of the animal likening and at times identifying himself with the latter. Peter Ucko, Andree Rosenfeld, G. Luquet2 and other scholars rightly interpret that ritual pantomime as hunters' magic to ensure the multiplication of the hunted animals, success in hunting, contact with the animal, cajoling and appeasing it. This archeological data and its modern scientific interpretation is corroborated by ethnographers. Thus, the inhabitants of southern Africa try to appease the animal in their magical dances. The deep significance of such a dance is that it is supposed to lure the game into the hunter's trap through sorcery. That region of Africa has more than twenty types of dance imitative of the jackal, hyena, leopard, lion, tiger, cheetah, dove, hawk, eagle, elephant and other animals and birds. The dancing tribesman bends forward in a clever imitation of the movements of a quadruped. The viewers recognize the animal imitated by the dancer. Dancers do not take part in the singing which is the business of the chorus. But they produce sounds imitating the cries of animals. All the ritual dancers are disguised.
It is an ethnographic picture of an ancient hunting ritual, a ritual of mastering the prey. The ethnographic picture enlarges upon and enlivens the painted paleonthological analogue discovered by archeologists. The ritual repeats all the main details of the animal's behaviour and the hunter's actions.
Ancient man hunted, killed and ate animals. That process created a bond between him and the animal and in the process of eating it the human body became an extension, as it were, of the animal's body. That underlies man's desire to appease the animal, to find a common language with it, to become reincarnated in the animal and to resemble it physically through the masquerade of disguises and the imitation of the animal's movements and ways in the dance. The underlying meaning of the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic realia in the magical ritual is economic (the hunter's link with the animal) and totemic-clannish, and this too is based on the primitive economic situation (hunting and eating the animal, lack of forces to guarantee supremacy over the animal, sufficient propagation of the animal population and its availability in accordance with man's needs).
The totem is male. It is the male hunter who represents the totem animal in ritual dances. This is due to the fact that the idea of the totem was born from the practice of hunting, which was as a rule a male pursuit. The totem animal usually had great economic significance and was regarded as an ancestor, a kin, a protector of the family. The hunting and eating of the animal was a procedure of establishing historical kinship with it. In a sense the animal which had been hunted and eaten by preceding generations of tribesmen was an ancestor of all the members of the tribe. Hence the ideas about the relationship of women to the totem. The totem group is seen as the product of a woman's marriage to a totem animal, which is one more reason for the totem always being male. The woman appears as a creature for the procreation of the species both in the primitive representations of the vulva and in later totemic myths.
The magical realia represents the animal as a whole, as an independent creature fully identical to the real animal. Hence the naturalistic treatment of animals in cliff drawings and in dances. It is not by chance that the image of the animal bears real wounds inflicted by spears and other hunting weapons. It is not by chance either that there are stains of red ocher representing the animal's blood "the way it is in real life". For the primitive man a magical realia was as close as possible to the animal since it was supposed to be identical to its other existence. Not surprisingly therefore the resemblance was sometimes achieved by stuffing a bear or wearing the skins of animals imitated by dancers. The maximum resemblance facilitated the act of magic because the magic object could be manipulated in the same way as the actual animal. A strike with a spear administered to the representation of the animal was supposed to weaken the animal to be hunted the following day and made men more confident of success. The naturalism in the representation of the animal in a paleonthological cave was magical and not artistic.
But that representation had everything necessary for being perceived as a highly artistic image of the animal once the magical realia is included in the system of aesthetic relations. While not in themselves being art in terms of the functions and tasks they were meant to perform by the creators and their relatives, the cliff pictures (magical realia) contained the ready-made set of qualities which, after being put in the context of aesthetic relations and related to the humanity as a genus could at the later stages of history be perceived as works of art. These works had the quality of beauty and could bring and still bring aesthetic pleasure.
How could it happen that man, crushed by the adverse and hazardous circumstances of his life, was able to perceive and recreate the surrounding world as a sphere of freedom, i.e. a sphere of beauty? The point is that if paleolithic man had taken a full-scale aesthetic view of the world and I the objects he depicted, he would have reflected the harshness of his situation and the unfreedom with regard to the world. The animal would, in such a truly realistic portrayal, have appeared as dreadfully fearsome. But one must bear in mind that paleolithic man was not creating works of art and treated his object not in aesthetic but in magical terms. That enabled him to make the incredible leap from the domain of necessity into the domain of freedom. The magical act made such a leap possible and the animal appeared as beautiful and kindred to man, and not as its real hideous self. The wonder of magic enabled man to accomplish the super-task, i.e. to push the absolute limits of his ability in life (while hunting) rather like a circus actor during a performance. And that helped man to reproduce the world of his interests as a domain of which he was master. That is what enabled later generations to perceive the cliff drawings as truly beautiful art images. That is why cliff drawings appear to us as art, although at their birth they were products and instruments of magical mastering of the world, and the artist's concern was not to observe the laws of proportion and beauty but to extend the limits of human capacity.

1 One of the earliest representations of the hand (a positive print) is to be found in the ritual complex in the Bausa cave. It is dated to the Mousterian culture (the latest culture of the early paleolithic period).
2 P.J. Ucko, A. Rosenfeld, L'Art paleolithique, Paris, 1966, pp. 133-36; G.H. Luquet, L'Art et la religion des hommes fossiles, Paris, 1926, pp. 220-21.