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


The Ritual-Magic and Artistic-Aesthetic Attitude to the Object Portrayed

The appearance of the sign, a symbol of beauty and freedom (mastery of an object is the sphere of beauty and freedom) is the first and crucial step towards a mythological, as opposed to a ritualistic-magical attitude to the world and its phenomena, i.e. an attitude that is no longer utilitarian albeit not yet spiritual and aesthetic. The full-scale aesthetic attitude appears later when it is nonutilitarian and disinterested, i.e. interested in the universally human way (broadly practical).
Another key step towards the aesthetic perception of the world was stepping "through the looking glass". The cliff drawings at that stage feature not only the animal, not only the wound on its body, not only the weapons of hunting (not spears thrown from outside but pictures of spears flying towards the picture of the animal), but also the hunter himself. No longer does the hunter throw the spear in magical-ritualistic ecstasy from the space of the cave into a magical imitative object (the picture of the animal on the wall expressive of its real presence and real killing). No, the hunter has himself stepped over the boundary between the first and second reality to join the images on the wall.
There he performs the utilitarian action of hunting and the utilitarian-spiritual action of the magical ritual of hunting. Now the man in the cave has no particular need to spear the animal's picture on the wall. This is done for him by his double who has entered the land beyond the looking glass and become a figure depicted on the wall. Now the man in the cave had the opportunity to regard the animal portrayed not as the object of the magical act of hunting and not as the object of hunting (the actual hunting is done for him by the hunter depicted on the wall). Thus ancient man was able to treat the picture and the ritual-magical (in a broader sense, mimetic) activity as artistic activity The aesthetic view of the world was born and grew gradually in the process of practice (hunting and gathering) and ritual-magical activity (duplicating the production practice). The aesthetic attitude then branched off to become a distinct type of relationship which led to a separation of art from ritual-magical mimetic (imitative) activity.1
The evolution of helpless practical activity into magical-mimetic (which helped the hunter's practice) and further into mythological and then properly artistic activity took a long historical period to accomplish. At first the primitive man struck the object he identified with the animal with his spear. Then the object (stone, the space on the wall) was given the shape of the animal (the first sculpted or drawn mimetic-magical representation). Now the ritual-magical blows were delivered on the magical realia, i.e. the mimetic picture identified with the animal in man's mind. Sometimes the body of the animal represented bore the traces not only of blows ("signs of the wound") but also had missile weapons sticking from it, weapons which took much time and effort to make and were highly valued. These magical blows were a mental rehearsal of the hunt. Then real blows began to be combined with and eventually were replaced by their mimetic denotation. The traps and weapons came to be depicted on the wall next to the picture of the animal. Now the picture of the animal was accompanied by the picture of arrows flying at it or an enclosure into which the animal is chased. Thus, in the Lascaux cave in France there is a picture of a horse surrounded by hachure (vertical strokes joined by a winding line indicating a cross beam). This is a mimetic picture of a fence guiding the animal towards his trap (dots and crossing lines). The scene of trapping an animal with the use of trapping devices has some of the animals marked by the weapons they are hunted with (a horse by an arrow, a bison by a picture of several spears).
Then comes another important step in the evolution of the magical-mimetic picture into a symbolic and artistic one. The bison in the Altamira cave stands motionless and tense. Above his body are five parallel lines joined by a cross line. Here the picture for the first time ceases to be imitative-naturalistic and acquires a symbolic character. We see not a magical realia which depicts and magically duplicates the process of hunting but its symbolic depiction. The new element that appears here is the convention of representation, marking a step towards imagery. There appears the sign (symbol) possessing a new semantics (not a magic realia as the second reality, but a conscious depiction of the world as a form of mastering it spiritually, as a consolidation of the sphere of freedom gained from nature and man's self-assertion in the world).
At the next stage the semantics expands and the meaning of the sign-symbol expands. It changes from the symbol of a weapon and of hunting and catching the animal into a sign-symbol of mastery over the object in general, the symbol of freedom with regard to the phenomena of the world. Thus the "engraved" picture scratched on a bone plate from Istoritzy shows a crawling woman followed by a crawling man. A toothed sign scratched on the woman's thigh symbolises the paleolithic weapon, the spear. The hunting weapon is presented, not in its direct meaning, and not as imitative-magical realia (a lethal weapon for killing the animal) but as a symbol of mastery, a symbol of freedom.
The magical, as opposed to artistic features of paleolithic drawings are seen in the fact that the drawing is not isolated from its environment (there is no framing or limits to the space of the drawing) and that the primitive draughtsman had no qualms about superimposing his own drawing on that of his predecessor without troubling to coat it over, chip or rub it away. Art scholars use the term palimpsest to refer to the process of putting one drawing upon another on the analogy with medieval manuscripts in which texts were written on slightly impaired previous texts. Palimpsest is often found in cliff drawings. The drawings in the Lascaux cave and on the Tassili-n-Ajjer Plateau (Algeria) have palimpsests with ten and more layers put at various times. This proves that the drawings were not regarded as works of art which are of their nature eternal. They were seen as magical realia: one generation ritually killed an animal and the following generation ignored it to draw a new one in order to "hunt" it.
Drawing was a cultural phenomenon opposing nature, but as yet hardly isolated from it, i.e. it fully reflected the historical state of man and his place in the world. How did a magical realia evolve into an artistic image? I have already commented on the evolution of the perception of a magical drawing by later generations (generations that came much later, for the closer generations, as we have seen, ignored the earlier drawings to make new ones on top of them) who came to perceive it as an artistic product. Let me now consider what preceded, accompanied and caused the process of transformation of the world depicted into an aesthetic world. The aesthetic world was born out of the utilitarian world which man created in the process of his economic activity, i.e. hunting, and out of the utilitarian-spiritual world which man created in the process of magical rituals in the course of which he mentally acted out, prepared and "rehearsed" the hunt and even perhaps mentally carried it out. Man first gets the opportunity to look at himself and the world aesthetically when he is able to regard the depicted hunting scene, in which he is himself involved, and the ritual-magical actions duplicating the hunt in a disinterested way, i.e. without a direct utilitarian economic concern and without the ritual-magical attitude to what is taking place. The possibility of a detached attitude enabled man to be disinterested and to perceive the process of hunting not as an act designed to satisfy his hunger but as a universally significant act essential for mankind's existence. Such an aesthetic attitude consolidated a relatively high level of mastery of the world and provided man with value orientation.
That moment, in a certain sense, marks the birth of art proper, the beginning of artistic activity which proceeds from an aesthetic attitude to the world and records its highest historical achievements. The magical-mimetic attitude to the world is, historically, a mediating link between the bedrock foundations of the cultural process, i.e. the utilitarian-practical attitude, and the aesthetic attitude. At the same time the ritual-magical activity, growing out of the utilitarian-practical activity and developing as an aid to it foreshadows and anticipates not only the aesthetic attitude but also the religious feeling. There are fundamental differences between these four types of activity (utilitarian, magical, religious and aesthetic), their products and the relations they involve. Primitive man's utilitarian attitude had for its object natural phenomena (animal, for example). That object was consumed and disappeared in the process of consumption.
The object of the ritual-magical attitude was a cultural phenomenon (a cliff drawing of an animal or a stone which, even if unprocessed, was a phenomenon of culture, i.e. was involved in cultural circulation, existed in the cultural context, had a special denotation and was different from other stones). But the essence of the ritual-magical attitude was precisely that it sought to make a phenomenon of culture (for example, the picture of an animal) as similar as possible to its natural prototype and identified the cultural phenomenon (magical realia) with that prototype. The magical realia (drawing of an animal) was perceived by the primitive man as a natural phenomenon, as an object of the hunt. Magical realia were perceived not as images of reality, not as signs standing for objects but as reality itself, as natural objects, as their duplication.
The attitude to magical realia was mental-practical. The animal on the cave wall was hunted. Blows were delivered at it and that constituted the mental-practical variant of a real hunt, its "rehearsal", duplication, anticipation, preparation and implementation. All that remained to do to solve the taxing and hazardous practical task was to duplicate its "solution" given in a magical ritual.
The magical realia "captured the instant" of hunting and made it eternal. That instant lasted longer than an age so as to assume universal human relevance and in later times was perceived as art, and became an aesthetic object.
The first objects of man's aesthetic attitude are the products of his work and creative activity. Well-made work implements and cliff drawings (magical realia), which were mental instruments of work (hunting), provide the first objects of the aesthetic feeling. That feeling arises as soon as the ritual-magical aspect of the cliff drawing recedes into the background, as soon as it ceases to be a target for a ritual-magical thrust with a spear. The drawing becomes a symbol of the real object and ceases to be perceived by the primitive man as another form of reality, as a duplication of the animal. In his cliff drawings (magic realia) man created another world of nature which, through colossal mental effort, he made his own and humanised, at least for the duration of the ritual. But that other world of nature turned out to be a world of other nature, i.e. culture. The magical attitude turned into aesthetic attitude and a magical realia into an artistic image.
The aesthetic attitude spread from the first art works to the entire man-made world and from it gradually to nature. The aesthetic attitude to nature is a later cultural act of man prepared and made possible by art. Just as Turner "created" the beauty of London fogs, so art images sharpened the aesthetic feeling, "created" the human eye capable of appreciating the beauty of a landscape (the latter appears in art relatively late and flowers only in the Renaissance and the following epochs). Just as musical sound formed the musical ear, so art as a whole gave birth to, sharpened and shaped an aesthetic attitude to the world. In primitive society the prime conditions of that process were: 1) labour, which made man perform magical-mimetic rituals for his practical economic purposes; and 2) leisure, which appeared after early economic advances enabling man to devote time to making drawings. The latter kind of activity called for a good deal of skill and time. Meanwhile primitive man was the busiest intelligent creature in the world. All his time was devoted to reproducing himself (getting food, clothing and shelter). The low level of the productive forces made it impossible to create stocks of food. It was only after he had reached a certain social and economic level that man could afford to devote part of his time to making cliff drawings. The formation of a relatively large and united social group, long precluded by the volatile temper of Neanderthal man who did not have adequate psychic inhibitive mechanisms to control his nervous impulses, provided the primitive homo sapiens with a relatively high level of social organization. The discovery and invention of new weapons, means and skills of hunting, which became a better organized collective effort, made it possible to hunt large animals. That in turn made possible the creation of stocks of food and released time, providing man with "leisure". Man used that "leisure" to improve himself, to acquire new powerful forces in creative and economic (hunting) activity. That made possible the appearance of cliff drawings, which initially were magical realia and later works of art.
Henri Breuil, an authority on primitive art, noted the link between the appearance of early cliff drawings and the beginning of big animal hunting. The connection between availability of stocks of food and the hunting of large animals and the start of the making of drawings is evidenced by such facts as the discovery of large amounts of animal bones on late paleolithic sites (for example, the bones of more than 900 mammoths were found near Prjedmost, Moravia, of some 9,000 horses in Somotre, France, and of about a thousand bisons at Amvrosiyevka, the Ukraine). These large animals were made the objects of magical-mimetic representation. For the hunting of large animals was the most efficient form of hunting as well as being the most challenging, dangerous and desirable. All this made man resort to ritual magical acts meant to contribute to the successful and safe outcome of such a hard, dangerous and coveted undertaking as, say, the hunting of a mammoth. The dangerous hunt enriched man's memory with vivid and exciting impressions, observations of the animal's appearance, ways and anatomy. Such observations, improved the accuracy and skill with which the magical-mimetic drawings were executed. The evolution of the magical-rutual drawing into artistic drawing in the proper sense (although sometimes preserving some ritual aspects in their look and purpose) is linked with the transition from imitation of the natural object to stylization that accented certain aspects of the object being portrayed. Thus, all the paleolithic "Venuses" (female statuettes) found on the territories of France, Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR have inordinately large breasts, stomachs and thighs while facial features are absent and the feet and hands are either absent or blurred. These depictions glorify the woman's child-bearing capacity while the individual traits are irrelevant and unexpressed. This constitutes stylization. The stylization is not a mimetic quality (important for the ritualistic-magical stage in the development of representational activity) but an artistic quality (the representation includes a conscious and articulated aesthetic attitude and a certain subjective canon).
The primitive artist was not only anonymous, he was also impersonal expressing as he did not himself but the whole of his tribe. Art was conservative and canonical in character. When a paleolithic artist drew an animal on a cliff he drew a real animal. To him, the world of the imagination and art was not yet a separate province distinct from empirically perceived reality. He did not yet oppose or distinguish these provinces, but saw one as a direct extension of the other. Wishing to take material possession of the animal (to kill and eat it) the artist who made a ritualistic-magical drawing of the animal actually mastered it mentally, cognized it and recorded the results of his cognition. That created an objective possibility for later perception of the magical realia as an artistic image and for passing from the ritual-mimetic activity to artistic activity proper. But the artistic form of activity, which already included an aesthetic attitude to the world, was not initially art in the strict sense of the word, rather, it was its folklore pre-history, a mythological proto-form. It was only when the individual element emerged and invaded artistic activity that art assumed its proper form.

Artistic Culture Was Born Many Times

The aphorism "to live means to die" is as true as the idea that "man is being born all his life (until one dies)". The world's jurists cannot agree on the question at what moment abortion becomes murder. That juridical snag reflects the difficulty of understanding the dialectics of birth which is not a one-act process. The same type of difficulty, the same theoretical problem is encountered by the student who sets out to establish the moment of the birth of art. In fact, the task of dating the origin of art is even more challenging: that process is hard to observe owing to the distance of time and lack of reliable data on some important aspects. Besides, whereas a living creature is born once, art is born many times. Thus, it is born once as a text capable of being perceived as art and then is born again many times in the process of perception. This applies to the birth of the first text in history and to the birth of every work of art.
That art is born many times is due not only to the change of perceptions from epoch to epoch, but also due to the fact that artistic culture was born at different times in different geographical regions (Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, Western Europe, Central Asia, Northern America, Oceania, Australia, etc.): different kinds of art and types of artistic activity appeared at different times and in different areas; primitive ritual-mimetic activity began to be regarded as artistic and not magical activity at different times in different regions. It was only in modern times that the products of primitive man's artistic activity acquired universal artistic value and gained the status of world values in human consciousness. The birth of thinking in images does not end the process of the birth of art, for the first stage in the development of that thinking is impersonal.
That is folklore. It is only on the basis of folklore and its arsenal of skills, knowhow and thought that art proper is born, i.e. not a collective but an individual and later professional form of activity. The individuality of artistic thinking followed by professionalization and the isolation of artistic activity as a distinct type of activity reflecting the division of labour in society and the isolation of intellectual activity – all these are stages in the birth of art. The early stages in the evolution of mimetic activity can be dated as follows:
In the late paleolithic period: engravings on bones and stone and early decorations appear in Europe in the Chatelperronian period (c 35th millennium B.C.);
The Aurignacian period (c 30th millennium B.C.) – the first pictures engraved and painted on stone tablets;
The Gravettian period (c 25th millennium B.C.) – plates with engraved and painted pictures on cave walls;
The Solutrean period (c 18th millennium B.C.) – engraved or painted pictures on stone in caves;
The Madeleine period (c 15th millennium B.C.) – drawings and petroglyphics in caves, decorative objects, decorations and ornaments on objects;
The Mesolithic period – shingles with schematic signs;
The Neolithic period – decorative ceramics, female statuettes, figures of animals.
Cliff drawings appear in Northern Africa and the Sahara in the 8th millennium B.C., in Southern Africa in the 7th millennium B.C., and in Australia in the 4th millennium B.C.
So far, in speaking about the origin of art we have mainly drawn our examples from the visual representational activity which was the forerunner of the graphic arts and sculpture. But a similar process went on in verbal activity. The oldest forms of magic – charms, incantations, imprecations, lamentations – were verbal forms of magic. That is, the word did not precede the deed, it was a deed.
To utter a charm or an imprecation was the same as to perform the act. To curse meant to kill, not verbally but really. Verbal action became aphoristically polished and replete with connotations, semantically concentrated and taut to achieve the maximum magical effectiveness, formal coherence and perfection, a semantic validity equal to a real act. All this combined to lend verbal magic (incantations, charms, imprecations, etc.) such a high degree of perfection that later it would rightly be perceived as a highly artistic form, although it was born not in order to perform artistic tasks but to be a mental aid in meeting the overwhelming odds and hazards of daily life (fighting the enemy, hunting animals, and keeping off wounds, disease and death by means of charms, etc.).
Magical realia begin to acquire the qualities of art as soon as the verbal, suggestive, inherently imperative and inevitably exclamatory form of verbal magic is penetrated by descriptive and narrative (epic) elements, as soon as the suggestive function recedes into the background, and the function of verbal description and interpretation (cognizing) of the world and of shaping a socialized man come to the fore. Folklore, mythology and the epic are born from magical realia. They in turn provide the intellectual material, an arsenal of images, a repository of habits and experience of artistic thinking which gradually acquires individual and professional features. They made possible the emergence of literature proper. Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey are yet works of oral verbal art, but an art that is epic, personal and professionally distinct from other forms of social activity (being a rhapsod is in a certain sense a profession).
The next stage in the birth of literature was the appearance of written forms. Writing causes a veritable revolution in verbal art which completely sheds its mimetic-imitative qualities, develops the technique of dialogue (as an answer to the need to include in the text the interlocutor lost with the disappearance of oral verbal art) before drama in its own right is born. Dialogue sharpens polar oppositions and opens the floodgates for the interrogative intonation (notably in tragedy). All this puts a sharper focus on personal positions (dialogue – argument – upholding "one's own" drastically opposite point of view). The emergence of a marked individual attitude in culture prompted by its growing dialogical character is backed up by the social and economic need for personalized attitudes in life.
In literature all this engenders a special form of sharply individualized thinking reflecting a cultural and socio-economic need. So lyrical forms appear.
The birth of these main forms would seem to complete the birth of literature. In fact, however, the birth of literature has continued and continues in modern times. For example, it was not until the 19th century that a literary work acquired its own style that could not be duplicated in other works and it became possible to convey not only the chain of events but also the stream of consciousness. The inner world of man, and not only his consciousness but also the subconsciousness become the object of psychological scrutiny in literature. There you have an endless chain of the births of literature as a verbal form of artistic activity.
Art, unlike life, is born many times. It is born many times in ontogenesis and phylogenesis. Rembrandt's paintings, born at the end of the Renaissance, did not exist for world art for 200 years and then got a new lease of life in modern times when they acquired worldwide value. Roman culture experienced a second birth in the Classical period. Cliff drawing and primitive cave sculptures produced in the paleolithic period as ritual and mythological cultural entities become part of mankind's artistic heritage in modern times. But art is born many times not only in ontogenetic terms. In phylogenesis, too, it is not born in one instant and indeed we are witnessing its continuing birth. While theatre has its roots in ancient rituals, the literary basis of theatre (dramaturgy) was born from and on the basis of epics during the transition from the oral to written forms of literature. The transition to the written tradition involved the loss of direct communication between the author-performer (rhapsod, narrator of folk tales, akyn, etc.) and his audience. The absence of direct contact prompted the need to lay out, in a scholarly discourse, all the arguments anticipating the possible questions and objections, thus giving rise to the science of logic and spontaneous dialectics of thought. On the other hand, the artistic texts recorded in writing were in need of a dialogue element which attained its final form in drama.
Art, born as cliff drawings and functionally geared to ritual-magical and not artistic tasks, was born many times as a distinct type of artistic activity. To begin with, the cliff drawings themselves later acquired artistic value for primitive man. That happened as soon as the ritual-magical meaning of these drawings receded into the background. Perhaps these drawings were first seen as art by a woman captive from an alien tribe living in a new social group and unfamiliar with its rituals. Later it was seen in that way by the members of her new tribe. And many thousands of years later the same cliff drawings were recognized as universally relevant artistic values, as works of art. In time the artist began to draw not for ritual or magical purposes, not in order to confer a second form of being on the animal, not to influence nature, but for purely artistic purposes, in order to influence man. And then art was born anew as bona fide artistic activity. However, for a long time painting was literary in the sense that it expressed its message by telling a story in a series of flat pictures relating events in their sequence. The art of the Renaissance discovered the perspective and broke the flatness to make the artist's vision three-dimensional. Artistic messages came to be expressed not through the relative sizes of the figures, but by arranging them in a certain way. Painting attained a new level of accuracy in depicting reality, and that was its new birth. The 19th century saw the birth of photography which could perform many of the documentary and memorial-representational functions of painting and drawing. Impressionists began to present not a literary narrative, but the concrete sensuous perception of reality conveying through colour and light their personal vision. In this way painting finally dissociated itself historically and aesthetically from literature and drawing. Each new historical and aesthetic stage in the development of painting was its new birth. In the same way, music was born many times (evolving from accompaniment to an epic narrative into the musical form proper, and then into opera, chamber, symphony music, etc.).
The birth of arts continues before our eyes. The 19th century saw the emergence of art photography, and the 20th century of the cinema and television. The multiple birth of art became possible because 1) man developed new artistic needs which could not be met without the appearance of new forms of art; and 2) the earlier established forms and varieties of art which have withstood the test of time did not oppose the new-born arts, did not strangle them by competition (age-old theatre did not destroy young cinema as indeed the latter does not destroy theatre but merely makes it adapt itself taking into account the social functioning of the new art).
Art acquired its structure and forms of social functioning over a historically extended period and by phases, and the same is true of the emergence and satisfaction of new artistic demands. First utilitarian activity gave rise to ritual-magical impersonal mimetic activity designed to assist it. Its products were magical realia, imperative, intonational-exclamatory, suggestive and imitative forms of recording and duplicating reality. Then magical activity became removed from direct practical tasks, the products of that activity were found to have universal human messages and meanings and descriptive narrative elements were introduced, all of which gave rise to artistic activity proper in its impersonal form (mythology, folklore forms). Then the personal element appeared leading to the birth of written forms of literature (collective experience as enshrined in a myth could easily be preserved by the collective in oral form, but the personal art experience of a professional artist had to be recorded in a written text that stood out clearly from nature (primitive forms of framing pictures, pedestals for statues, etc.). Such was the complex and phased birth of art.

1 The theory of mimesis is theoretical anachronism that interprets the atavistic elements in artistic culture. The conception of Aristotle and his Greek predecessors concerning the mimetic character of art is in fact a belated theoretical interpretation of the ritual-magical act at a historical juncture when only archaic survivals of it remained in antique culture which was dominated by art proper, although the mimetic element would long preserve its significance (notable in painting and sculpture).