At what point does art become “Art”?
The history of Nature Painting has not followed the progression seen by art historians in the West, and it has largely been ignored by them. Modern Art Aestheticians seem to have defined art in such a way as to exclude it, at best treating it as no longer relevant. On the grounds of a notion of Cultural Specificity, Neolithic “art” has been disregarded as art by significant art commentators. The place of Cave Art has, however, been enigmatic at least since the discoveries at Lascaux and a connection to the modern artists’ quest has, for some, been all too apparent even if poorly understood. Recent work, culminating in an exhibition of Ice Age Art at the British Museum has questioned this dismissal and identified several modern artists who, at one level or other have identified directly with these ancient works. They have found in them artistic devices which are still used millennia later (simplifying, exaggerating, and distorting to engage the mind of the viewer). This has lead to the firm conclusion that the art of these ancient times represented the arrival of modern human brains. The relationship between these conclusions and the limitations imposed by modern Aestheticians because of Cultural Specificity has yet to be settled.
An alternative view of art, which deliberately and specifically traces it back to our Neolithic Ancestors was proposed at the beginning of the 21st Century. It links it, utilising the ideas of social and cultural evolution in the Darwinian sense, to the present day. This suggests that there is some sort of artistic progression through the millennia which has been identified as being quite sporadic but with identifiable highlights in the era traditionally regarded as the remit of art historians. The limitations imposed by modern aestheticians because of Cultural Specificity are directly challenged in this view.
If the British Museum exhibition in 2013 has succeeded in bringing modern art and Neolithic art into contact with each other then it could be that there have been two progressions of art history all along, one based on the urge to depict aspects of the world around us and the other placing greater emphasis on political and social factors. In the second stream as here described, figurative depictive aspects have not managed to survive the evolution of other trends in art and are regarded as no longer relevant. If the former of the two streams has its roots in cave art it can be seen as a non linear movement that is, and has always been in the background. This has not been easy to see because often, artists have operated in both of these arenas. It is only the recognition of cave art as “art” that has opened the way to this realisation.