4 Mar



The oldest known articulated figure, from central Europe in the Ice Age, carved from mammoth ivory.

My review of Ice Age Art at the British Museum goes like this: it’s interesting, go and see it. The British Museum is one of my favourite museums in the world anyway; how could it not be when it’s full of all the brilliant stuff we plundered from around the world while we had an empire and we could get away with it? Their little Ice Age video installation is quite poor, though. Provincial Chinese museum of Communist art level of quality. Seriously, British Museum, I’m a professional and I do that kind of thing for a living: email me. Or at least contact somebody who knows what they’re doing.

What I’d really like to highlight, though, is the way in which this exhibition ostensibly about art, with art in the title, and the curatorial and journalistic discourse around it seems intent upon robbing art of its artfulness. It’s not the first or the only exhibition to do so, just the most recent and most striking one. After I’d visited I read a number of the show’s (stellar) reviews, and I’d say well over 90% of these write-ups followed the cues from the interpretation material at the museum in asking what this art was “for”, what it’s “purpose” was. Usually they rightly concluded that we’ll probably never know. The material culture of its makers has only survived in tiny and scattered fragments, and we’re separated from these apparently illiterate ancestors by a gulf of time many multiples longer than the entire recorded history of ourselves as a literate species. Deconstruction and semiotics are fine, but the question of a doll’s or a sculpture’s or a tiny model of an obese woman’s “purpose” is a question that at the very least is problematic and at worst ridiculous; anthropology without humanity. Art can indeed be a tool for magic, ritual, or religion. Art can be a status symbol, propaganda, a token or cypher for something else. Art can tell us something– or everything– about the artist who made it and the culture that she or he came from.

But art can be about the emotions and about pleasure, too: a sensual curve (proved, seemingly inadvertently or semi-consciously, by the inclusion of an incredibly sensual and abstract blob of a sculpture by Henry Moore), the properties of the material, the colour and the shape, the way light hits it at certain times. Art can be made for the pleasure of making it, or as a catharsis with no thought of material value or the social capital that the artist– or their patron– may accrue. Art can be about capturing and sharing the fleeting beauty of a moment or a feeling.

The lovely little figures of heavy-breasted women– glossed by the curator as some kind of anachronistic and truly solipsistic quasi-feminist affirmation of a woman’s right not to look like a supermodel on the cover of a magazine– may have been cult objects, secret idols, sacred things. Another option, one that’s studiously avoided, is that Ice Age men (and perhaps women too… although let’s face it, probably mostly men) just really got off on absolutely massive knockers and pregnant women; maybe these objects are the Ice Age equivalent of a man having some secret porn files on his smartphone. Or they could be the Ice Age equivalent of china figurines on the mantelpiece. Or they could be the Ice Age equivalent of a smirking sub-Banksy stencil that imagines itself satirical– “men like big tits, yeah?”– or even the Ice Age equivalent of Henry Moore, somebody who knew perfectly well how to create a realistic image but thought it was more interesting to be evocative instead of literal. The doll pictured above could have just been somebody’s toy, or an intensely personal and revealing self-portrait, or carved in memory of some specific person who’d been loved and lost. Discussing art only in a nuts-and-bolts, instrumentalist way turns something that should be about connecting with our deepest selves and with each other into an arid, academic bore. And there’s already a glut of arid, academic art, artists and art exhibitions right now.

This exhibition proves beyond any refutation that a hallmark of being human is to make and appreciate art. That’s been true for as long as humans have been human. Anyone who says that art is a frivolity or a luxury we can’t afford when times are tough, or that artists are self-indulgent and not necessary, should get their sad, selfish little arses along to see this show and be ashamed. You think you know what austerity is? Imagine wearing skins and living hand-to-mouth in a hut during the Ice Age. They still had time for art. The few possessions they had were often beautiful things. Humans make art– always– and art makes us human. Reducing everything to its purpose, to its significance in the wider culture or to its pragmatic benefit doesn’t only diminish the power of art; it diminishes and demeans humanity itself.

Let’s look at ourselves the same way:

“Image of so-called ‘contemporary art’ curatrix, exact date unknown due to degradation of archaic digital storage medium but probably Neo Victorian/Terminal Capitalist Period. Her hair and clothes do not correspond to general wear or fashion of the time. Her severe hairstyle, scarlet lip adornment and corrective lenses in excessively ostentatious frames may be an attempt to establish status and shared membership of an esoteric international sorority which is known to have existed during this period, although its purpose is now unclear. It has been suggested that she wears black on the outside because black is how she feels on the inside.”

2 Responses to “UNKNOWN PLEASURES”

  1. Alistair 04/03/2013 at 11:20 AM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.



    […] and there is no scientific research or evidence to support it. To the unbiased, the fact that ancient people made voluptuous female nude figures no more proves the existence of a matriarchal society than the prevalance of women with incredibly […]

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