An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of February 13, 2005
written near Dzemul, northern Yucatán, México

ON SEEING LIKE A CAVEMAN

This week I've been reading a collection of essays entitled "Vision and Design" by British art historian Roger Fry. Fry's main period of influence was between the two world wars, so his work is a bit dated but still it's a pleasure to experience his clear and incisive thinking.

Fry addresses a question in art I've often wondered about. The 14,000-year-old drawings of animal forms on the walls of Spain's Altamira Cave and other caves are vividly alive and invested with dynamic tension. They convey the feeling the artists must have experienced when seeing those things in real life. So, why does so much art of later times show very little of that vitality? Remember those Byzantine works so painfully stiff, so choked with ostentation, and void of feeling other than desiccated, formalized religious sentiment.

Granted that religious fanatics being in control of the government were responsible for the Byzantine aridness but, still, just how could humanity's artistic impulse have withered so dramatically after such an auspicious beginning as is on display in Altamira Cave?

I interpret Fry as arguing that Paleolithic artists saw images and portrayed them with an immediacy and intensity that became unavailable to Neolithic people (people like us) simply because our greater mental capacity made it hard for us to see images without immediately analyzing them. Once the analytical process interposes between what the artist sees and the artist's portrayal of that thing, the thread of immediacy that enlivens any work of art is severed. It's revealing that when a modern child first tries to draw a human body, probably the child sketches a head and hands, but leaves the torso reduced to a single line. That's drawing what's in the mind, not what's actually seen. What a struggle it must be for an adult artist to absolutely dominate the analytical impulse.

In fact, much of the art of modern times can be interpreted as trying to reclaim the artist's ability and right to portray what he or she actually sees, not what the artist's brain insists ought to be seen, or has forgotten what was seen in the first place.

This is a matter appropriate for a nature-lover's newsletter because artists who can really SEE and convey to others what they are seeing are among the most important people to be enlisted in the fight to save Life on Earth.

For, I'm convinced that the following three-step process has to be part of any effort to save Life on Earth:

You may enjoy visiting Wikipedia's Cave of Altamira Page. Facebook Icon