Saturday, 23 March 2013

Neuroarthistory meets Upper Paeleolithic art

Drawing on bone from Isturitz Cave, France

Lecture at British Museum on Ice Age Art exhibition

- took place on March 15, 2013:  exhibition curator Jill Cook introduced the speakers, neuroscientist Semir Zeki and archaeologist  Clive Gamble.

Professor Gamble provided context information for the exhibition in terms of geography and population: in Western Europe, 20,000 years ago at the height of the Ice age, the population moved south; into the Dordogne, to Cantabrian Spain. The total population of Western Europe at that time was approximately 17,000 people. When the Ice Age receded and they came back,  the total population of Western Europe was 60,000.

Professor Zeki introduced the connection of art with the 'primordial need' of the brain to acquire knowledge. The application of neuroaesthetics -  the formulation of neural laws about art and aesthetics - to the objects in the exhibition revealed the importance of 'significant configurations': simple patterns that are immediately recognizable, for example, two holes and two straight lines are interpreted as a face when presented in the correct positions:  :-|

Professor Zeki said that the function of art was the communication of ideas not accessible to language, emphasising features that are important in acquiring knowledge about how to live in an environment, and how to live with each other (social knowledge).

"Art shocks when it departs from the significant configuration"

Professor Zeki described the similarities between the visual brain in monkey and human: the perception of faces is processed in areas of the brain that are present in both monkey and human. Infants recognize the presence of a face six hours after birth; there is a template in the brain that facilitates the processing of significant configurations as concepts.

The exhibition's juxtaposition of modern and Ice Age art demonstrated that the same fundamental significant configurations are present now as then.

Professor Gamble described the method archaeology uses to recognise a mind from the archaeological evidence: one significant difference between Homo Neanderthalis (HN) and Homo Sapiens (HS) as the lack of figurative art among HN. Art allowed 'intensive circulation of knowledge - who they were and who they might be': the intentionality of preserving something for the future. At the end of the Upper Paeleolithic (11-12,000 years ago), monumental art appeared: notably the Göbekli Tepe site in southeastern Turkey.

Clay figures were found that had seemingly been created  to explode when fired: their composition included materials that would ignite, and they had been placed in the fire while wet. Was this performance art? The motives for this are unclear. To "enchant, captivate"? These small objects speak to us directly. The creative process implies a concept - the idea to represent. The difficulty that representing a concept in the brain in the work of art presents to the artist is not limited to the skill required for manipulating the material, but extends to the manner of communicating that idea, using exaggeration, or imagination.

What, exactly, do the figures etched onto the bone from the Isturitz Cave represent? They have been interpreted as 'two women', but one has a bestial head, and the other has animal-shaped 'hindquarters'! What the artist intended from this we can only speculate, but the effect is as unsettling today as it was then: it departs from the expected 'significant configuration' in a disturbing way that is common to several items of Ice Age art in the exhibition: animal heads on human-like bodies.

Professor Zeki said that anyone, from any culture, experiencing something as beautiful activates the brain's medial orbitofrontal cortex - the pleasure/reward centre.

The monkey brain has that area too. "We are perfecting an apparatus that we have inherited." The Ice Age Art exhibition preserves the descent of that heritage and "boots out the door" the idea that Upper Paeleolithic HS were  "primitive" people.

HN did not have figurative art; art "turns up the volume", art assists building social bonds between individuals and groups. Art tells us our ancestors were smart enough to communicate.


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