Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The first immensity: "How Art Made the World"

Last night the BBC began to broadcast a new documentary series How Art Made the World. There's a long questionnaire on the site called Art and Personality. It allows you to take part "in an experiment designed by UK psychologists" by giving your response to visual art.

The documentary itself was irritating, formulaic and horribly padded ("To answer this question we must go to [insert exotic location]"). It almost ruined the fascinating story it had to tell. And, as is usual with the BBC, there was not one living artist or philosopher in sight; only archeologists and a psychologist called VS Ramachandran.

I wondered what this series might be like if those who made it had any real feeling for art. I thought of Maurice Blanchot's eleven-page essay The Birth of Art and dug out my notes from the last time I read it (in preparation for last October's entry Struck by Death). He's writing about the cave paintings of Lascaux.

- Commanding presence; a space almost intentionally devoted to the brilliance and marvel of painted things.
- The place from which art shines forth.
- The first ray, first and yet complete.
- Art is revealed to change infinitely, ceaselessly renew itself but cannot improve. Its perpetual birth.
- This thought is an illusion, but it is also true. It propels our admiring search.
- Coming from a world with which we have nothing in common, the barest outline of which we cannot suspect … yet an intimate space of knowledge.
- The power of art is close to us everywhere … but escapes us.
- Why this need for origin, why this veil of illusion with which all that is originary seems to envelop itself?
- A mocking, essential dissimulation; perhaps the empty truth of first things.
- Why does art let us believe in the enigma but also put an end to it?
- Magical rites expressing a mysterious relation between hunters and animal kingdom.
- Natural, joyful, prodigiously clear in the darkness of the caves.
- Carefree, without ulterior motive.
- Nothing archaic about the cave paintings, nothing like the contorted, overburdened art of today’s “primitives”.
- Mysterious but not an art of mystery or of distance.
- The only happiness of artistic activity: the celebration of the happy discovery of art.
- Prohibitions broken “exalting him far beyond his original existence”.
- The infinite time when the pre-man, before being a man, becomes a worker.
- We are ignorant of the “feeling” experienced by that worker occupying, for the first time, a place apart.
- Everything seems to indicate that man retained a memory of distress and horror of his first steps into humanity.
- Everything forces us to think … latent man always felt himself infinitely weak in everything that made him powerful. Either because he sensed the essential lack which alone enable him to become something completely other, or because he experienced as a mistake everything that led him to fail nature.
- The separation revealed destruction and death.
- He used the void to deepen his weakness to become stronger.
- Prohibitions around sex, death and murder. Barriers preventing the being who goes beyond them from coming back, forcing him to continue along the dangerous, doubtful path, a dead end, and thus to protect us from all forms of activity that are tedious and against nature and have their final form in work and through work.
- What is Neanderthal man lacking? The ability to break the rules.
- Two leaps, two moments of transgression.
1) Fortuitously does violence to the natural givens, but which did not suffice.
2) The transgression is an instant; the time of difference when prohibitions are violated; the gap between man and his origin is put into question once again, recovered, explored, experienced; a prodigious contact with all of anterior reality, and this is a return to the first immensity.
- Becomes tumultously conscious of this impossible return.
- No dream of total existence but affirms himself as added to existence and becomes master of everything, appropriate it symbolically.
- The consciousness of this distance as it is affirmed, abolished, and glorified.
- Art brings a feeling of communication at a distance and yet immediate; an affirmation no particular meaning can attain or exhaust.
- The disconcerting thought that man does not become a man through all that is human in him.
- The paintings are set apart by the impression they give of appearing only momentarily; not nocturnal but rendered visible by night opening up.
- Presence made up of certainty and instability. More certain that any other visible thing.
- Always a lacuna where origins lie.
- The origin always veiled by what it produces.
- The mutation that could not occur without having already occurred.
- Art comes after man but art is man’s contact with the power of beginning.
- The little human figure who feels seriously threatened by this work and perhaps already struck by death.


  1. actually, I saw the doco in passing (surfing as I do between channels) and didn't think it much better than the averave fare on Discovery channel. But, I thought he's pretty much nipped the entire contour of his analysis from Paglia's Sexual Personae. First the Venus, then to the Egyptians... maybe he'll fit in Elvis near the end too.

  2. Anonymous6:06 pm

    That prog was utter crap - he kept talking about 'realism' as if it was a transhistorical category, rather than one with a specific historical and cultural origin



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