Friday, July 07, 2006


How Art Made the Mini-Series---Part II

Like the first installment of the series, this week's episode of PBS's five-part How Art Made the World took the one expert's opinion (this time, about prehistoric art) and elevated it to the status of the most authoritative word on the subject. Real art scholarship is never this simple.

Host Nigel Spivey accepted the explanation by David Lewis-Williams, professor emeritus of archeology at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, that shamans created cave art to record their trance-induced, hallucinatory visions.

But this is only one of many theories regarding something we can never know for certain. The peripatetic Spivey this time transported us to Namibia to witness a "trance dance," but only linked that contemporary shaman's altered state to curative, not cultural, powers. (For some other experts' hypotheses, see my Wall Street Journal article about my recent visit to the caves of southwest France's Dordogne region.)

While no expert, I have trouble accepting the idea that shamans, whose job description involves spiritual (but not necessarily artistic) skills, were such consummate visual communicators as the masters of Lascaux and Altamira. What's more, it is indisputable that the painted forms we see in those caves were shaped and inspired at least as much by the contours of the walls and outcroppings as by the artists' inner vision.

I did take some small comfort in seeing that Spivey, like CultureGrrl, was probably denied access to the original Lascaux. The credits at the end of the episode refer only to "Lascaux II," the replica cave.

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