Interpreting art

Ideas about the function and purpose of art have changed dramatically since the emergence of ‘fine art’ in the 16th century. European oil paintings like this 18th-century image of an unidentified, lavishly dressed gentleman by Joseph Blackburn (below) were used by the wealthy as a way to demonstrate their status through their clothing, possessions, and houses. However, the art encountered in archaeology is more difficult to define. For example, many controversial interpretations have been proposed for cave art, including a suggestion that paintings of animals, like this bison from Chauvet Cave (bottom), were used as teaching aids for apprentice hunters.

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington;

We start with a quotation from an art exhibition handout:

The artist brings the viewer face to face with their own preconceived hierarchy of cultural values and assumptions of artistic worth. Each mirror imaginatively propels its viewer forward into the seemingly infinite progression of possible reproductions that the artist’s practice engenders, whilst simultaneously pulling them backwards in a quest for the ‘original’ source or referent that underlines Levine’s oeuvre.

Does this have a meaning? If so, it seems impenetrable. I suspect that probably, though, it does not. Pretentious language conceals lack of substance far more often than is generally realised. It also has the function of exclusion: the language of art criticism is designed to turn art appreciation into an elite activity.

What has this got to do with archaeology? I’ve just rewatched John Berger’s 1972 series Ways of Seeing. What I hadn’t fully grasped before was the degree to which ‘fine art’ was an invention of capitalist civilisation; it didn’t really exist before the 16th century.

Berger focuses on the European oil painting and stresses the way in which it gives expression to private property and bourgeois individualism. That explains the dominant themes: portraits of the great and good; pictures of their houses, estates, and possessions; the use of oil paint to depict the sumptuousness of costume and jewellery as a signifier of status.

Art itself becomes a private possession, and connoisseurship and art collecting become expressive of refinement, gentility, and good taste. A painting becomes something you hang on the wall to admire, to own, to impress. It becomes ‘fine art’.

Wikimedia Commons, Claude Valette.

Most of the art that concerns us in archaeology is not like this at all. The objects and images we recover are invariably doing a job of work. ‘Art for art’s sake’ does not really exist in a prehistoric, ancient, or medieval context; nor, indeed, in many non-Western cultures right up to the present day.

Art can be hugely important in offering insight into the thought-worlds of past people. So we have to take interpretation seriously. And that requires us to try to situate the art in the context of contemporary belief and ritual. So this – an example taken at random – will not do:

Cave painting is considered one of the first expressions of the human animal’s appreciation of beauty and a representation of a mystic or sacred side to life.

I have no idea what is meant by an ‘appreciation of beauty’. It is one of those trite phrases you find repeated a million times in art books. As for a ‘representation of a mystic or sacred side to life’, does this not beg the questions: what is this side of life, and why bother to represent it at all?

Cave art can attract nonsense – nonsense which dissolves as soon as one thinks about it critically. One example is the claim that paintings of animals were teaching aids for apprentice hunters. The best way to learn practical skills – as we all know – is to practise on the real thing. You learn how to hunt – probably from a very early age – by joining older family members on a real hunt.

It used to be said that when archaeologists cannot explain something, they claim ‘ritual use’. So perhaps it has become too tame and unimaginative to say that a prehistoric painting of a bison, or a Greek sculpture of a goddess, or a medieval religious fresco were for ritual use. But they were.

Before the 16th century, most art was both a collective possession and something that had cultural or ritual significance for the community as a whole. Even the apparent exceptions turn out to be less clear-cut than one might suppose. Take Roman family portraits, for example. Either they were on public display to advertise the social standing of the family, or they were objects of veneration in the cult of ancestor-worship; or both.

Archaeologists should beware of lazy and pretentious interpretations of art derived from the modern and highly misleading concept of ‘fine art’.

In memoriam
Neil's last ‘Thinking Aloud' column was written shortly before he died in early February this year. He is greatly missed by all of us at CWA. We will run a final column in his honour next issue.