Last spring, I made the steep climb to the mountainside entrance to the Cuevas de Covalanas, one of several caves in the Cantabrian region of northern Spain decorated with prehistoric paintings. I had seen reproductions of this type of art in books, but nothing prepared me for the experience of the paintings themselves, on site and in person. Afterwards I wondered how, not having seen these creations, I could ever have thought I knew anything about art history. I kicked myself for my presumption.
These 20,000-year-old works of art are arrestingly vivid. As the guide’s torch throws its beams on the stony walls, the dark interior of the cave comes alive with animate beings, bounding, leaping, rushing, thrusting. Deer, bear and horses are rendered with fluid, confident, ever-varying lines that demonstrate tremendous powers of visual distillation. These are studies of motion, captured in a moment’s vision. The animals are not repeated types; each figure has its own distinct form and energy. But all participate in the larger flow, the moving parade of wild beasts up and down the cave walls, which I think was the artists’ central aesthetic concern.
The people who created this art were hunter-gatherers in a hostile environment. Apart from that, we know little about them. Their ideologies and social structures remain a mystery. Significantly, there is no evidence of any other human activity, ritual or social, taking place in the painted caves. No fires, no animal or human remains, just the artists’ rudimentary implements. This suggests that for these people the art itself somehow had a primary, autonomous value. It also seems to have been a specialist practice, assigned to individuals with the necessary skills and sensitivities.
Even at this early stage, when humans had barely begun to master their environment and ensure their reproduction, communities set aside labour and resources for the creation of an aesthetic good. However it was interwoven with religious, social and economic functions, the artistry in the caves seems to have been recognised as having a worth of its own. Otherwise, why go to the trouble of creating such subtle effects?
It’s hard not to feel the artists’ fascination and awe in relation to the animals they were representing, which at this stage would have been a much more dominant presence in the landscape than humans. Yes, these were creatures they sought to capture, kill and eat, but the joy in the rendering of animal movement is palpable; as is the reverence for an abundant and life-giving, if deeply mysterious, natural environment.
One of the pleasures of the cave paintings is the way they defy the binary categories favoured in much art history: naturalism versus ideal form, expressionism versus classicism, spontaneous versus conventional, sophisticated versus naïve, individual versus collective. Above all, they confirm that there is no progress in art. There is stylistic and technical development (and regression), but none of it necessarily amounts to qualitative improvement. There are many works of greater complexity than the cave paintings, but they are not more beautiful; they are not ‘better’ art. Picasso, emerging from a tour of one of the Cantabrian caves, declared, ‘After this, everything is decadence’ – and from my own experience in the Cuevas de Covalanas, I know what he meant.
On the left, we like to think we look forward, not back. We’re engaged with the present in an attempt to shape the future. But the past, and especially, at least for me, the art of the past, is a precious, irreplaceable resource, and one that can be a powerful stimulant in the struggle for that other world we insist is possible. Listening to the voices of the dead is a necessary aspect of ‘contending for the living’. What might be called ‘present‑centrism’ is as misguided as Euro-centrism: a myopia that allows the immediate and familiar to crowd out the larger picture. We need a temporal as well as geographic decentring.
Years ago I got hooked on the visual arts (for which I have no talent) and over the decades I’ve sought out artworks from as many places and eras as I could manage – and rarely been disappointed. I keep re‑learning how varied and unexpected aesthetic means and ends can be. Paintings, sculptures and architecture have the capacity to appeal, stimulate and please in so many ways and on so many levels: sensual, psychological, intellectual, political. That’s why I’ve become ever warier of any definition of the aesthetic that narrows down that richly diverse reality. I need something broad enough to embrace the ceramic tiles of Portugal and Pakistan, the sculpture of the medieval temples of south India, Moghul miniatures, Byzantine mosaics, the Gothic, the classical and the Baroque, Fra Angelico as well as Caravaggio, Velazquez as well as Hogarth, Munch as well as Miro, and so on without end.
Art is of course an ideological product and a potent carrier of ideology, but it also can and often does subvert and violate ideology. In its concreteness, its direct address to (or through) the senses, it can embody all kinds of impossible contradictions and even transform them into a kind of unified whole. The point is that it’s a mistake to reduce art to ideology. Similarly, while art is always the product of a particular social and historical context, it cannot be reduced to that context, not if it is of any lasting value. The artwork, a fusion of manual and mental labour, is at once too particular and too universal for that. It’s not a question of transcending its context, its moment of creation, but giving it a body and form that communicates beyond that moment. This what the cave artists achieved.
Under capitalism, art is treated as a commodity, but there is something in art of any value that resists that status, breaks out of that dimension. There’s always a disconnection between its market value and its artistic value – whose very nature resists quantification. Each work of art has a claim of its own that cannot be measured in terms of another and thus cannot be reduced to exchange value. This was what William Blake had in mind when he declared: ‘Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but War only.’
Crucially, art of value is not something that can be passively consumed. It demands and rewards personal engagement, the active involvement of a variety of faculties, predicated on an openness to the possibilities of art. That’s why the labelling of works of art as ‘great’ or otherwise can be more of a hindrance than a help in appreciating them. The excitement of art is that it challenges us to form our own judgements, not instantly but through patient attention. What makes any ‘great’ art great is that it reveals unexpected faces, emerges in new lights, in different eras, to different eyes and at different stages of the viewer’s life.
The problem isn’t having a canon; it’s having a canon dictated by convention or institutional authority. That’s received wisdom of precisely the type that close engagement with an artwork always challenges. Each of us has to create our own canon and constantly revise it. There’s no end point here: every artwork we engage with shifts the array of the whole, a whole that is not structured as a simple hierarchy.
At a certain point, for reasons unknown, these prehistoric people stopped painting the caves. By the time the next surviving major artworks were created, beginning in about 4,000 BC, the cave paintings had been forgotten, sealed in obscurity. They never served as a source or an influence. So while these are the earliest examples we have of European art, they are not in any way its foundation or origin. It’s a line of development that was truncated, a possibility unpursued. For me that makes it all the more intriguing.
I left the Cuevas de Covalanas invigorated by my encounter with this specimen of the oldest surviving human art, thrillingly new and fresh to me. Much of the joy derived from taking part in an act of communion with people so remote and alien. In reconfirming art’s ever-astonishing capacity to cross vast distances of time and culture, the experience also testified to the existence of a shared humanity, a continuing commonality of dreams and desires.