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Is this "the modern mind"?

The British Museum is now showing an exhibition on Ice-Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind which displays sculptures and engravings from tens of thousands of years ago. A review in the Financial Times opens strikingly:

As you turn the corner in the British Museums Reading Room gallery, you find yourself face to face with a bison. Ambling towards you, her head drifting to one side, she hascome more than 2,500 kilometres, from Zaraysk in Russia and it has taken her more than 20,000 years to get here. Although she is only 10cm tall and made of mammoth ivory, she is so full of life that she short-circuits our day and hers, eight million days apart, into a single moment. We cant travel back to the Ice Age, but if we could, this is surely what it would feel like.

The review offers this explanation of the show's sub-title:

The shows curator, British Museum archaeologist Jill Cook, doesnt care to draw distinctions between prehistoric art and more recent works. For her, this is about the deep history of art, which affirms a fundamental human unity. We dont know what was going on in the minds of the people who made these images, but we can see instantly that their minds were modern, that as Cook puts it, This is not others, this is us.

But I found myself agreeing more with the review in the London Review of Books which insists on the incalculable distance that separates us from these artifacts, especially from the representations of the female figure:

I grew increasingly aware, going through the rooms at the British Museum, that all the concepts at my disposal to understand this world especially the speculative totality modern mind, which the exhibition seems to believe will reassure me dissolved as I looked.

The reviewer, T. J. Clark, said that he found himself lost: I seem to be back, for an instant, in a world where markers and stabilisers like man, woman and pregnancy are still to be invented.Thanks to Jean Raber, below, here's the link to the on-line page about the exhibit:

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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According to contemporary science, Homo sapiens dates back 250,000 years. Abraham didn't arrive for 246,000 years after that, and it's only been 4,000 years since Abraham. Was it God's will that humans remain unchurched for 12,000 generations? How many more generations until the next age of miracles?The only thing that makes me more dizzy than looking forward and contemplating what happens after the end is looking back and contemplating what happened before the beginning.- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA History: The Architecture of Past and Present, by Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, is available in paperback now and for Kindle. The Old Ancestors were not exactly "unchurched." Search Inside for "ritual," "religion," etc.

"Arrival of the modern mind?" Well, at least these artifacts illumine a human consciousness from before our species fell into the dark abyss of patriarchy.The caves at Lascaux and Chauvet in southern France, as well as other holy sites, are arguable the paleolithic Sistine Chapel. Images of the curvaceous fertility goddesses have been found all over Europe and Asia. All symbolize a human understanding and consciousness from before the Fall in the garden.No wonder God had to send a son to atone for our sins.

If these artifacts represent the arrival of "the modern mind," it arrived a lot earlier than we had thought.

The last profile is quite evocative of the pregnant body of the reflective attitude of a pregnant woman's a little disturbing that the figure has no feet, but consider that photos will also happily crop the unimportant stuff and leave the woman's bottom legs out for that kind of shot.It is fascinating how the slight bend of the neck and the position of the arm suffice to evoke the meditative mood of the woman. In that way this is familiar, not alien.

It's chic to admire the primitive. Picasso said something like, "After Altamira, all art is decadence". Phoo.

I'm sure the art experts know best, but how do we know the figures were made by an adult? I'm not being snarky; or all we know, couldn't we be getting a glimpse of the mind of an 8 year old Ice Age Artist? That would certainly narrow the divide between then and now. I've thought that about those cavemen drawings in France; maybe it was teenage Neanderthal graffiti artists, defacing the caves when they had time on their hands. I

Irene, those are such fascinating questions. The context in which these things were made and judged in their own time is so hard to determine. An archaeologist friend of ours says that things found in burial mounds are assumed to have been viewed as among the best things, things found in dumps are no less interesting because they often reveal how the "good stuff" got made. The review doesn't explain much about the sites for the finds, but it does say that ceramic art seems to predate ceramic pots and practical utensils, which I think is another interesting angle. My personal view is that the creative urge--of an 8-year-old Ice Ager learning to whittle or teenage punk Neanderthals--is one that connects us with our Creator and fulfills the Creator's purpose that we enjoy Creation, as borne out in the Anglican catechism (which I presume echoes older RCC catechism):Q. What does this mean about our place in the universe?A. It means that the world belongs to its creator; and that we a recalled to enjoy it and to care for it in accordance with God's purposes....Q. How was this revelation handed down to us?A. This revelation was handed down to us through a community created by a covenant with God.Here's the splash page for the exhibit at the British Museum with lots of interesting links and sidebars:

Sorry, meant also to add that before art became highly individualistic, it was communal ("handed down through a community"), a means by which revelation and wisdom was handed down in a society.

Jean: Thanks for the "splash-page" which I had meant to put into the initial post. I've added it now. It's the desired assimilation of these ancient artifacts to "the modern mind" that struck me in the subtitle. I love the dynamic grace of the bison pictured above, but don't know why it has to be interpreted in terms of modernity.

Komonchak: Check out the film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." Nothing about paleolithic humans is primitive, crude or unenlightened. They're right up there with Michelangelo. To really appreciate these humans, all we have to do is leave our patriarchy and monotheistic religious sensibilities at the mouth of the cave.

Jenkins: Thanks for the lesson in art-criticism. Why did you think it needed? Who has said that the images I posted were "primitive, crude or unenlightened"?

Komonchak: You're reading into things again. In the spirit of this new Jesuit-gone-Fransican papacy, let's all try not to be so "self-reverential" and thin-skinned, okay?All too often (?), especially in the West, we have a tendency to assume that culture and society have always been marching "upward and onward" culminating in ourselves - a classic linear progression. Indeed, Western art believed for centuries that only certain classes of people of status and certain mythologies were even worthy of depiction. Thus, the shock of Catholic hierarchs when Michelangelo imbued his biblical mythic frescoes with such pulsating humanity caused them to demand that all those naked bodies Il Divino created be covered "with appropriate drapery" so not to exposed their very human "parts." In the early days of the modern artistic era, Picasso's genius [and indeed he is only one representative among many] was that he rescued the long lost so-called "primitive" shapes and forms from our archetypal past emerging into our modern consciousness.I believe that the Roman church has frequently forgotten [Or, is it "self deceived"] on occasion that it is not the "church triumphant" but the "church militant." Some popes and hierarchs have even been known to look down their long aquiline noses at what they considered their human cultural inferiors. You know, attitudes embodied in phrases like: "barbarians at the gates" and "dictatorships of relativism" in the "West."The real power of these ancient-in-the-extreme images that emerge from the human primordial past is that they reveal for us those humans who shaped and painted these images were indeed very much "us."

I imagine adults creating those figures to while away the hours during the winter.If I understand the curator's quote correctly, the "modern mind" means ourselves, plus whoever to whom we can relate to some extent. I'm not sure of the difference between the "modern" mind and the "human" mind.Is God modern?

"Im not sure of the difference between the 'modern' mind and the 'human' mind."Claire, agree. I'm not sure of the distinction, either. Is this art "modern" because we can still now recognize what is being represented? Or is it "modern" because it is not strictly photographic/representational but emphasizes (in the case of the women) something of their "essence"? On another thread about art, I opined that graphic novels enjoyed by Our Young People employ many of the same artistic conventions as medieval art. Does that make medieval art more "modern" now? I don't know whether this speaks to Fr. Komonchak's point or not.

So what is "modern man"? We can't answer how he/she is different from other men until we know what he/she is. So, go ahead, define the phrase.I think that some phrases can't be defined because they don't include any distinctive, specifying characteristic. They're family resemblance terms. So how useful are the questions which include such phrases? Not very, I'd say. Too mushy.

It seems some have misinterpreted my initial post to imply that I was critical that anyone could think these very ancient artifacts to be "modern" and must, therefore, think of them as, for example, "primitive, crude or unenlightened." That's the opposite of what I intended. My objection was to the idea that to speak of them as illustrating "the arrival of the modern mind" was to display what in other contexts is called a "presentist" bias, as if the only way one could validate such works was by saying that they anticipate "modern", that is, our, sensibilities. That's why I said I agree with the LRB review which emphasizes the "otherness" of these works of art.

Not only do I think that these works are not inferior to most of today's art, it seems to me that they are superior to most of today's junk. Contemporary art is in a bad way, especially considering what it was just, say, 80 years ago.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, howinfinite in faculties, in form and moving how express andadmirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how likea god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animalsand yet,to me, what is this quintessence of dust? - Hamlet, II, 2Leave to the Bard ...

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