Human creativity is not frozen in time

The British Museum’s exhibition of Ice Age art has stunning artefacts but a silly view of art.

Tiffany Jenkins

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Every exhibition is an interpretation. The role of the curator is to select and guide us through his or her narrative about the objects on show. Mostly, the curator’s voice is indistinct, but their hand is identifiable. This can create great exhibitions, when a curator’s expertise and eye enlightens. But it is also crucial that we, the visitors, are given enough space to look and think for ourselves, to make our own connections.

The exhibition, Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, at the British Museum, does not allow us this space. The interpretation imposes dubious ideas from the present on to the past so rigidly that it’s difficult to see and to think about the age it purports to be about. It claims to be an exhibition devoted to the very distant past – that is between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago – but it is instead a display of the worst ideas from the present. This is detrimental to an understanding of Ice Age art, art across time, and, at heart, what it is to be human.

Although the oldest surviving art in the world comes from Africa, it consists of decorative patterns. It is in Europe that we find the first figurative pieces, when the people of the Ice Age created small sculptures, drawings, ceramics and jewellery. It is these pieces that are the focus of the exhibition.

The objects on show are simple and breathtaking: vivid, accurate and human. Some, like a half-man and half-lion, appear to be the work of an imaginative mind and a dedicated craftsman. This piece would have taken 400 hours to complete, which shows that society at that time valued the role of the creator sufficiently to allow him that time to create. Seeing these artefacts sends a shiver down the spine. You feel, for a moment, connected to men and women from a very distant time.

The exhibition opens with the following statement: ‘All art is a product of the remarkable structure and organisation of the modern brain.’ It continues: ‘The ability to communicate ideas beyond words comes from a mind powered by a fully modern brain like our own. The archaeological discovery of such works reveals the deep history of art and the brain.’

Here we have the first fundamental problem with the exhibition: the argument that art can be explained as something the brain does – and has done, it is suggested – in the same way for 40,000 years. The human nature of art – that it is something only we, human beings, do – is brushed over. The useless nature of art, that we now do it for itself, also has no traction here. It is quite the most ahistorical exhibition I have ever seen. It is one that neglects, if it notices it at all, the significant changes in society – not in the brain – and in art across time.

We are told it is the brain that does all the work, that creates art regardless of what we are looking at. Take for example the long, thin flute, made from the wing-bone of a griffon vulture, which was discovered in a cave in south-west Germany. It could be 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest instruments ever found. It is a profound experience to look at an instrument made by humankind so long ago.

The label next to it tells us that the flute ‘indicates that music was part of everyday life. Making music and dancing encourages the brain to release chemicals that gives a heightened sense of wellbeing. The pleasures of such natural highs promote social bonding and may lead to ecstatic religious experiences.’

This is a highly problematic approach. According to the curator, people did not make music to communicate, to express something to each other about how they were feeling or thinking, but rather as a way of releasing chemicals in the brain. What rot. This explains nothing about the use of music in human society: why it was done, is done, and what it means. It tells us nothing about the diversity of music in human society. If that flute can release the required chemicals, why make any other type of instrument? Why fashion a violin, a tuba or a guitar, if the flute has the necessary result? Why create rap music, orchestral or house music if the flute has it covered? As for creating ‘wellbeing’? – the voice of the curator is too loud here.

That the brain creates art is the reductive determinism de jour. Here, it squeezes out any analysis that would help us understand and appreciate the novelty and specificity of Ice Age art. In the middle of the show, at the side, hardly noticeable, is a case with tools from which our ancestors would have fashioned these pieces. But when the brain is credited as doing everything, no wonder the tools are shoved into a corner, and considered of little interest. The social meaning and creation of these artefacts, the fact that people may have worked together and fashioned them to speak to each other, is not considered worthy of reflection; it is the ‘individual brain’ that is in control.

It is said that these objects were created ‘by artists with modern minds like our own’. This is simply wrong. The brains may be similar, but the minds are very different. This is the point about being human. We may be of nature, but we are also apart from it. We are biological beings but we also have human society. We reflect on what our instincts ask us to do.

To ram this point home – that all art is the work of the brain, and basically the same stuff again and again – there are a few pieces here from Matisse, Picasso and Henry Moore. In one case, female figures made in the Ice Age are placed next to sculptures by George Brassai. Elsewhere, artefacts carved with lines of chevrons are placed next to drawings by Victor Pasmore and Piet Mondrian.

Had this been an exhibition on modernism, where artists such as Picasso were responding, in part, to the Ice Age pieces, then the juxtapositions would make sense. But it isn’t. This is an exhibition, apparently, about Ice Age art, and the creators of that art were of course not familiar with modernist ideas and questions, or even capable of being so.

We are told that the relationship between the pieces shows that ‘ideas of creativity and expression have remained remarkably similar across thousands of years’. But have they, really? Is Picasso just another version of an Ice Age artist? No. Indeed, a cursory glance at the history of art shows that what we create, why and how, changes over time. Not because of neural activity in the brain, but due to changes in human society.

This show smooths over important shifts, such as the move from the Medieval period to the Renaissance and the remarkable developments in the representation of the human form, which were so evident in the work of artists like Giotto. When the curator suggests that art from a later age was a ‘renaissance’, you know, at heart, there is a determination to undermine the great leaps of Renaissance humanism in her interpretation.

This is a perspective that sees every art movement as the same thing, and ignores, say, the difference between Sarah Lucas and Rubens; in the work of those two artists, we have a quite different idea of the female form. It also neglects to consider the move in art from representing public life to the inner life of man. All these important changes in human life, and our reflections upon life, are put aside when we bow down to brain determinism.

The approach on show here is historically and artistically illiterate. See the show, certainly; the pieces on display are wonderful. But close your mind to the braindead interpretation.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here. She will be speaking at the debate, What is Good Art?, on 12 March at the Leeds Salon.

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