The Stone Age Art Market


I have been reading these articles about the cave paintings that were recently discovered in France, and it seems to me that everybody is missing the point.

They say that the fundamental question is, Why did Stone Age man start making art? I think the answer is pretty obvious. You just have to consider the situation in which Stone Age man or Cro-Magnon woman found him/herself.

Let’s review the facts. These newly found paintings, like other Stone Age paintings, were in a cave. We know that Stone Age man — or woman — applied the paint by mixing it with saliva in the mouth, and then blowing it onto the wall. And we know that the ingredients in the paint caused hallucinations.

Now, I ask you: why would anyone put something into their mouth, knowing that it would cause hallucinations? And what does this tell us about the meaning of art? Stone Age man made an elementary deduction: “When I come into this cave and paint pictures of animals, I get high as a kite. Ergo, I want to become an artist.” Simple.

It amazes me that nobody sees the connection. Why did Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, when everybody knows that it’s easier to paint walls? It’s a mystery, until you recall that paint fumes rise. I bet that, if they checked, they’d discover that his scaffolding kept him very close to the top. I envision him lying up there, drawing his dreamy pictures of heaven. “Michelangelo,” his assistant calls up, “are you all right?” “Yes, I am,” says Michelangelo. “And for my next work of art, I think I would like to paint the ceiling of — a gymnasium!”

Our experts say it’s a shame that there weren’t more shelters to protect the works of art produced by early man. But I’m imagining how Cro-Magnon woman would react as she walked into one of our museums. For all we know, she might be thinking, “Too bad they couldn’t find any good caves.” From her perspective, a watercolor painting, hanging on a plasterboard wall in a building in New York City, could seem like the ultimate waste of time.

Another thing. The experts say that ancient man had to develop a more advanced brain before he could look at a painting and understand the connection between the painting and the thing it represented. But this is an insult to my parents. They can look at a modern painting and have absolutely no idea how it connects with anything. They’re really no better off than my dog Frisky. Frisky can watch a TV show with me, but she doesn’t recognize any of the dogs on the show. And when a TV dog growls, she jumps off the sofa and goes running around, past the TV set, barking “Where the hell are you?” in dog talk. That’s kind of what my parents have been saying to Jackson Pollock, all these years.

Now, I grant that our Stone Age artist did not have to paint walls in order to experience hallucinations. He could have just blown the paint out into open space. But maybe he never thought of that! Why would anybody stick a bunch of paint in his mouth and then blow it out into thin air? Or maybe he tried it outdoors first, facing into the wind, and didn’t like the results. Or maybe the whole act of painting was sacred, and this would have offended their religion. It could have been one of those spilling-seed-on­-the-ground kinds of things that you don’t do unless you want to be struck dead by lightning.

Anyway, I think there’s more to the story. Our experts tell us that the cave was a special place in which Stone Age man preserved his artwork, and that otherwise, he and Cro-Magnon woman preferred to live outside, in a tent. But I must ask: does that make any sense? Anybody been in a tent in the middle of a French winter? Sure beats living in a nice, snowproof cave, right? Sheesh.

The simple truth is that the cave belonged to the richest guy in the tribe. The experts point out that the cave isn’t messy like a typical home, and I say: of course not! The guy had a maid!

She lived across the tracks in a tent, like everybody else.

Ten thousand years from now, the experts are going to dig up Bill Gates’ mansion, with those video screens on the wall, showing pictures of the Mona Lisa, and they’re going to say the same kinds of things about it that they’re saying now about this cave in France: “Too bad they didn’t have anywhere else to store their art” and “Nobody could have made a home out of that place.”

Those experts in the distant future will make these understandable mistakes, just like our experts now, because they will start with the same wrong question. Instead of asking why Stone Age man started making art, we should be asking: what is art?

The answer, most of the time, is: Art is what the rich guy wants to buy for his house. That’s why a good child, produced by a caring community, will never be considered a work of art: if you bought it, an outraged public would be picketing you; if you hung it on the wall, you’d be arrested; and if you threw a party to show it off to the art world, nobody would come.

It’s no mystery, why Stone Age man started making art. He did it because he got paid for it. Another painting for you; another Dino Burger for me.

Still, you wonder what would have happened if Stone Age Rich Man had developed a taste for something other than those two-dimensional drawings on a wall. Maybe the people who invented TV would have made it so that Frisky could get something out of watching Lassie. I mean, doesn’t that seem logical? Maybe the Stone Age artist wouldn’t have been overdosing on paint. Maybe artists now would be pillars of the community. Maybe kids would be something we’d keep in a museum. Maybe we could check them out like library books, and then return them when we were done …

Ah, but it’s getting late, and I’m dreaming again. I must end this and get back to my painting …

(This item was written on February 20, 1995.)


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