On Oct. 8th, Wednesday, the journal Science published the finding that the cave art on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, originally discovered in 1950s by Dutch archaeologists, were created nearly 40,000 years ago about the same time as the art found in the caves of northern Spain and southern France.
A team of researchers looked for the “small white growths” known as “cave popcorn” that are made of mineral deposits, including “traces of uranium,” whose characteristic of decaying over time helps date “the formation of calcium carbonate deposits” on the surface of cave art, that consists of hand stencils and paintings of “pig deer.”
I found this finding very interesting at least on two accounts. First, though we seem to use the word “art” freely, do we really know what art is? Do these earliest attempts at artistic creations suggest the definition of art? Secondly, the cave art, the hand stencils and paintings of pig deer, seem to suggest two different impulses of artistic creations by early humans.
The hand stencils, which are strikingly similar to a contemporary toddler’s early attempt at artistic expression, show his/her sheer delight in creating patterns on some seemingly permanent surface. It seems to show the creator’s playfulness as well as wonders of the beauty of forms. The paintings of pig deer, on the other hand, seem to suggest the creator’s desire to know the animal by representing them in a figurative manner.
Supposing what I interpreted from the actual images left in the cave on Sulawesi were more or less correct, can I define art as expressions of humanity’s playfulness and sensitivity to the pleasing forms, as well as expressions of humanity’s desire for knowledge? Perhaps, I can for the time being. But, I also know it is a rather futile endeavor to define art. Like any other concepts created by humans, their meanings vary depending on the person thinking or discussing the concepts. Nevertheless, it also seems true that we use one word when designating many different manifestations of a concept when these manifestations share what Wittgenstein called “family resemblances” in his Philosophical Investigations: “we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.”
“The truth once seen, man is aware everywhere of ghastly absurdity of existence… But, at this juncture, when the will is most imperiled, art approaches, as a redeeming and healing enchantress; she alone may transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into representations with which man may live.” – Friedrich Nietzsche The Birth of Tragedy