Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ancient Art Is Basically Monsters

(Second in a series)
Many basic prejudices in the way art history is taught date back to when Giorgio Vasari invented the discipline, and one of the most consistent and least discussed is a prejudice against monsters.

The first sculpture you are typically shown in an art history class is the Venus of Willendorf--which is a lady--and the first paintings are the Lascaux cave paintings--which are some deer and some dudes.

These things are explicable. You can look at these images for a very dull three seconds and your teacher can very quickly move on to talking about what art history teachers love to talk about: any subject other than art. The Venus lets you talk about standards of beauty, fertility cults, matriarchal society, stone technology, the Lascaux paintings let you talk about hunting, shamanism, cave-dwelling, realism. Anything but what the goddamn things look like, which isn't much.

Art historians have always loved to talk about humanity--personalities and sociologies--which is a shame because throughout history many of the best artists were interested in something much less- and almost literally un- discussable: the unknown. Our ancestors who made art dedicated a vast quantity of that effort to monsters--hideous confabulated creatures that never existed anywhere but in the object that incarnates them.

It'd be overselling it to say the history of art is a history of monsters, but it is entirely accurate to say a history of monsters is a history of art.

Monsters have a specific interest to art theory outside RPG aesthetics: they are things that are made of (and only of) the medium that describes them. Like: a Lascaux horse is representation of a thing out there--a real horse. Whereas this:
(This is from Greenland.)

…is only this. It has no "real appearance" outside the ivory describing it. The artist themself might even think it is only a crude representation of a real thing that's out there, but there is no thing out there to check it against. In this way, monster art is actually closer to abstract art than it is to art representing animals and people. It goes where the mind does--like monsters do.

Monster art is thus uniquely psychological--in a way the more dutiful kinds of art have a tough time being.

Though even when not making monsters, our earliest artists had a beautiful knack of making everything look fucked up:
The traditional interpretation of this kind of art tends to basically be: inside every ancient artist is a little Italian Renaissance artist struggling to get out, very slowly. Do we have perspective yet? Do we have proper proportions yet? Are we doing individual people yet?

A more expressionist interpretation would be: look at that Sami sculpture on the far right. It's saying something already now. Something unique to it, like FUUUUCK I LIVE ON AN ICE PLANET AND I AM STARING AT THE SKY SCRAPING A ROCK WITH ANOTHER ROCK BECAUSE WHAT THE FUCK ELSE AM I GOING TO DO?

You never know what tribal and traditional art is supposed to be saying--and so it isn't discussed much--but what we here now feel it saying is just as important, or more. After all: that's what's actually happening now to you.

This is art by people who were at level of constant contact with their world (animals, weather, mud) that most of us can barely imagine and yet knew very little about the world (why animals? why weather? why mud?). A great deal of the art was guesses about the forces that dominated the world--attempts to assess it. They knew this: it was other and scary.

Our monsters now (virus zombie, berserk robot) tend to be errors in the natural order. Their monsters were the natural order.

Much of art history before modernism is a record of increasing realism and decreasing emotion. At least when we look at it with our 21st century eyes. The mainline of self-conscious art in China, Japan, India and Europe wouldn't have anyone as crazy as that guy on the far right for thousands of years.

Here are some more Cthulhoids from the Sami (the people from the extreme north of Scandinavia, sometimes called the Lapps):
There is a very special effect in this kind of art: I need to tell you a very specific thing and you will never know what it is.  These are the kinds of images from which pictograms and then written language sprang. It is like someone looking right into your eyes and repeating a sentence over and over in a language you don't know, with emphasis:
E'th'et Kaana F'Vor Est Ina.
E'th'et Kaana F'Vor Est Ina!
E'th'et Kaana F'Vor Est In-a!!!
…the actual ability to communicate is stunted but the intensity and particularity is what gives it power. Like: what is that long-legged doghead monster on the bottom right? Why does it have two rectangles sticking out of its back? What do all these other things going on have to do with it?

We don't know--and in that not knowing there is a wonderful freedom to just enjoy it. It is permanently exotic to us.

The earliest art of almost every part of the world is:

…and there are still cultures and artists that were producing work very much in this vein up until the 20th century--like the Greenland Inuit:

Here's a thing about ancient art:
It's fucking nuts. Artist historians and archaeologists go through and try to pick out repeated features and iconographies but what's more striking is how much stuff is just out of nowhere. Weird shapes or ways of assembling things that appear once or twice and disappear--seemingly unconnected to anything else before or since, like discarded mutations. All the bullshit about ancient aliens comes from how fucked this art is.

Let's take a look...

You can watch regional styles develop over the centuries--the looping animal motifs in Scythian art is remarkably consistent regardless of the medium:
One of the earliest tattoos--there are stags in there

The spur of the tattoo on the left appears to be a  hoof
Scythian stonework 
…however this is unusual: in most cases you can see the shapes in the art being formed by the materials the art is executed in. Does that mean the shapes in the stonework (and metalwork later) were derived from tattoo shapes? Hard to tell--the record of tattoos is frustratingly fragmentary: we occasionally get a glimpse of something unbelievably intricate and then nothing for thousands of years. There's a whole history of drawing there that's completely lost.

Here are some Serbian river gods from Lepenski Vir, carved from cobbles. The one on the far right looks particularly freaked out at being graven in stone...

Nobody in Italian Renaissance, Mannerist, Neoclassical, Pre-Raphaelite, Baroque, Roccocco or Impressionist art ever looks that freaked out. 

China, like I mentioned a few days ago, was always way ahead of everyone as this jade pig-dragon proves:

 …although this piece of Iranian proto-elamite silverwork, dating from 3000 BC is by far the most sophisticated thing going for a few hundred years:

While nobody knows what it is or means or who the bull is supposed to be, it points up a recurring theme in ancient art: almost everybody was better at making animals than people.

We all know what people in Egyptian art look like--they look the same for like 3000 years. The Egyptians produced what appears to be the most consistently conservative visual culture in human history. The animals, on the other hand, are generally more sensitive, dynamic, realistic and evocative:

Even sitting still, the back legs suggest the animal could spring forward at any second.

While nobody can know why this is, I have a pet theory. There are rules for depicting people--even today the way people are depicted is a subject of great debate among the ruling and scholarly classes. There are right ways and wrong ways to depict people--the depictions have conventions and rights and wrongs and get tied up with religious, hierarchical, and social codes. In Egypt the codes for depicting people were so strict that when, during the reign of Akhenaten, the codes were briefly relaxed, you can actually see a torrent of totally new styles emerge at shocking speed (and then disappear when the Akhenaten's reign ends). It is true that in some Islamic societies, depicting people was outright forbidden. The human figure is a locus of anxiety--so each culture tends, after a few thousand years, to find a way to depict people and then sticks to it.

Which is not to say these codified ways are universally boring--the Mehrgarh people of the Indus Valley (in modern day Pakistan) decided people looked like oozing freaks:

Anyone whose ever rolled and coiled Play-Doh can see where the characteristic shapes of Mehrgarh terracotta came from.

Japan's earliest consistent and identifiable culture--the Jomon--seem to have developed these distinctive and fantastically stylized figures by deriving human shapes from jug or water-vessel shapes:

China, meanwhile, was deep into bronze--and they already had dynasties and shit with Kings with actual names and stuff, like the Shang and Zhou. Bronze is a big deal, and very flexible. One way to tell early Chinese artifacts apart from Mesoamerican ones are the thin, tapering lines--like on the bottom of the handle of this zoomorphic jug:

 …or on this elephant's trunk:
 …bronze will hold its shape even with these tenuous lines, unlike stone or wood which would snap right off if it was that thin.

Linear complexity is a knock-on effect of the hardness of the material you're using.  If elves were using mithril, that explains those scrolling 19th-century shapes they've got worked into their arms and armor.
…which is not to say mesoamerica wasn't making anything good. In fact, for variety of materials and morphologies (including in the people) it's hard to beat mesoamerican stuff:

This is Coatlique--she has 2 snake heads

Jade masks from Mexico

That nose and those fingers look like nothing else you'll see--
if you find a museum with Colombian or Peruvian art in it
I guarantee you'll see something totally out of left field every
few minutes.

Bat monster
Meanwhile, the Celts were largely ignoring people and developing a mania for linework that wouldn't stop til after Aubrey Beardsley…

And, yeah, there was ancient Greece and Rome. Greek art is generally broken into 4 periods:
Geometric (stiff people with triangle bodies), Archaic (endlessly repeated sculptures of little boys with wavy hair and dumb eyes), Classical (Venus De Milo and whatnot) and Hellenistic. The Hellenistic is the only good one--this was the period where the skills developed during the Classical era were used to present subjects with far more intensity. Here's an old woman:
Even then, the majority of it is pretty stiff--especially compared to what folks like Michaelangelo,  Bernini and Houdon would do with the whole Realism-In-Marble thing hundreds of years later.

The Paracas Culture on the other hand, was having crazy fun:

click to enlarge the madness
You'll notice it looks like pixel art--that's because it essentially is--in needlework, each area is a dot of color. These figures were assembled color by color, square by square.
The Zapotec made some fucking intense monsters--the stone-born simplicity of the constituent shapes makes them far scarier than their curlicued Chinese equivalents.

There's something very modern about the way pre-Columbian cultures just let the materials be the materials--letting the form emerge out of the shapes, colors and textures the images are made from:

This blue nosed guy is apparently a "functionary". It's all very Tekumel: a clearly complicated society, but one with rules and codes we can't begin to guess.
Click on that and enlarge it--that rabbit at the bottom could've been drawn yesterday. And the complexity of the visual space with those stacked floors and ceilings is pretty dungeony.

This is also the period where the largest artworks in the world were made: the mysterious Nazca drawings of animals--only legible from the air. However, there were other giant earth drawings--my favorite is the Atacama Giant from Argentina:

You'll notice African stuff is conspicuous by its absence from this entry (also the art of Oceania, Australia, America, and Southeast Asia)--this is because the majority of the most interesting work was made in wood--which doesn't last long. Because of that, most of the best examples of African art are actually from the past two centuries--the compelling Nok head above being a relatively rare exception. We'll take a look at it later.


  1. Great read Zak, cheers. Incidentally that rabbit appears to repairing a stereo with a piece of duct tape.

    1. Clearly they were describing a Metamorphosis Alpha game.

  2. This might be the only no-bullshit survey of art I've read & looked at. Thank you! Hope this series runs for awhile. I kept showing my wife pictures and we both kept going "Holy shit that's weird… Holy SHIT that's weird!"

  3. Interesting how the Jomon, some of the Mayan art, etc. feed back into our modern mythology with earnestly worked out theories concluding they have to be depictions of ancient astronauts.

    1. What I find interesting is how the chrono-circuitry that is mistaken by artists and anthropologists as embellishment is vital to maintaining a time traveler's temporal homeostasis.

      At least if the suit does fail due to damage or malfunction, the pico-singularity that forms leaves no evidence of the wearer before evaporating

  4. Although I enjoy virtually all of your posts, the ones including the (long) random tables and the ones with the art collections are among my favourite. I was therefore tremendously excited last Friday when you announced your art course and got even more enthousiastic now that you have posted the first of the series.

    A very nice selection of ancient art with some refreshing insights. The pictures are as always very inspirational.

    Looking forward to the next episode.

  5. Great post!

    About the people vs animal thing - couldn't it be a side effect of art exploring the strange and the numinous? That is, perhaps the artist crafting a bull or whatever had to guess what it meant to be a bull (power? horns? fertility? laziness?) while s/he to a greater extent knew what it meant to be a person in that (presumably) rather fixed traditionalist society.

    1. If you rewrite that thesis so it's less vague--maybe.

      Like: objective observation is more likely to produce accurate drawing than observing with lots of preconceptions.

      And--exploration is more likely to produce interesting art than presentation of a known viewpoint.

    2. Why are you wasting your time with people when it is the bull ewers that are selling Mem-Shaluk?

  6. Would that you were my art history teacher at the high school ... well, enjoying and learning shit now at least! Have you considered making an iVersity MOOC? That would have been awesome!

  7. That Chinese dagger hilt is beautiful.