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ArtPrintCritical dictionary


Maria Teresa Cruz and Raquel Henriques Silva




Although art is part of man and of his most elementary forms of communitarian organization, only late did History of Art discover its extreme antiquity. Mythical or merely symbolic narratives on the birth of art appeared to Western culture in Classical Greece (6th to 4th centuries BC), connected to the apparently accidental discovery of image autonomy. Shadow on a wall or dancing reflection on waters, the image of things was understood as the possibility to detain them, through a skilful control where lines and colours were settled. In the eighteenth century, when mythical narratives gave place to History of Art’s discursiveness, the question of the roots of art was, for the first time, placed within a geographical, economic, and social context, appointing Classical Greece as the place from where all culture and art sprang. Still in the eighteenth century, the emergence of aesthetic thought contributed decisively to the evidencing of art’s cultural specificity and the establishment of artistic value. Aesthetic thought finally establishes artistic production as the human creation of beauty and particular expression of an author, as well as the reception of beauty as an experience of equally distinct value, the aesthetic experience.    
However, at the same time this Western invention of art was being affirmed, the first scientific expeditions to the heart of Brazil began, promoted by the academies and universities. One of their most important results was the relatively systematic gathering of artefacts belonging to tribes of gatherers: daily use, adornment or religious objects introduced in Europe the question of primitivism. First, the Indians of Brazil, then the more isolated, African communities and, finally, since mid-nineteenth century, the Aboriginals from Australia and the immense cultures from the South Pacific Islands, confronted Europe with the existence of others who lived outside History. It also began to be understood, exactly at that time, that “primitivism” had existed in Europe for a long time and its antiquity kept being extended. Prehistory was born: its extension, diversity and increasing complexity became one of the most relevant themes in archaeology, with long-lasting echoes in all social sciences and philosophy. It is within the scope of the establishment of Prehistory as scientific domain that Prehistoric Art was discovered and, with it, another approach to the problem of the origins of art. Prehistoric Art was, almost immediately, connected to the primitive arts of “non-civilized” peoples, both understood as fundamental components of daily life and religious experience, yet without artistic value. In the last years of the nineteenth century, two situations will contribute to change this appreciation.
Within the domain of Prehistory, the discovery of the Caves of Altamira - their spectacular paintings of the end of the Upper Palaeolithic convinced the most sceptical that artistic quality was not exclusive to civilization and that elementary forms of life and social organization were compatible with high, technical and plastic capacities of symbolic invention. Outside the realm of Prehistory archaeology, it was modern art that most contributed to the valuing of primitive and Prehistoric art. Artists from the first avant-gardes of the twentieth century, among which Picasso, found in these artistic expressions which academic teaching still despised, motifs of inspiration and liberation from the classical canons of beauty. They loved and valued those visual arts, driven by the game of possibilities of matter and form, where the axial questions of theory of art were already brilliantly enounced: imitation and realism, interacting with the uncertain figuration and abstraction, merging for the elaboration of symbols, apparently codified in iconographies but in fact polysemous and, sometimes, almost indecipherable. It was in this way, free of exclusive readings and aesthetic commandments, that the moderns understood the practice of art. In mid-twentieth century, after the discovery of the Caves of Lascaux, the valuing of Prehistoric art was transferred to the domain of philosophy by Georges Bataille who makes it coincide with the birth of art. One of the major questions then discussed is the almost absence of the human figure in a world where animals are the image of life and, perhaps, the body of gods. The “de-humanization” of art implicit thereon is an essential topic of contemporary art, especially in its uncertain dimension of «Post-historical” art.
In fact, contemporary art often presents an enigmatic appearance from where a unitary and harmonious vision of the human seems to have left. At the same time, it shows us that art does not have a mere history of progress, unlike what was imposed by a humanist vision. The experimentalist impulse of twentieth-century art promotes a constant and radical exploring of the limits of art that sometimes drives it back to the most elementary of forms and gestures. Confronted with this crisis of the model of progress, the humanist vision is led to face a possible end of art – a thought which haunted modern philosophy and theory of art. This thought of an end represents the liberation from a certain idea of art and the history it establishes. Therefore, art today is somehow beyond history of art itself. In that sense, it is close to the cultural manifestations prior to the invention of the idea of art, which are not yet circumscribed by this idea, as is the case of Prehistoric art.
Claiming for itself an extremely enlarged set of gestures and articulations with life, contemporary art raises a fundamental question on the human, on the forces he is endowed with and the ties that define him: those that stem from his natural condition (bios, body and earth), as well as those that transform that natural condition (like technique and social relations). Man’s involvement in an increasingly artificial universe does not impede – rather, it incites - the exploring of primordial dimensions of human experience that we see today equally reflected in contemporary art: the relations between art, life and environment (from land art to artificial environments and bio-art); the relations between body and art (from body art to the many forms of cultural appropriation of the body, such as piercings, tattoos, etc.); and the relations between art, rituality and performance (from happenings to performing arts).  
As the archaeologist Michel Lorblanchet suggests, “the extraordinary diversity of contemporary art should (…) expand the perception of pre-historians” [1]
  in the search and understanding of Prehistoric art. According to him, Prehistoric art did not appear suddenly, in the sophisticated form of rock engravings and paintings, as an artistic revolution of the Palaeolithic. It was implied instead in a greater diversity of gestures and in a cultural process of many thousands of years. The first, cultural manifestations of the human being - which already express the existence of symbolic thought - are related to technical activity, to daily and religious practices (more or less ritualized), and to the organization of relations between individuals. All these activities are deeply implied in life and it is in them that a specific search for form is expressed: adornment, use of dyes, ornamentation of objects and utensils. Some art historians recognize in ornament - existing since the most remote ancestry of culture - the emergence of a kind of “artistic will” or artistic impulse that transcends the purpose of all other human activity. However, in the case of Prehistory, the potential artistic impulse manifest in ornament is, nevertheless, rooted in life - it is not pure gratuity or desire to transcend it, as required by the modern concept of art. Some of the practices and rites of Prehistoric man go beyond the mere logic of survival but are indirectly articulated with it in other ways, namely symbolic and imaginary. The transcendence of art, regarding the strict needs of the human being, but also his attachment to life, are, in fact, its most intrinsic, anthropological grounding. The ambivalence of the relation between art and life remained central in all history of art, even throughout its modernity. Although modern culture triggered the autonomization and institutionalization of art, it also expressed in several ways – namely, through the avant-gardes - the yearning to bring together art and life and to dissolve art in general experience.
Nothing expresses better this ambivalence between the autonomy or purity of art and its non-absolute specificity than the complexity of its relation with technique. The work of art represents, for the moderns, the liberation from all purpose or utility, and nothing is more contrary to that gratuity than the technical object. However, not only the Prehistoric origin of art, but also the historical-cultural invention of the concept of art in Ancient Greece, evidence, on the contrary, a deep affinity between art and technique. The relation between both is therefore an important theme of Palaeontology and Archaeology, but also of Philosophy and Theory of Art, as well as a particularly important, cultural debate for modern and contemporary thought.
For many centuries, history of art evidences a disciplinary vision of the arts, essentially rooted in the recognition of its technical specificities. Drawing, Engraving, Sculpture and Painting are the names for a diversity of artistic techniques underlying the artistic gesture, even if they do not exhaust it, being complemented by style. More recent history, in its turn, takes into account important differences and tensions between art and technique. The modern process of art autonomization is, in great part, the process of differentiation between fine arts (as liberal arts) and mechanical arts, just as the notions of work of art and artefact refer (for the moderns) to distinct and even tensional ideas. However, at the same time and despite these tensions, modern culture did not stop deepening the affinity between art and technique, existing since always.
The modern emergence of design and its increasing influence on the most diverse sectors of activity reflect the growing intertwinement between technological culture and artistic culture. It becomes clear that art requires technique, but that technique and industrial production also need art and mobilize, for instance, the formal codes and patterns of taste it creates. Besides, modern culture also triggered the emergence of technical images (of photography, film, video and digital images) that have expanded and transformed decisively our understanding of art. The relation between art and technique – namely, the idea of “technological arts” - is one of the most debated, cultural problematics today. Human experience is increasingly marked by technique. Therefore, its means and involvement are also more and more technical, as the experience of “cyberspace” or “virtual environments” evidence today. However, every surrounding environment that man makes his has, since immemorial times, his mark. That mark, simultaneously technical, plastic and symbolic, moulds the never-ending dialectics between artificial and natural or between art and nature that form culture in an essential way.
Art and technique result from a same yearning to transcend nature and the merely natural dimension of the human, but also from the refusal to entrust everything to the Gods, to the ideal or pure form, inscribing in matter, through concrete gestures, the longing for that transcendence. Rock engravings are one of the most beautiful evidences of this condition. From the classical conception of art as imitation of nature, to the romantic transformation of nature into landscape and, finally, to the contemporary return of art to the earth as land art, art was always a mark of man’s action on earth. It starts in our form of inhabiting it and therefore is often expressed as the marking of territory: rock engraving, mural painting, site-specific art or installation. In remote, secluded places or in the open air, as public art or closed in museums, art is, just as we are, an inhabitant of the earth and a creator of the world. Where man lives, even if transitorily, art also makes its appearance. Being able to dwell there, without viewers, for a long time, it sometimes finds them thousands of years later, to resume, although still wrapped in enigma, a timeless communication.
Maria Teresa Cruz
Raquel Henriques Silva

[1] Michel Lorblanchet, As Origens da Arte, IGESPAR/CECL, 2009.
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