What Makes Us Human

And one percent Neanderthal

Art and Progress

What does it mean to say "cavemen" drew animals "better" than modern artists?

Signs of human distinction that once were unassailable have faded. It is no longer possible to say that humans are "the toolmakers"; chimpanzees use tools. Trying to draw a boundary between humans and non-humans based on language leads to questions about what "language" is, when gorillas can use 1000 signs to communicate.

And then there is art.

Art has endured as a prerogative of humans.

"Art" by non-human primates is mainly represented as a joke, a parody of the incoherent nature of modern (abstract, non-representational) art. While Koko the gorilla suggests nonhuman primates share our ability to communicate, and the Gombe chimps show that tool use is an ancient heritage, Monkey Painting belongs more to the kitschy genre that also includes cats painting.

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The American Museum of Natural History tells us

People everywhere in the world create visual symbols. We make art to communicate, claim status, stir emotions and transcend the material world.

That transcendance has a history, which used to be viewed through the lens of gradual improvement. In 1920 Henry Gilbert published the text of a lecture he had given at Harvard University, called "Progress in Art". Arguing that change over time should be viewed in the light of the theory of evolution as progress, he wrote

Art, being one of man's activities, is dominated, in its history, by the same natural laws which dominate man himself and all other of his activities.... Now I ask why should Art, one of the most special, intimate, and significant of man's expressions, not be subject to these same natural laws which affect all the others?

Gilbert then critiqued what nineteenth and early twentieth century authors had previously said about art and progress, underlining contradictory claims that art had not changed since the days of Phidias in Classical Greece, or had reached its height in the Renaissance with Raphael, quoting John Ruskin:

In mediaeval art, thought is the first thing, execution the second. And again in mediaeval art truth is first, beauty second; in modern art, beauty is first, truth second. The mediaeval principles led up to Raphael, and the modern principles led down from him.

Gilbert, like many of his contemporaries, believed in specific ways to trace progress in the visual arts:

When we contemplate the history of an art; say the graphic art, drawing and painting-- we discover a period when the laws of perspective were not understood. Late we discover a time when they were understood, and we notice that all graphic artists have availed themselves of them.

As Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian a decade ago, noted, the security of this way of measuring progress in visual art-- the introduction of perspective in European art, implicit in Ruskin's nomination of Raphael as the peak of art-- came undone in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The catalyst? the rediscovery of Palaeolithic painting:

Abstraction, unadorned drawing, non-representational colour, superimposition: all the values of modern art had their primal scene in the caves.

It seems ironic, given this history, that a new study published in PLOS One should turn to the deep history of art to rank different artists according to the realism of their representation of animals.

Titled Cavemen Were Better at Depicting Quadruped Walking than Modern Artists: Erroneous Walking Illustrations in the Fine Arts from Prehistory to Today, the paper examines how closely depictions of animals in motion match the sequence recorded by early experimental photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

The authors found an increase in conformity with the way animal locomotion looked when photodocumented after Muybridge:

The error rate of modern pre-Muybridgean quadruped walking illustrations was 83.5%, much more than the error rate of 73.3% of mere chance. It decreased to 57.9% after 1887, that is in the post-Muybridgean period.

Once a model was available, artists used it to adjust how they represented the world, following the pursuit of realism that Gilbert and others see as defining European art.

But that's not all the authors of the new study found. They also applied their model to Palaeolithic depictions of animals, with findings that have been publicized in the press under headlines like "Cavemen better at drawing animals than modern artists":

Most surprisingly, the prehistoric quadruped walking depictions had the lowest error rate of 46.2%.

This is explicitly a claim that Palaeolithic artists were trying to be realistic in their depiction of animals:

Thus, cavemen were more keenly aware of the slower motion of their prey animals and illustrated quadruped walking more precisely than later artists.

It effectively reverses what Jonathan Jones noted was the original reaction to Palaeolithic art at the turn of the 20th century:

According to the aesthetic values that dominated European high culture in the 15th to 19th centuries, the flat, forcefully drawn, overlapping shapes in caves could not be art, or could only be the childish art of the untrained. They were not accomplished.

There are, of course, some problems of interpretation here. The authors of the PLOS One article note in their conclusion that

It would be difficult to perform a really fair comparison between (prehistoric and modern) artistic quadruped walking illustrations and the real walk of living quadrupeds, because there is no proof that the investigated examples of modern art intended to represent walking in a standard way.

While the intentions of modern artists remain inscrutable, those of the Palaeolithic painters can be assumed:

Since the observation of animals was not merely a pastime, but a matter of survival, we can suppose that compared to artists of latter eras, when people were not as directly connected to nature, the creators of such cavepaintings and carvings observed their subjects better and thus they depicted the walk of the animals in a more life-like manner.

Jones argued that modern artists' depiction of animals resembled those of their Palaeolithic predecessors not in intention, but in aesthetic impulses:

Palaeolithic art seemed, to modern observers, preoccupied with animals, with an urgent need to depict bison, mammoths, reindeer.... This is so close to the violence, rawness, primal energy of modern art. Isolated, energetic figures of animals appear in Rousseau, Picasso, Ernst; animals figure in a primitivist, totemic way in the German expressionist paintings of Franz Marc and the hermetic art of Paul Klee.

Jones suggests that any storyline that seeks to connect the works of such a distant past and those of our present or recent history must contend with a fundamental discontinuity:

There is no way of connecting stone age art to ourselves through narrative - only by analogy.

Analogy: Picasso and Rousseau linked their practice to that of the ancient artists through aesthetic necessity; the authors of the new study assume pragmatics guided the Palaeolithic hand. For the former, art was eternal, no longer "the latest chapter in an unbroken story, from the Greek and Roman world via the Renaissance".

For the authors of the new study, it seems, progress in art is as clear as it was to Henry Gilbert. We might paraphrase Ruskin:

The palaeolithic principles led up to Muybridge, and the modern principles led down from him.

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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