Posted in Art, Culture/Arts, Science/Technology, tagged Art, freedom, Ice Age, ice age art, imagination, reason, symbolic thought, symbolism on June 5, 2013|
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I managed to get a ticket for the very last day of the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum on Sunday.
At one level, the works are extraordinary. To stand in front of a 40,000 year old Lion Man carved in ivory; to see a flute from the same period made from the bone of a griffon vulture, with six carefully spaced holes waiting to be fingered; to pass from one exhibition case to the next, a succession of statues, figurines, etchings, carvings, tools, weapons, most of them with some form of figurative imagery, thousands and thousands of years old. And to think that for some reason it was in this period in Europe that figurative art first developed.
At another level, it’s extraordinarily ordinary. These are images and carvings that could have been created yesterday, in the local art college, or even the local school. They clearly have a huge and unknown symbolic value, but as examples of figurative art they are simply very graceful and well-kept examples of the human urge to represent what is real.
This is what the human mind does. It produces images of what is out there in the real world (an etching of a lion jumping). It forms imaginary creations by playing with these images mentally and combining and recreating them (the head of a lion on the body of a man). It makes tools (a carefully carved stone core), weapons (a small pouch to launch an arrow), and musical instruments (the vulture bone flute). The mind or imagination works symbolically, and this is what allows us to transform the world, because the symbols don’t just stay in the mind – they change how we relate to the world and what we do in and with it.
It’s the lack of distance between then and now that is so extraordinary. If we could meet these ancestors of ours, and have just a few weeks of contact, perhaps just a few days, we would have learnt their language, and they ours, and we would be communicating as neighbours, as brothers and sisters. And yes, we would be working out whether they were friends or enemies, and the whole of human history would unfold once more…
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Posted in Culture/Arts, Morality, Relationships, tagged children, Christmas, fairytales, fantasy, Father Christmas, home, imagination, Jesus, lies, love, motherhood, parenting, Santa, Santa Claus, stories, storytelling, trauma, trust, truth on November 21, 2012|
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I had a great discussion on Sunday with a group of young adults about the morality/wisdom of telling your children that Father Christmas exists and delivers their presents each year.
Is it a form of lying? Is it, rather, a kind of mythology or fairy-tale that does no more harm than reading them bedtime stories, and actually does them good in helping them to develop their imagination and sense of wonder? Is it simply harmless? Or does it lead to a traumatic break in child-parent trust when they finally realise that the reality they have been told about by their parents is simply not true?
And – an extra question for Christian parents – if you are telling them stories about Santa Claus and Jesus at the same time, with the same awe-struck tone of voice, does it mean that the Jesus stories crumble as easily as the Santa ones a few years later?
I think your answer partly depends on your own experience. Some people never really believed in Santa anyway; there was some sixth sense that told them it was just a story, an act of make-believe. Some people really are traumatised when they discover The Big Lie that everyone around them has been conspiratorially involved in; and there is a questioning of what it means to trust their parents.
Others, much more low-key, remember a sense of disappointment and minor shock when they found out – they made a connection for themselves, or a big brother or sister told them, or they found the presents in their parents’ wardrobe the week before.
The other issue that came up was the fact that your decision as parents has an influence on others. Does it mean that your enlightened three-year old goes into the play group and tells all the other children it’s all a load of nonsense – to the consternation of the other parents?
Me? I can’t remember ever believing it – Santa Claus; reindeer; coming down the chimney; etc. I’m not saying I never did, I just can’t remember; and I can’t remember a moment of discovering it wasn’t true. My memories, perhaps quite late (5 or 6 years old?) are longing to fall asleep, knowing that mum and dad wouldn’t bring the presents in before then.
Comments please! Did it traumatise you? What do you tell your own children about Santa?
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Posted in Art, Science/Technology, tagged Art, Blombos Cave, cave paintings, Chauvet, hominids, homo sapiens, imagination, painting, prehistory, stone age, technology, tools on October 14, 2011|
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You know about my love of prehistoric cave paintings. The famous images at Chauvet were painted over 30,000 years ago – quite a distance in time. This makes it all the more astonishing that painting kits used about 100,000 years ago have been discovered in a cave in South Africa, evidence not just of the production of art and the presence of a symbolic imagination, but also of an ability to mix chemicals and store materials.
Etologic horse study from cave at Chauvet
This is the abstract describing the research in Science.
The conceptual ability to source, combine, and store substances that enhance technology or social practices represents a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition. Excavations in 2008 at Blombos Cave, South Africa, revealed a processing workshop where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced and stored in two Haliotis midae (abalone) shells 100,000 years ago. Ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones, and hammerstones form a composite part of this production toolkit. The application of the mixture is unknown, but possibilities include decoration and skin protection.
Ian Sample comments:
Two sets of implements for preparing red and yellow ochres to decorate animal skins, body parts or perhaps cave walls were excavated at the Blombos cave on the Southern Cape near the Indian Ocean.
The stone and bone tools for crushing, mixing and applying the pigments were uncovered alongside the shells of giant sea snails that had been used as primitive mixing pots. The snails are indigenous to South African waters.
“This is the first known instance for deliberate planning, production and curation of a compound,” Christopher Henshilwood at the University of Bergen told Science, adding that the finding also marked the first known use of containers. “It’s early chemistry. It casts a whole new light on early Homo sapiens and tells us they were probably a lot more intelligent than we think, and capable of carrying out quite sophisticated acts at least 40,000 to 50,000 years before any other known example of this kind of basic chemistry,” he added.
“You could use this type of mixture to prepare animal skins, to put on as body paint, or to paint on the walls of the cave, but it is difficult to be sure how it was used,” said Francesco d’Errico, a study co-author at the University of Bordeaux. “The discovery is a paradox because we now know much better how the pigment was made than what it is used for.”
So we were there, we Homo sapiens, 100,000 years ago – imagining, thinking, planning, cooperating, collecting, mixing, experimenting, storing, painting; and whatever else this painting led into…
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Posted in Art, Books, Psychology, tagged Assisi, childhood, Dr Who, fantasy, imagination, Maurice Sendak, Narnia, reading, Royal Wedding, thinking, trees, Where the Wild Things Are, wonder, writing on May 4, 2011|
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My other highlight from the Royal Wedding was the trees that were brought into the nave of Westminster Abbey. It wasn’t just that they beautified the interior of the Abbey, like an oversized bunch of carefully arranged flowers; it was the magical sense they created that by entering into this building you were actually going out into another completely different world.
I’ve always loved this kind of illusion. It demonstrates how going inside can sometimes take you outside; how fixing your glance on something small can sometimes make your vision much broader. It’s like a metaphor for the power of the imagination itself, which uses something ordinary to transport you somewhere extraordinary. The very act of reading, for example – so still, so stationary, so solitary – is to float up into another world, or fall down into a rabbit-hole of adventure.
The trees in Westminster Abbey made me think of one of my favourite childhood books, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, where the inner walls of Max’s bedroom are transformed into the treescape of a terrifying jungle. And the wallpaper in David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth that turned his sitting room into an autumnal forest. And Lucy clambering through the wardrobe as the coats turned into leaves and branches and the darkness opened out into the forest snow of Narnia. And Dr Who stepping into the Tardis.
My favourite example of this kind of imaginative inversion is St Francis of Assisi’s Portiuncula. This is the little medieval chapel that once sat in the forest in the plain below Assisi. But they cut down the trees and built an enormous basilica over the entire chapel. So now you leave the streets, walk into the Church of St Mary of the Angels, and instead of being ‘inside’ you are transported ‘outside’ to the forest glade surrounding the chapel. Every time I have been there I have been struck with child-like wonder.
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Posted in Culture/Arts, Philosophy, Science/Technology, tagged commitment, creativity, grammar, imagination, intellect, Lego, Lego bricks, Relationships, Star Wars on January 19, 2010|
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A young friend of mine got a Lego kit for Christmas, some spaceship from Star Wars that I vaguely recognised. I’d always thought that they make new pieces for each of these specially designed kits — they look so authentic. But when I expressed this thought around the dining table there were gasps of incredulity.
The challenge, apparently, is for the Lego engineers to create a new design without using any new pieces, just by sticking to the back catalogue. This is the heart of the Lego philosophy: To build something amazing from the tools at hand. There is a purity about this. And I began to notice how the hyperspace thrusters (or whatever they are called) looked remarkably like wheel rims; and the probes or guns on the side of the spaceship looked like gear sticks…
This is an example of how a limitation can be a factor in releasing creativity. The rules of a game, the grammar of a language, the size of a canvas, one’s commitment to a relationship — these constraints are often the very conditions that allow the human intellect and imagination to soar.
But of course there are exceptions! And when you hit a brick wall you sometimes need to change the rules. It turns out, I was told, that you can produce a new Lego brick, if there is simply no other solution. This decision falls to a high-priesthood of Lego elders, meeting in committee, who make such a solemn judgment only out of absolute necessity – fully aware that it risks shaking the foundations of the Lego ecosystem.
[While we are on Lego, see this page of “20 Incredible LEGO Artworks by Nathan Sawaya“.]
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The five greatest time travel films of all, err, time: Twelve Monkeys; Terminator 2; Groundhog Day; Les Visiteurs; Planet of the Apes (the original version). Discuss.
The Time Traveler’s Wife, sadly, does not even make the top ten. It’s very silly, and very soppy, and full of plot holes. But it does play around much more than most films do with the idea of the traveller [proper English spelling now, as I’m not quoting the title] going back and forward in time to meet himself.
It’s bizarre, and utterly fantastical – but in fact we do it every day. I know that dogs and dolphins have memories, and plan for the future. But we human beings seem to have a distinctive ability to become present to ourselves as we were in the past, and aware of ourselves as we might be in the future. Memory and imagination seem to have a special power for us. We really go back in time and see ourselves as we were, and this allows us to learn, and to regret, and to be grateful – and so many other things. And we really go forward in time and imagine how we could be in the future, and this allows us to be creative and inventive and even visionary.
The key, according to Sartre, is not that we can go back or forward in time, it is that in the present we can step back from ourselves – from our own thoughts and feelings and desires – and take a look at them. A look that might be curious, or approving, or critical. This ‘presence-to-self’ is what makes us human, and makes us free, and allows us to time travel.
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