How much power or importance the Ice Age makers and users attributed to their sculpture is again a matter of guesswork. There are interesting new data, from attempts to reproduce the artefacts using the tools and techniques most probably involved, on how long the figures and more elaborate patterns took to make. Scores of hours, it looks like. This leads to the question of quality. Archaeologists (and right-thinking art historians, by the way) are reluctant to trust their powers of judgment here, but my ‘modern mind’, as it moved through the rooms in the show, was soon reeling from the huge disparities of skill and aesthetic complexity obvious from piece to piece. How fabulously, ruthlessly brilliant the best craft performances were, and how pathetic and negligible the worst! The social anthropologists tell us that ‘symbolic thought entails consciousness of the aesthetic.’ Nice to know. Whoever it was made the Lespugue Venus, or carved the fish-patterns on the tusk from Eliseevitchi (but the fish-scale analogy undersells the weird multiplicity of the rhythms and sizes of mark in play), or imagined the torque of the bison’s neck from Zaraysk – well, they knew that their mastery-mystery would soon set the fireside chattering. Just as surely as the scratchers of the mammoth scrawl from La Madeleine or the listless ptarmigan from Isturitz or the lavatory-wall woman from Courbet Cave couldn’t have cared less. Consciousness of the aesthetic has never necessarily meant competence; or even, most often, the wish to compete. A lot of the time, any old visualisation will do.
more from T.J. Clark at the LRB here.