John Ruskin: A prophet for our troubled times

Philip Hoare writes:

In 1964, Kenneth Clark set out the problems of loving John Ruskin. One was his fame itself. Like his sometime pupil Oscar Wilde (who, along with other of his Oxford students he persuaded to dig a road in Hinksey in order that they learn the dignity of labour), Ruskin defined the art and culture of his century. “For almost 50 years,” Clark wrote in his book, Ruskin Today, “to read Ruskin was accepted as proof of the possession of a soul.” Gladstone would have made him poet laureate “and was only prevented from doing so by the fact that [Ruskin] was out of his mind”.

Ruskin was a man who believed in angels but championed the most radical British artist of his time. He was a social reformer and utopian who was at heart a conservative reactionary and a puritan. He was a brilliant artist who ought to have been a bishop. He hated trains but invented the blog.

How can it be that a man so celebrated in his time is only fitfully remembered now, 200 years after his birth – and then mostly for a salacious story that he was too intimidated by the sight of his young wife’s pubic hair to perform on his wedding night? He’s a beardy Victorian worthy, preserved in sepia photographs and unread books with inexplicable titles – Unto This Last, Sesame and Lilies, Praeterita – consigned to the top shelves of charity shops.

The problem lies in the fact that Ruskin rejects all those presumptions even in his own lifetime. His watercolours of the natural world – from mosses to Swiss mountains – are astonishing, hyper-real representations of something close to his soul, a metaphysical reality. He declined to join the headlong rush of economic progress and rejected the mores of his class. In the famous portrait of him by John Everett Millais – the Pre-Raphaelite artist who, even as he painted the picture in the Scottish Highlands, was about to seduce Ruskin’s young wife, Effie Gray – he stands on a rock by a waterfall, as if dominating the terrain around him. He looks the picture of Victorian rectitude; but he was undermining the century with his crusade.

His first offence was to champion William Turner’s paintings. Almost intuitively, Ruskin understood the power of what Turner was trying to do. As the contemporary eco-philosopher Timothy Morton says, “art is from the future”; Ruskin saw that futurity in Turner. His second offence was to attack capitalism. As Clark notes, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Bernard Shaw thought him one of the greatest social reformers of his time. When members at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party were asked which book had most influenced them, they answered Ruskin’s Unto This Last. Bernard Shaw pithily summed up Ruskin’s affront to his own class: he told them, “You are a parcel of thieves.” [Continue reading…]

How beauty is making biologists rethink evolution

Ferris Jabr writes:

A male flame bowerbird is a creature of incandescent beauty. The hue of his plumage transitions seamlessly from molten red to sunshine yellow. But that radiance is not enough to attract a mate. When males of most bowerbird species are ready to begin courting, they set about building the structure for which they are named: an assemblage of twigs shaped into a spire, corridor or hut. They decorate their bowers with scores of colorful objects, like flowers, berries, snail shells or, if they are near an urban area, bottle caps and plastic cutlery. Some bowerbirds even arrange the items in their collection from smallest to largest, forming a walkway that makes themselves and their trinkets all the more striking to a female — an optical illusion known as forced perspective that humans did not perfect until the 15th century.

Yet even this remarkable exhibition is not sufficient to satisfy a female flame bowerbird. Should a female show initial interest, the male must react immediately. Staring at the female, his pupils swelling and shrinking like a heartbeat, he begins a dance best described as psychotically sultry. He bobs, flutters, puffs his chest. He crouches low and rises slowly, brandishing one wing in front of his head like a magician’s cape. Suddenly his whole body convulses like a windup alarm clock. If the female approves, she will copulate with him for two or three seconds. They will never meet again.

The bowerbird defies traditional assumptions about animal behavior. Here is a creature that spends hours meticulously curating a cabinet of wonder, grouping his treasures by color and likeness. Here is a creature that single-beakedly builds something far more sophisticated than many celebrated examples of animal toolmaking; the stripped twigs that chimpanzees use to fish termites from their mounds pale in comparison. The bowerbird’s bower, as at least one scientist has argued, is nothing less than art. When you consider every element of his courtship — the costumes, dance and sculpture — it evokes a concept beloved by the German composer Richard Wagner: Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, one that blends many different forms and stimulates all the senses.

 

This extravagance is also an affront to the rules of natural selection. Adaptations are meant to be useful — that’s the whole point — and the most successful creatures should be the ones best adapted to their particular environments. So what is the evolutionary justification for the bowerbird’s ostentatious display? Not only do the bowerbird’s colorful feathers and elaborate constructions lack obvious value outside courtship, but they also hinder his survival and general well-being, draining precious calories and making him much more noticeable to predators.

Numerous species have conspicuous, metabolically costly and physically burdensome sexual ornaments, as biologists call them. Think of the bright elastic throats of anole lizards, the Fabergé abdomens of peacock spiders and the curling, iridescent, ludicrously long feathers of birds-of-paradise. To reconcile such splendor with a utilitarian view of evolution, biologists have favored the idea that beauty in the animal kingdom is not mere decoration — it’s a code. According to this theory, ornaments evolved as indicators of a potential mate’s advantageous qualities: its overall health, intelligence and survival skills, plus the fact that it will pass down the genes underlying these traits to its children. A bowerbird with especially bright plumage might have a robust immune system, for example, while one that finds rare and distinctive trinkets might be a superb forager. Beauty, therefore, would not confound natural selection — it would be very much a part of it.

Charles Darwin himself disagreed with this theory. Although he co-discovered natural selection and devoted much of his life to demonstrating its importance, he never claimed that it could explain everything. Ornaments, Darwin proposed, evolved through a separate process he called sexual selection: Females choose the most appealing males “according to their standard of beauty” and, as a result, males evolve toward that standard, despite the costs. Darwin did not think it was necessary to link aesthetics and survival. Animals, he believed, could appreciate beauty for its own sake. Many of Darwin’s peers and successors ridiculed his proposal. To them, the idea that animals had such cognitive sophistication — and that the preferences of “capricious” females could shape entire species — was nonsense. Although never completely forgotten, Darwin’s theory of beauty was largely abandoned.

Now, nearly 150 years later, a new generation of biologists is reviving Darwin’s neglected brainchild. Beauty, they say, does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes. Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. [Continue reading…]

In cave in Borneo jungle, scientists find oldest figurative painting in the world

The New York Times reports:

On the wall of a cave deep in the jungles of Borneo, there is an image of a thick-bodied, spindly-legged animal, drawn in reddish ocher.

It may be a crude image. But it also is more than 40,000 years old, scientists reported on Wednesday, making this the oldest figurative art in the world.

Until now, the oldest known human-made figures were ivory sculptures found in Germany. Scientists have estimated that those figurines — of horses, birds and people — were at most 40,000 years old.

Researchers have found older man-made images, but these were abstract patterns, such as crisscrossing lines. The switch to figurative art represented an important shift in how people thought about the world around them — and possibly themselves.

The finding also demonstrates that ancient humans somehow made the creative transition at roughly the same time, in places thousands of miles apart. [Continue reading…]

South Africa’s Blombos cave is home to the earliest drawing by a human

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The drawing found on silcrete stone in Blombos Cave.
Craig Foster

By Christopher Henshilwood, University of Bergen and Karen Loise van Niekerk, University of Bergen

Scientists working in Blombos Cave in South Africa’s southern Cape region have made a discovery that changes our understanding of when our human ancestors started expressing themselves through drawings. They’ve found a 73 000-year-old cross-hatched drawing on a silcrete (stone) flake. It was made with an ochre crayon. The Conversation Africa asked Professor Christopher Henshilwood, who leads the team that made the discovery, about its significance.

What does the drawing your team found look like?

It consists of a set of six straight sub-parallel lines crossed obliquely by three slightly curved lines. One line partially overlaps the edge of a flake scar. This suggests it was made after that flake became detached. The abrupt termination of all lines on the fragment edges indicates that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface.

So the pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form.

This has shifted our thinking about when human ancestors started drawing. What was the earliest known drawing found before this?

The earliest known engraving, a zig-zag pattern incised on a fresh water shell from Trinil, Java, was found in layers dated to 540 000 years ago. In terms of drawings, a recent article proposed that painted representations in three caves of the Iberian Peninsula were 64,000 years old – this would mean they were produced by Neanderthals. So the drawing on the Blombos silcrete flake is the oldest drawing by Homo sapiens ever found.

[Read more…]

Warning signs: how early humans first began to paint animals

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Painting from El Castillo cave (Cantabria, Spain). Early Upper Palaeolithic or older.
Photo Becky Harrison and courtesy Gobierno de Cantabria., Author provided

By Derek Hodgson, University of York and Paul Pettitt, Durham University

Visual culture – and the associated forms of symbolic communication, are regarded by palaeo-anthropologists as perhaps the defining characteristic of the behaviour of Homo sapiens. One of the great mysteries of archaeology is why figurative art, in the form of the stunningly naturalistic animal depictions, appeared relatively suddenly around 37,000 years ago in the form of small sculpted objects and drawings and engravings on cave and rock shelter walls.

Since the discovery and authentication of such Palaeolithic art more than a century ago, theories have abounded as to what this meant to its Ice Age hunter-gatherer creators. But theories often say more about modern preconceptions regarding the function of art – how can we tell if we’re on the right track to understanding the remote and alien societies that created the first images?

In a radical new approach to the issue, we applied recent findings from visual neuroscience, perceptual psychology and the archaeology of cave art, that begin to make sense of the intriguing representations and forward what we hope can be tested scientifically.

[Read more…]

Neanderthals developed art earlier than modern humans

Carl Zimmer writes:

The two new studies don’t just indicate that Neanderthals could make cave art and jewelry. They also establish that Neanderthals were making these things long before modern humans — a blow to the idea that they simply copied their cousins.

The earliest known cave paintings made by modern humans are only about 40,000 years old, while Neanderthal cave art is at least 24,000 years older. The oldest known shell jewelry made by modern humans is about 70,000 years old, but Neanderthals were making it 45,000 years before then.

“These results imply that Neanderthals were not apart from these developments,” said Dr. Zilhão. “For all practical purposes, they were modern humans, too.”

The new studies raise another intriguing possibility, said Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum: that the capacity for symbolic thought was already present 600,000 years ago in the ancestors of both Neanderthals and modern humans. [Continue reading…]

New paper links ancient drawings and the origins of language

Peter Dizikes, Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

When and where did humans develop language? To find out, look deep inside caves, suggests an MIT professor.

More precisely, some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa.

A key to this idea is that cave art is often located in acoustic “hot spots,” where sound echoes strongly, as some scholars have observed. Those drawings are located in deeper, harder-to-access parts of caves, indicating that acoustics was a principal reason for the placement of drawings within caves. The drawings, in turn, may represent the sounds that early humans generated in those spots.

In the new paper, this convergence of sound and drawing is what the authors call a “cross-modality information transfer,” a convergence of auditory information and visual art that, the authors write, “allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking.” The combination of sounds and images is one of the things that characterizes human language today, along with its symbolic aspect and its ability to generate infinite new sentences.

“Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing,” says Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. “You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual.”

Cave artists were thus not just early-day Monets, drawing impressions of the outdoors at their leisure. Rather, they may have been engaged in a process of communication.

“I think it’s very clear that these artists were talking to one another,” Miyagawa says. “It’s a communal effort.”

The paper, “Cross-modality information transfer: A hypothesis about the relationship among prehistoric cave paintings, symbolic thinking, and the emergence of language,” is being published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The authors are Miyagawa; Cora Lesure, a Ph.D. student in MIT’s Department of Linguistics; and Vitor A. Nobrega, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil. [Continue reading…]

Paleolithic parenting and animated GIFs

The creation of the moving image represents a technical advance in the arts comparable with the invention of the steam engine during the industrial revolution.

The transition from static to moving imagery was a watershed event in human history, through which people discovered a new way of capturing the visible world — or so it seemed.

It turns out, however, that long before the advent of civilization, our Paleolithic forebears figured out that movement seen in living creatures around them could, by cunning means, be captured in crafted illusions of movement.


Let’s run with the hypothesis that this 14,000 year old artifact is indeed a toy. What does this tell us about its creator and the children for whom it was made?

Before people started congregating in large settlements and forming highly stratified societies, they weren’t enmeshed in a struggle for survival where daily life was all about finding the next meal without becoming one. On the contrary, the conditions of life were congenial to the pursuit of crafts that helped cultivate the imagination and promote delight of the young ones.

While in our world, animation may most often be used for surrogate parenting — a way of giving kids a blind watcher that frees up parental hands for more pressing matters (like sending and receiving text messages) — I doubt that this was how our ancestors used toys.

For one thing, the contemporary challenges of time management are stunningly contemporary. We have accomplished an extraordinary feat: figured out how to live longer than ever while also having a sense that we have less time than ever.

Did the Paleolithic dad say: Watch the running deer while I skin this rabbit and mom grinds those acorns?

I don’t think so. Much more likely was the age-old bonding experience of shared delight as a child’s face lights up and finds pleasure in near-endless repetition. Paleolithic parents had plenty of time to play with their children.

These weren’t over-worked parents looking for ways to occupy neglected children. They were parents whose own lives were inseparable from those of their offspring. This was an epoch in which life was not partitioned into the discrete segments that define our own.

These were toys that came straight from the hands of the toy maker. They didn’t have to stand up to comparison with newer, better, more expensive toys; nor were they at risk of getting lost in mountains of discarded toys.

Again, a lesson in values: that those who have less, generally have a capacity to appreciate more.

Do I belong to what Melvin Konner called:

… a long line of credulous people … who seem to believe that we have left something behind that is better in every way than what we have now and that the most apt way to solve our problems is to go backward as quickly as possible[?]

I don’t think so.

It’s easy for Konner and others to dismiss this kind of interest in human origins as being driven by a naive conception of an idyllic natural state, but who if anyone is actually proposing the impossible: a return to a mythical Eden?

The issue here isn’t whether we might by some means recreate or return to our Paleolithic past, but rather, how an understanding of that past might better inform the way we perceive the present.

We live under the spell of many beguiling technological false promises, none more pernicious than the notion that doing things faster, frees time. The promise of the future is always that it’s going to be better.

When it turns out that human beings cracked the code of animation 14 to 20,000 years ago, this should give us pause to consider not merely the significance of this event as a technological breakthrough. We can also reflect on the differences between then and now in terms of how this facility in representation gets utilized in human culture.

Thanks to the invention of and portability of the animated GIF, it’s now possible for humans en masse to catch a glimpse of a prehistoric precursor of the very same technology: still images conjured to create the illusion of movement.

What is not the same is the way human minds are typically engaging with the technology.

I would argue that the Paleolithic human mind, operating in its relatively uncluttered world, would, with delight and with relatively undistracted attention appreciate the full effect. The moving deer would not only be captivating but perhaps also magical.

While the motion might rely on a way of tricking the eye, the toy might thereby be infused with the spirit of the deer. While the child was entertained he was perhaps also receiving an early initiation in the art of hunting.

For the audience of the animated GIF, however, the most common effect is at most to prompt a momentary muscle-flex — a retweet — perhaps accompanied with an audible reaction — “cool” — as within a second or two attention turns elsewhere.

Never has humanity been so well-fed while also experiencing so much growing hunger. Our restless attention forever longs for more when the present never seems to provide enough.

As we go forward, we also go backward, and not in a good way.