As you are all aware, the mystery of the cave paintings aside, art always comes into being as soon as a society produces enough surplus to allow artists to be supported.
That is the general rule, with only occasional exceptions to prove it. (By the way, what do people mean when they say: “That is the exception which proves the rule”? A subject for another day.) Anyway, the general rule seems to apply to all of the arts, which is why much more has been produced, in terms of artistic output, in societies which have recently gotten prosperous, and hence have a need to show off. The High Renaissance in Tuscany must be the most remarkable example of that.
Some forms of self expression, of course, have had to be wrenched away from the vulgar, and turned into art, with nothing else in mind but to exclude. Ballet is the finest example of that. Dance, for thousands of years, was a way of expressing communal solidarity, and had nothing to do with art at all. But then the French court thought it was all a bit too good for the hoi polloi, and devised ballet, with its rigorously codified movements and need for extensive training.
To return a moment to cave painting, that strange exception, which does not prove the rule, but is none the less intriguing and inexplicable for that. Because we, of course, know absolutely nothing about the lives and belief systems of the people who produced these truly wonderful works.
Lascaux is maybe the most famous example of cave painting, and there, the cave was discovered on 12th September 1940 by four teenagers, Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas, as well as Marcel’s dog, Robot.
There are many other examples, all over the world, with a great number found in France and Spain, possibly because these countries have been most exhaustively searched, and, of course, have lots of limestone and hence lots of caves. There are remarkable examples also in Africa, Australia, England, South East Asia, and North and South America.
Archaeologists tend to make up explanations for their finds, explanations which can never be supported by evidence, hence why should not we? I am happy with a notion that an aesthetic sense is innate, and that hunter gatherer societies, during millennia with better wadder, simply had plenty of time, through themselves being small in numbers, and food plentiful. So they spent extensive periods, safely encaved, expressing themselves, and showing off to group members and prospective partners. That also allows the artists to be either male or female!
One of the reasons I started thinking about the aesthetic impulse lately has been the recent debate about who wrote Shakespeare? Was it Francis Bacon, or Sir Walter Raleigh? Such notions were much punted by some 19th century Americans, such as Delia Bacon, who was supported by Emerson, and Dr Orville Ward Owen, who constructed a “cipher wheel”, a 1,000-foot strip of canvas on which he had pasted the works of Shakespeare and other writers and mounted on two parallel wheels so he could quickly collate pages with key words as he turned them for decryption.
I don’t know if the cipher wheel still exists. Apparently the method was examined by cryptologists William and Elizebeth Friedman, who conclude that it has no cryptographic validity. I would love to see it, just the same.
This is a 1,000 word column, so we lack the space to consider all the delicious eccentrics who have pursued the question since. However, the main driver behind all their antics has always been snobbery. It can’t have been a low born, ill educated chap like William. It must have been someone refined.
But if we believe in the deep roots of our aesthetic sense, why should it not be a common chap, buoyed up by the fact that enough surplus existed to pay for actors through attendance at plays? I believe I have come across a clue, which points at the common chap, familiar with artisans.
Shakespeare’s father was an alderman and a successful glover, so, of course, he was not a member of the labouring classes. He was a scion of the lower middle classes. However, that would have put him in the lowest layer which was able to get their kids a good education, which Shakespeare certainly needed, to write all those plays, and he would certainly have known plenty of artisans.
So on to the clue. Act II. Scene II. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Hamlet: “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” A line which only makes sense if you know what a hawk is. It isn’t a bird, it’s a square of wood, with a vertical handle upon which a plasterer balances his plaster, as he works. Will Shakespeare from Stratford would have known that.
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, would not, I bet!
And another thing. It always annoys me that people who make movies and TV drama know nothing about manual work, and, over the past century, have made no effort to learn.
You all must have watched scenes in films where somebody is digging a hole? There is a lot of wild flailing with a shovel, then cut to the digger with dirt on his face, and a great big, well squared out hole. It’s not like that.
I don’t know if any of you have worked with genuine expert pick and shovel men. There would not be any now, and the last of those who were employed pre-360 degree digger days will have retired.
But if you did you would have been involved in work which was a miracle of economic movement and very systematic activity. This, after a while, left an immaculate job, whether it was a strainer hole, a cable track, or a hole. But there was a method of getting there. Why could not some middle class actor or director have researched that, just as they research far more trivial matters?