The following is a brief Hegelian analysis of the paintings which were etched onto the walls of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave by our ancestors some thirty thousand years ago. Offering a philosophical analysis of the cave paintings is actually an easy option, as some of the work has already been done. Firstly, because Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is already somewhat philosophical in tone: Herzog, like all the great German artists before him – Hӧlderlin, Goethe, etc. – has an awareness of the magnificent philosophy produced in his country, and this comes across in the film. The second reason that a philosophical analysis of the Chauvet cave is relatively easy is that Alain Badiou, the French philosopher, has already performed such a reading in Logics of Worlds. It seems to me no coincidence that thinkers would be attracted to these paintings, and I wanted to present the film in this way to highlight the cultural and historical significance which the cave paintings hold for the Western world.
The philosophy which lends the greatest insight into the cave paintings, and to Herzog’s film about the paintings, is Hegel’s. Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics contain a profound analysis of what he calls ‘symbolic art’, which is exemplified by stone carvings, ivory totems, or indeed cave paintings. For Hegel, the development of symbolic art represents the historical moment when humanity emerges from the animal kingdom, and becomes truly human. At this point in our development humankind is struggling to come to terms with our place in the cosmos, and our situation in the natural world, and this first, difficult attempt at understanding the human situation is expressed in symbolic art. Humanity sees itself in the chain of natural beings, and attempts to conceive of itself and other natural beings through artworks. A quote from the Hegel commentator Michael Inwood might clarify this notion: ‘Suppose, for example, that [an early human] carves a piece of wood into the shape of a bison. […] He thus distances himself from sensuous desires and becomes capable of disinterested contemplation of the world […] As an artist, he is not concerned with this or that particular bison, but with the bison in general or the bison as a “universal”’. (1) This is the Idea of what the bison is. For a striking example from Chauvet, consider the painting which is referred to as the ‘panel of horses’. (See Fig. 1)
Fig. 1 – The Panel of Horses, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, Ardèche, France
The humans who daubed these wonderful images onto the cave’s walls were not simply doing what we moderns think of as ‘art’ – for Hegel, they were articulating their most basic understanding of the world in pictorial form. So according to Hegel, the first act of what we recognise as humankind is to look at the world around and attempt to materially conceptualise the things it sees in carvings and paintings. In the film, Herzog raises the issue when he straightforwardly asks: ‘[w]ere the paintings in the Chauvet cave somehow the beginning of the modern human soul?’ (2) If the Chauvet cave had been discovered two centuries earlier, Hegel surely would have answered: ‘yes’. As symbolic art is the very first stage of human development, and the Chauvet cave is the oldest and most magnificent known example of symbolic art, we can be fairly certain that somewhere in Southern France, in a cool, dark cave there lies the birth of Western man. It is for this reason that the cave – or at least Herzog’s film about it, which is the closest any of us will get – must be experienced.
So now we see why these paintings are so important in the history of our species. However, there is a problem with Hegel’s account. Whilst his historical analysis helps us to understand the anthropological significance of the Chauvet atalier, it does little to account for the cave’s artistic and aesthetic importance. The reason for this is that Hegel sees human development as a progression of three distinct stages, beginning with art, but then advancing to two more complex degrees of humanity. Humans are defined by our ability to think, and the first way in which humanity articulates ideas, and forms concepts, is with art – as stated, Hegel sees art as quite literally thinking with our hands. In this initial stage of human development, we have no notion of the next two stages of development which are the religious and then the philosophical. These subsequent stages are more complex, better at articulating Ideas about the universe, and on Hegel’s account, that makes philosophy in particular more essentially human than art. He says: ‘in so far as symbolic art just struggles towards true meanings and their corresponding mode of configuration, it is in general a battle between the content which still resists true art and the form which is not homogenous with that content either’. (3) The meaning of this claim is that humanity strives towards thinking, the mental concept, the Idea – and art as a discipline is not cut out for conceptualising the Ideas that humans have. Rather, we have to wait until religion, and finally philosophy, before we can fully articulate Ideas, and fully come to understand our existence. For Hegel, the Chauvet cave is just one step towards full philosophical self-consciousness and self-awareness.
To me this is a magnificent but ultimately inadequate analysis of the Cave, and art as a whole. It seems as though Hegel was correct in the notion of the historical development of humanity from symbolic artists to philosophers, but he was wrong to suggest this was necessarily a linear progression. There seems to me no reason to suggest that philosophy does the same thing as art, and does it better. Art is surely its own entity. Perhaps in the great works of art like the Chauvet cave, which is surely the first masterpiece in European history, humanity is asking those fundamental questions about ourselves and our existence – but this is not to say that it does so in a manner inferior to philosophy. Rather, I would claim it simply does it in a different manner. So now I wish to turn to Badiou, who affords art its rightful place as an autonomous discipline which produces its own truths. As such, it is he who counters Hegel’s theory to afford the cave its true historical and artistic significance.
Like Hegel, Badiou sees in art the ability to articulate concepts. And like Hegel, Badiou sees in art the realisation of the universal Ideas which humanity brings into material existence through its practices. However, there is a crucial departure from Hegel – of the Chauvet cave Badiou says: ‘I contend that it is indeed an invariant theme, an eternal truth, which is at work […]. Far from being the descent of the Idea into the sensible, it is the sensible creation of the Idea. “This is a horse” – that is what the Master of the Chauvet cave says. And since he says it at a remove from any visibility of a living horse, he avers the horse as what exists eternally for thought’. (4) This is a remarkably similar line to Hegel, but with one crucial alteration – he says: ‘far from being the descent of the Idea into the sensible [which is Hegel’s argument], it is the sensible creation of the Idea’. Badiou therefore sees the symbolic artist not as just the first step in our march towards philosophical enlightenment, but as the creator of the concepts which reappear throughout history in manifold forms and guises. They, first of all humanity, create the Ideas which we continue to think today. In painting a horse, the Master of the Chauvet cave was not just faintly grasping the Idea which would fully emerge when we became philosophical. Rather, Badiou claims: ‘[w]e can thus confidently say that what the Master of the Chauvet cave initiated, thirty thousand years ago, […] is indeed Horseness’. When we think of a horse today, here and now, thirty millennia separate us from the person who painted the panel of horses – fifteen times the number of years separating us from the birth of Jesus; and ten times the number separating us from the battle of Troy. And yet, it is the very same concept of horseness, as if it were painted yesterday. The artwork indeed set down an ‘eternal truth’.
This would give the impression that the Chauvet cave creates for us only the concept of horseness. However, in the cave there are also paintings of bison, reindeer, and rhinos, as well as extinct species such as the woolly mammoth and the sabre-tooth tiger, and even a bison with the legs and genitals of a female human. Thus complex ideas were born in the cave. Consider the painting of the two rhinos – is the top of the two figures painted with echo lines as if to try and visualise the movement and charge of the rhino? Does this painting set to work the concept of animation? (See Fig. 2)
Also look again at the panel of horses – does the brilliantly proportioned row of heads give a hint, just a hint, of pictorial perspective? Of course, it could just be that this is Romantic speculation, and that no such things as perspective or animation are actually present in the paintings. But I think not. In a remarkable sequence from Herzog’s film, an archaeologist plays some tunes on a replica of a flute which comes from the same time period as the Chauvet paintings. On the archaeologist’s replica of this thirty-thousand year old carved piece of bone, the man plays for us the Star Spangled Banner which is composed in the pentatonic scale – the most ‘natural’ and widely used scale in modern music. To me, the fact that a piece of music written in the Eighteenth Century could be played on one of the very first instruments we know of, confirms the eternal truth of the Ideas encapsulated in the Chauvet cave. Our complex concepts, like our musical scales, were born in this era.
Thus it seems to me that Badiou’s notion of the eternal truths created in works of art is perfectly exemplified by the Chauvet cave. Hegel was right in claiming that humanity does its first thinking with sensuous materials, but he was wrong to think that these thoughts and the artistic method which expresses them are surpassed in time by more ‘complex’ activities. So with Badiou’s modification of Hegel’s theory we can come to understand the Chauvet cave not just as an anthropological artefact, but also a site of eternal artistic truths. As Badiou shows us, these Ideas continue down through history from our Ice-Age ancestors daubing with their hands onto the walls of a cave in the south of France, to ourselves considering what it is to be human.
(1) ‘Suppose, for example, that [an early human] carves a piece of wood into the shape of a bison. […] He thus distances himself from sensuous desires and becomes capable of disinterested contemplation of the world […] As an artist, he is not concerned with this or that particular bison, but with the bison in general or the bison as a “universal”’. (Michael Inwood, Introduction to Hegel’s Aesthetics).
(2) ‘Were the paintings in the Chauvet cave somehow the beginning of the modern human soul?’ (Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams).
(3) ‘[I]n so far as symbolic art just struggles towards true meanings and their corresponding mode of configuration, it is in general a battle between the content which still resists true art and the form which is not homogenous with that content either’. (G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics).
(4) ‘I contend that it is indeed an invariant theme, an eternal truth, which is at work […]. Far from being the descent of the Idea into the sensible, it is the sensible creation of the Idea. “This is a horse” – that is what the Master of the Chauvet cave says. And since he says it at a remove from any visibility of a living horse, he avers the horse as what exists eternally for thought’. (Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds).
‘We can thus confidently say that what the Master of the Chauvet cave initiated, thirty thousand years ago, […] is indeed Horseness’. (Ibid).