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The Spiritual Significance of Art: Cave Art to the Present

The Chauvet-Pont D’Arc cave in southern France, a gallery of mind-bending cave art, has been sealed off to the public ever since its discovery in 1994. This was done because of previous problems experienced at another famous site, Lascaux Cave, discovered earlier in 1940. Damage resulted from over-exposure of the paintings to visitors. If you want to see the dramatic Stone Age art found in the Chauvet cave, Werner Hertzog’s famous documentary movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, (released April 2011) is now available on Netflix It is one way to get an up-close view. Although the general public has never been allowed to enter, director Werner Herzog received special permission from the French Minister of Culture to film the Chauvet cave and its cave paintings. The time period for when the cave was used as a gallery by Cromagnon artists was dated using radiocarbon dating. The dates fall into two groups, one centered around 27,000 to 25,000 BP (Gravettian culture) and the other around 32,000 to 30,000 BP (Aurignacian).

Life and Art of Cromagnon society
Life and Art of Cromagnon society
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A later expedition by several scientists confirmed the paintings were created between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago based on analysis of the rockslide around the cave’s only entrance, an analysis that showed the entrance was sealed off by a collapsing cliff some 29,000 years ago. This information agrees with other dates also derived from analysis of cave bear DNA obtained from the many bones of the fearsome creature found in the cave.

Because of this long ago landslide, the Chauvet cave art was perfectly preserved. The rendering of the Ice Age animals is awe-inspiring. Herzog skillfully used 3-D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams to help "capture the intentions of the painters", who incorporated the stone wall's subtle bulges and contours into their art.

Based on recent analysis of the hand print signatures left on the stone walls, the cave artists were likely to have been women as well: Both men and women painters captured the grace and beauty of the creatures they studied, and the dynamic poetry of their movements in their brushstrokes. Idealistic beauty in nature—that was a goal for a cave artist to strive for!

It is fascinating to see how a “primitive” people devoted so much time and energy to art and the reverence of beauty. We usually imagine that cave dwellers had to spend all their available time and energy getting food, staying warm, finding safe shelter and fighting off wild beasts.
In our materialistic modern times, I find it sad to observe how my artist, musician, and literary friends always seem to run the opposite direction as soon as they hear any discussion of a moral or spiritual purpose to art.

“In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this [cosmic religious] feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.” (Albert Einstein, fr. Science and Religion, 1930.)

But were the ancient cavemen and women of 30,000 years ago aware of “cosmic religious feelings?” The discoveries of grave decorations and flowers placed with the Neanderthal skeletons at Shanidar (Iraq) as well as other prehistoric sites led many to speculate there was an evolving concept of the after-life. This blissful future existence was perhaps a “happy hunting grounds” where game was plentiful and the beauty of these noble animals endured forever.

“In a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion,” said philosopher/atheist Alain de Botton. What Monsieur de Botton said may be true of our day. But perhaps in an enlightened age to come, the worlds of art and religion will combine efforts to evolve a greater reverence for our greatest artist, the Creator.

“Art faces the same problem now … that it did then: namely, how to generate and articulate what Kandinsky called "the all-important spark of inner life … the core of spiritual experience." (Donald Kuspit)

“Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the great majority non-existent. … they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.” (Wassily Kandinsky)
Let us preserve the faith in that “Spirit of Beauty” and its inspirational power my fellow artists! From “a little point of light noticed by few” we can make a lighthouse to guide the travelers home.

In the 50’s and 60’s, 1,200 visitors a day were admitted to France’s Lascaux Cave. Their breathing out of carbon dioxide caused a growth of mold on the walls that damaged the ancient art. This led to the closure of Lascaux in 1963 and the creation of a facsimile, the so-called "Faux Lascaux" in Dordogne. From the painful lesson still being dealt with today (solutions to the damaged Lascaux art are still being tried), French cultural ministers knew they must plan and build a replica of Chauvet Cave. It is now near completion and scheduled to open to the general public by the end of this year.

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