Spontaneous Permanence versus Intentional Iconography

I’ve always had a problem sympathizing with graffiti “artists.” There are some crimes I can understand – not in the sense that I would think of committing them, but insofar as I can fathom why somebody might commit them. I may even be abstractly tempted by them. But graffiti never made sense. That is, it never made sense until I was standing with a can of spray paint in front of a soon-to-be-redone bulletin board and tagged the word “Free” (it was a faux bingo board) on the butcher paper I would be tearing down the next morning anyhow. Then I (somewhat) understood the lure of graffiti: spontaneous permanence. That the variation a flick of a wrist brings is recorded on stone for some longevity. That the whim of the painter is realized in an instant, and in that instant quasi-immortalized.

This lure of graffiti is precisely why la grotte de Lascaux is increasingly fascinating and breath-taking to me. It becomes more and more clear that the paintings in the cave are not the products of man driven by the lure of spontaneous permanence, but are instead the fruits of a very intentional iconography.

The prevalence of horses is evidence to the intentionality of the Lascaux paintings. Throughout the cave, all other animals are dominated by the presence of horses. In La Salle de Taureaux 17/36 animals are horses, 27/46 in La Nef and 29/51 in Le Diverticule des Félines. Additionally, throughout the cave there is a consistent chronology to the order in which the various figures were painted: horses are always drawn first. Such consistent intentionality throughout the cave denies any sense of spontaneity to the paintings. Additional factors that point away from graffiti include the complexity of the technique, the necessity and added effort of bringing lighting into the cave, and the fact that graffiti in Lascaux would not be prominently displayed. I suppose that a quasi-nomadic civilization would not have a sense of being immortalized by those centuries later. If they wanted mere graffiti to be seen it wouldn’t occur in an uninhabited cave. All these factors are marvelously striking to me and make me feel that the Lascaux paintings did not only have value in their artists eyes, as graffiti is almost sure to be limited to, but the cave was valued by the society.

If we place a higher degree of intentionality on the paintings, questions arise that otherwise would not if they were something like graffiti. These are largely questions of “Why?” for if we establish that there is intention, the next step may be trying to glean the intention behind it. After we admire the technical aspects, we should perhaps be open to allow the art to tell us why it was made in the way that it was. Why do horses dominate? Why are there few predatory animals? Why are there geometric designs, what exactly are they about? Why is there only one human figure?

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