When you think of the oldest art, in all likelihood, you think of the cave paintings of Altamira or Lascaux, with their spooky, frozen, frolicking bison and stags. These images are to art history what the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey is to material culture in general: the mythic starting point for a long, mystery-shrouded evolution. This is part of why I find “First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone” at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas so cool. It smashes that narrative like an ape bashing a skull with a bone hammer.
The show, the product of a team-up between artist Tony Berlant and anthropologist Thomas Wynn, claims to be the first museum exhibition to focus on the specifically aesthetic appreciation of these particular ancient objects. Among other things, “First Sculpture” contains a selection of the “Boxgrove Handaxes,” stone instruments found in England that are believed to be the first group of artifacts that identifiably come from the same maker. Which is a brain-bender in and of itself—to recall that, somewhere in the swamp of prehistoric time, there existed a first instance when identifiable, individual ways of making came into focus.
Take the renowned Makapansgat Pebble, aka “The Pebble of Many Faces,” described succinctly as “an unmodified, natural pebble of jasperite.” It doesn’t look like much to modern eyes, but the hypothesis is that it must have been interesting to our distant ancestors because it was found at a site in South Africa, a part of the so-called “Cradle of Humankind” north of Johannesburg, where jasperite is not otherwise found. The small rock unmistakably resembles a face, with two gaping eye sockets and an indent that could be a mouth: a Stone Age emoji. (It can also be flipped to see another kind of face.)
In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his 2010 documentary about the Chauvet caves and their enigmatic images, Werner Herzog intones in his raspy, gloriously portentous way, “It is as if the modern soul had awakened here.” That’s a common sentiment, and clearly the kind of image-making found in rock art is decisively important for the history of consciousness. But the murals at Chauvet—among the oldest painted images we know (the Suluwesi Caves in Indonesia have recently redrawn the map)—are thought to be 30,000 to 32,000 years old. The Makapansgat Pebble is more like 2.5 to 3 million years old, depending on whom you ask.
Generalizing about something like “aesthetics” seems doubly dubious, since it has only had its modern sense as an independent sphere of contemplation for two centuries or so—not even a blip in the life of a species like Australopithecus, which walked the earth for over 900,000 years. (Homo sapiens has so far managed less than a quarter of that, and the prognosis does not look good.)
I am nevertheless delighted by the Nasher’s hypothesis about “figure stones” because it corrects for another kind of psychobiological/aesthetic argument. You see, the idea that the primal act of creativity is making is sometimes used as an argument against contemporary art, implying that conceptual art violates some deep cognitive law of beauty, thought to be tied to an appreciation for virtuosic acts of crafting. Without making claims for priority or primacy—again, projections into pre-history tend to shade over into fables—it is clear that finding meaning in the world has a very, very fundamental significance.
“First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone” is on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center through April 28, 2018.