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Ars Longa, Vita Brevis June 11, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Art and Music, Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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Or: “Art is long, life is short.” In mid-May German archaeologists  announced that they had found a piece of three-dimensional art, a little figurine carved out of mammoth ivory depicting a naked woman, in the Hohle Fels Cave, a region that has already yielded interesting human artifacts, including the oldest known musical instrument, a flute. The style resembles the famous Venus of Willendorf and other fertility figurines, but “Venus” is only ca. 24,000 years old, and the newfound little statuette is older than any other three-dimensional depiction of a human, going back ca. 40,000 years.  Here are some dates to put this find into perspective: About 150,000-200,000 years ago Cro-Magnon humans traveled out of Africa to colonize the rest of the world. Cave art have been found dating back 75,000 years, and 40,000 years ago we humans were still sharing Europe and the Middle East with the last of the Neandertals.

Venus of Hohle Fels











Why is this so fascinating? Another headless, big-breasted figurine found in Europe—what is significant about that? Some commentators can’t get over those big breasts, and the exaggerated genitalia, and talk about “pornographic” images. Like many other conversations about art, those comment reveal more about the beholder than about the work of art. We have no idea what these little figurines were for. But we do have so many of them (albeit from a later time period) that we may be able to speculate: Certainly it might be that they were made by men, and for men, to add something tangible to their fantasies during lonely times—and what of it? I would assume that if there is anything that remains stable in the human condition, it is a natural preoccupation with sex. But in the archaeological community it hasn’t been the sexual aspect that has been accentuated, but the fertility symbolism: These figurines are not only “voluptuous,” they are apparently pregnant. For ancient cultures this may have been far more significant as a symbol of the fertility of the tribe, the herds, and nature itself, than being a sex-symbol  (then again, one does not preclude the other. We’re just so used to the Victorian and post-Victorian mindset where sex is dirty…) .

Thanks to scholars such as Marija Gimbutas and Gerda Lerner who have studied ancient cultures centered around female fertility, we may see these little figurines as stylized images of creative power. According to Gimbutas and Lerner, the worship of female fertility is linked to what is probably the oldest religion in the world, the worship of the Mother Goddess. Archaeological evidence seem to indicate that there was indeed a time, dating back some 8,000 years and beyond, where the Goddess worship was widespread all over the ancient world, and (according to Lerner) this would imply that the Goddess’s human representatives, the priestesses, would have had a prominent presence in the social structure.  Scholars don’t like to use the term matriarchy, because we have no evidence that women actually ruled in those ancient times, but there is enough evidence to suggest that women did play a more integrated role in society. So scholars prefer to talk about matrifocal or gynocentric values.  Now, thanks to the new find of the little figurine, added to the other Venus figurines from a later date, we can perhaps move this tradition back an additional 30,000 years, and speculate that a matrifocal system may have been in effect among the Cro-Magnon humans, even as the hunters outwitted or outcompeted the Neandertals. As Lerner would say, patriarchy has only been around for some 3500 years—but for most of our time as humans, we have been matrifocal. (We will talk about all this in my Fall 2009 class, Phil 125, Philosophy of Women, by the way!) Just for the record, in my personal opinion patriarchy is not the source of all evil, as it has often been presented by radical feminism, but it is a thought-provoking idea that a tradition preceding patriarchy can perhaps be anchored that far back in time, thanks to this new piece of evidence.

But we need not take sides about patriarchy and Goddess worship to see an additional significance to the little figurine: As a work of art, which it indisputably is, it speaks to us from across 40,000 years about the human capacity for symbolic thinking: Our language, our gestures, our artifacts, and the very ways we think utilize images and expressions to signify other images and expressions. The little headless figurine is probably intended to symbolize something: maybe Woman as such, maybe Fertility, maybe Mom, or Sweetheart, maybe the Goddess who Gives and Takes Away—we don’t know.  What we do know is that she has meant something—to he or she who carved her, and to the generations who kept her in their tribe. The little statuette has reached out, beyond the lifetime of the artist, to the future—which is what good art does. And that brings me back to the Latin proverb (translated from an even older Greek saying): Art is long, life is short. Life may be a lot longer for most of us than what the artist who carved the figurine could expect—some 30 years at the most. Still, each lifetime is not long enough to accomplish everything we’d like to accomplish, and experience and understand all there is to understand. But art ties generations together, and makes our short lives link up in a common experience transcending the individual lifespan. And thanks to the little figurine, Art just got a whole lot longer.