Why do humans produce art? What is it that has led us as a species to feel the need to exteriorise our thoughts into outer objects? Some of the earliest instances of human art that we have are the exquisite paintings made by prehistoric man on the walls of caves. The oldest are between 30 and 40 thousand years old and there is evidence of synthetic artifacts dating to around 80 thousand years ago.
According to Plato, artworks will always be confined to the walls of a cave. And maybe he was right as 2500 years later, what some consider to be the ultimate form of art, (whose status as art continues to be debated) the motion picture, would be projected onto exactly the same surface: the wall of a cave, as we sit in the dark, facing forward, with the light and the heat of the projector behind us. We become captivated by shadows, by illusions, by reproductions of the real.
To Plato, what we see when we look at a work of art is merely the outline of a real living thing; we only see it’s shadow projected onto the wall of a cave, yet we take these projections to be reality. To trace an outline around these shadows with a piece of chalk, much like our ancient ancestors did, we would have a work of art, but of course this artwork is just an outline of an outline. What we recreate onto the wall of the cave is a copy of something that is already only a shadow – a silhouette of the true object. All art for Plato would thus be a cave painting, in its most basic form.
So to Plato art only exists as something three times removed from the truth; the painting outlines the real sensuous thing which is itself merely an outline of its true, ideal Form. It is merely a copy of a copy. This idea of ‘mimêsis’ – most commonly translated as ‘imitation’ – can be understood as depreciation, there is less truth and less reality in the painting than in the real thing which it portrays. Just as there is less truth and reality in the thing it depicts than in the essence of that thing.
Painting is the oldest form of art of which we have any evidence. The oldest known paintings made by man were drawn onto the walls of dark caves, out of the reach of sunlight, if there were paintings on other surfaces, they are unlikely to have survived. One of the most fascinating is the 30,000 year old painting of a bison on the wall of the Chauvet cave in Southern France. Plato saw that there is less in a painting than in the real living thing that it depicts because the painting does not move. Whereas the real bison are free to roam the world, the painting immobilises mobile life.
But are the paintings really so static? Werner Herzog, in his seminal film Cave of Forgotten Dreams attempts to establish that these apparently static paintings, do, in fact, move. Our ancient ancestors made these paintings in the darkest parts of the cave, away from the natural light of the sun (that Plato of course turned into a metaphor for the highest source of intelligibility – visibility to reason). They move because of their visibility through fire. The technology of the ancients (what Stiegler calls their technics) was not like ours: they did not have electric light that mimics the brightness and steadiness of the sun. There is no natural light in the cave with which to view the painting, so the cave painters and cave dwellers must use artificial light, of whatever kind they have. The first form of artificial light is fire: the gift Prometheus stole from the gods to give to man, thus creating man for the first time. It was the gift of technics, the very most primitive kind of artifice, that allowed man to survive as an animal without essence, an animal with an inherent lack in regards to the other animals.
So, it was fire that was used to illuminate the dark wall of the cave, and on this wall were paintings, static imitations of real life. But these paintings were not merely viewed by flickering torchlight; they were created by torchlight. They were given life by the ever changing light of fire, the metaphor for man’s inherent technicity. Therefore, our ancient ancestors who created these works of art would make them in such a way that their still drawings would respond to the moving light which illuminated the surface on which he inscribed his work: and that means he essentially made these pictures to move.
So, what we have here is an extraordinary coincidence between man and technics, and thus fire and art. Together they make up precisely the image of Plato’s cave and its contemporary avatar: the cinema understood as a cave, where a steady artificial light projects into the darkness to create moving shadows on the cave wall…
Adapted and expanded from a lecture given by Dr. Mike Lewis at the University of the West of England by Matt Bluemink