Oldest High Art: Gabarnmung

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Oldest High Art: Gabarnmung

Post by Yačay256 » Sun 27 Apr 2014, 17:57

Far older than France's Lascaux and Chauvet at some 48,000 years BP, Gabarnmung is a masterpiece of high art by the oldest living culture in the world, the Jawoyn.

I think the Indigenous Australians have more material for archaeological research than they are usually given credit for. Just because their artistic style is different from Western or East Asian representational traditions and is more stylized and abstract does not mean it is not beautiful: I for one personally prefer Arnhem Land's X-ray Art, for example, to the Giotto's paintings, but that's just my own taste.
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Re: Oldest High Art: Gabarnmung

Post by Salmoneus » Mon 28 Apr 2014, 16:18

I think it's important to compartmentalise between the glossy cracked/buzzfeed/nationgeographic/etc way of looking at the world (where the rest of the world is basically a mirror for Western neuroses to be projected upon), and some sense of what's really going on in reality, in a more scientific-historical perspective.

Take, for instance, "the oldest living culture in the world, the Jawoyn", creators of this artistic site. Discarding the glamour magazine approach to history, we find some problems:
- the term "the oldest living culture in the world" is meaningless. All living cultures are both different from the cultures of the past and descended from those cultures. Terms like "oldest culture" or "oldest language" therefore have no clear meaning.
- it's highly tendentious to describe the culture of a couple of dozen people in 21st century america as being the same 'living' culture as the culture of hunter gatherers centuries, let alone millenia, before. We're not talking about a vibrant and independent large group, just a couple of dozen guys embedded in another culture. And we're not talking about a group that has rejected modernity like the Sentinelese, either.
- over the time period you're discussing, even if the "same" group of people were in the same place all that time, there have been dramatic changes in climate, vegetation, technology and sociology, making the claim that the culture is the "same" rather difficult
- it's unclear why this particular group of a couple of dozen guys would be selected as "older" than any of the hundreds of other groups of a couple of dozen guys speaking an aboriginal language somewhere in the area.
- in particular, Jawoyn is a member of a language family, so why is one member meant to be 'older' than its contemporaneous sisters?
- specifically, that language family, relative to its immediate relatives, appears to have undergone a relatively recent wave of expansion. The Jawoyn therefore quite probably, by the time of first contact, were occupying territory that had been occupied by somebody else centuries or a few millenia at most before; that expansion was also probably associated with a significant cultural change.
- there is, more generally, absolutely no reason whatsover, even if it were meaningful to project the Jawoyn as a culture back into the past that far, to think that the Jawoyn had anything to do with the creation of this site, or even that the Jawoyn were anywhere within a thousand miles of the site at the time it was made
- specifically, there's a significant chance that the Jawoyn's ancestors, like those of most or all of the NPN groups, only invaded Australia within the last two to four thousand years, pushed out from Indonesia or perhaps ultimately Asia by the expansion of Austronesian and other language groups
- even if that's not the case, there's a very good chance they're still relatively recent invaders from Indonesia, even if it was before the Austronesian expansion. This may strain the "oldest culture" thing considerably, and certainly kyboshes the "creators of Gabarnmung" thing

It's also worth pointing out while we're at it:
- the oldest scientifically demonstrated probable ages for any of the painting in the cave is 28000 years, not 48000, although older ages may be inferred from crayons found in nearby sites
- even if paint was used on some of the rocks a long time ago, there's no reason to think that the more elaborate art currently at the site is anything like that old. There's a very strong tendency worldwide for older art sites to be reused by later cultures, and certainly elsewhere in Australia the "indigenous" people distinguish between different eras of art history (eg in the Kimberley, there are at least three totally different art traditions, and the surviving aboriginal groups only claim the most recent of the three (and indeed the older art has often been vandalised and defaced)).
- cave sites in particular often have non-continuous occupation, so later and earlier occupation in the same place does not show continuity. For instance, the Blombos cave was occupied 100k ago, and 2k ago... but it appears to have been uninhabited for about 70k of the intervening period. Caves tend to seal and unseal, or become more or less accessible over time
- it's important to bear in mind that later culture imitated earlier art forms, and that art was often highly conservative. Going back to the Kimberley, for instance, Bradshaw artists continued to depict people with multipronged spears for about ten thousand years after that technology was abandoned.
- it's also worth remembering that much art depicts things that don't exist - there's a big confirmation bias whereby people go "this looks like an extinct animal so it must be from that era", but then "this doesn't look like any animal we know about, so it's clearly fantastic or symbolic"
- even if the paint were all that old, it's still only a similar age to other, and much more sophisticated, "high art" found on other continents - the anthropomorphic Lion Lady figurine from Germany, for instance.
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Re: Oldest High Art: Gabarnmung

Post by Yačay256 » Mon 28 Apr 2014, 17:17

Salmoneus wrote:I think it's important to compartmentalise between the glossy cracked/buzzfeed/nationgeographic/etc way of looking at the world (where the rest of the world is basically a mirror for Western neuroses to be projected upon), and some sense of what's really going on in reality, in a more scientific-historical perspective.

Take, for instance, "the oldest living culture in the world, the Jawoyn", creators of this artistic site. Discarding the glamour magazine approach to history, we find some problems:
- the term "the oldest living culture in the world" is meaningless. All living cultures are both different from the cultures of the past and descended from those cultures. Terms like "oldest culture" or "oldest language" therefore have no clear meaning.
- it's highly tendentious to describe the culture of a couple of dozen people in 21st century america as being the same 'living' culture as the culture of hunter gatherers centuries, let alone millenia, before. We're not talking about a vibrant and independent large group, just a couple of dozen guys embedded in another culture. And we're not talking about a group that has rejected modernity like the Sentinelese, either.
- over the time period you're discussing, even if the "same" group of people were in the same place all that time, there have been dramatic changes in climate, vegetation, technology and sociology, making the claim that the culture is the "same" rather difficult
- it's unclear why this particular group of a couple of dozen guys would be selected as "older" than any of the hundreds of other groups of a couple of dozen guys speaking an aboriginal language somewhere in the area.
- in particular, Jawoyn is a member of a language family, so why is one member meant to be 'older' than its contemporaneous sisters?
- specifically, that language family, relative to its immediate relatives, appears to have undergone a relatively recent wave of expansion. The Jawoyn therefore quite probably, by the time of first contact, were occupying territory that had been occupied by somebody else centuries or a few millenia at most before; that expansion was also probably associated with a significant cultural change.
- there is, more generally, absolutely no reason whatsover, even if it were meaningful to project the Jawoyn as a culture back into the past that far, to think that the Jawoyn had anything to do with the creation of this site, or even that the Jawoyn were anywhere within a thousand miles of the site at the time it was made
- specifically, there's a significant chance that the Jawoyn's ancestors, like those of most or all of the NPN groups, only invaded Australia within the last two to four thousand years, pushed out from Indonesia or perhaps ultimately Asia by the expansion of Austronesian and other language groups
- even if that's not the case, there's a very good chance they're still relatively recent invaders from Indonesia, even if it was before the Austronesian expansion. This may strain the "oldest culture" thing considerably, and certainly kyboshes the "creators of Gabarnmung" thing

It's also worth pointing out while we're at it:
- the oldest scientifically demonstrated probable ages for any of the painting in the cave is 28000 years, not 48000, although older ages may be inferred from crayons found in nearby sites
- even if paint was used on some of the rocks a long time ago, there's no reason to think that the more elaborate art currently at the site is anything like that old. There's a very strong tendency worldwide for older art sites to be reused by later cultures, and certainly elsewhere in Australia the "indigenous" people distinguish between different eras of art history (eg in the Kimberley, there are at least three totally different art traditions, and the surviving aboriginal groups only claim the most recent of the three (and indeed the older art has often been vandalised and defaced)).
- cave sites in particular often have non-continuous occupation, so later and earlier occupation in the same place does not show continuity. For instance, the Blombos cave was occupied 100k ago, and 2k ago... but it appears to have been uninhabited for about 70k of the intervening period. Caves tend to seal and unseal, or become more or less accessible over time
- it's important to bear in mind that later culture imitated earlier art forms, and that art was often highly conservative. Going back to the Kimberley, for instance, Bradshaw artists continued to depict people with multipronged spears for about ten thousand years after that technology was abandoned.
- it's also worth remembering that much art depicts things that don't exist - there's a big confirmation bias whereby people go "this looks like an extinct animal so it must be from that era", but then "this doesn't look like any animal we know about, so it's clearly fantastic or symbolic"
- even if the paint were all that old, it's still only a similar age to other, and much more sophisticated, "high art" found on other continents - the anthropomorphic Lion Lady figurine from Germany, for instance.
Interesting points, some of which I find convincing, but others of which I simply do not.

Firstly, the problem with your argument that the oldest cave paintings are scientifically shown to be at most 28,000 years old is that it seems to be disproved by the fact that scientists who studied Gabarnmung came to a different conclusion!

Linguistically speaking, yes, Hittite and English are both members of the Indo-European Language Family, but Hittite is obviously much older than English, and likewise one could apply a similar principle to the Gunwinyguan Languages Jawoyn and Marra (I am not saying this is the case, but evidence shows it quite possibly is).

A lot of your arguments seem to be based on assumptions that the Jawoyn were very artistically conservative, and in art that could well have been the case (somewhat like Ancient Egypt?), but mainly because the depictions of giant flightless birds look too much like a known prehistoric species from that area at that time, this seems less likely: Furthermore, even given an extreme artistic conservatism, this would actually lead one to the conclusion that the art does date over four myriad years ago, for the fact that Indigenous Australian Art is characteristically based on depicting the world around them (albeit in a stylized and highly symbolic fashion)! Also in Arnhem land is Ubirr, and no one seriously doubts that the figures living their are based on real species - when they correspond to known life-forms, of course. Note also that Jawoyn innovativeness in other areas (like ground stone tool technology) at the time, the artistic conservatism is also disputable.

Finally, I would like to ask what makes you say that Lion Lady is more sophisticated than Gabarnmung? I would say the effort and monumentality of the operation makes the latter, not the former, look more sophisticated: Lion Lady is but a tiny figurine, Gabarnmung is an entire cave!
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Re: Oldest High Art: Gabarnmung

Post by Curlyjimsam » Tue 06 May 2014, 19:22

It seems a bit dubious to me that this can be described as the oldest "high" art, as opposed to just the oldest art. Surely to know if something is "high" art or otherwise, we need to know something about the broader culture - what people's attitudes to that sort of art were, etc. The contemporary Western division between high art and other types may not even have applied.
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Re: Oldest High Art: Gabarnmung

Post by Yačay256 » Fri 09 May 2014, 18:54

Curlyjimsam wrote:It seems a bit dubious to me that this can be described as the oldest "high" art, as opposed to just the oldest art. Surely to know if something is "high" art or otherwise, we need to know something about the broader culture - what people's attitudes to that sort of art were, etc. The contemporary Western division between high art and other types may not even have applied.
Perhaps I should have said the oldest monumental artwork, yet I must say, at the time I wrote the OP, however, I don't remember much thinking in terms of cultural attitudes at all to differentiate "high" and "low" art: Rather, beyond admiring its beauty, I was thinking of it as "high" art in the sense of the quality of the execution of the images, the expressiveness of the work and the overall amount of creativity and other intellectual efforts that must have gone into the composition as a whole.

In fact, I would argue that many cultures' traditional definitions of "high art" are simply unfair and plain inaccurate, even bigoted: In traditional Western culture, for example, no matter how good a work of art is, it must be a "pure" work that is but art for art's sake to be "high art". On a related note, also in the West, notice that most things that women traditionally do - fibrework, gardening or decorative carvings - are considered mere "crafts" but what men (even more so only rich men) do traditionally are considered true "art", like painting on canvas or pure sculpture (but not scrimshaw or macramé, because it's only poor men that usually do those things), Even though what women (and also poor men) do is in fact far more useful in a fundamental sense, since you can survive without a painting on your wall in the snow, but not without warm clothing and linens in the same climate, women's work (and that of poor men, like sailors with their scrimshaw and macramé) is traditionally less valued by the cultures of the West.
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Re: Oldest High Art: Gabarnmung

Post by Salmoneus » Sat 10 May 2014, 23:33

Bollocks.
In particular, textile arts have traditionally been held in very high esteem in the West, and certainly considered more 'valuable' than things like sculpture or painting. Why do you think, for instance, that women were so financially dominant in the middle classes in many early modern cities? It's precisely because of their greater involvement in the textile industries - being a lace-maker made you much more money than being, say, a mason (i.e. the people who built the cathedrals and carved the sculptures in them). Which art was the most iconic representation of authority and status? Why yes, textile art. All those kings aren't portrayed in front of paintings, they're portrayed in front of cloth - indeed, you can tell that they're the king BECAUSE of the cloth (the 'cloth of state', and similarly lesser 'cloth of honour's for bishops, nobles etc). Look at this painting (anonymous - painting wasn't that important in those days) of Henry VIII and tell me where the emphasis is:
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/c ... c_1545.jpg
The most important thing in that painting is the cloth of state: that's where the majesty of the crown resides. You'll note that the king has no crown - the king's throne is just a little chair that we can't even see, but the status is conveyed by the cloth. And then there is the clothing of the king and his family, fashionable and rich. And then there is the luxurious rug.
What was the greatest display of wealth and power in the sixteenth century? The Field of the Cloth of Gold... named after, yes, cloth. That's what was memorable, what was of highest value there. Listen to any of the descriptions of displays like that, and everything is about cloth and clothing - pavillions, canopies, carpets, tapestries, hats, and of course clothes.
Again, here's how Henry presented himself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Henry ... 1-1547.jpg. The clothes are everything - but still, it's not just a coincidence that he happened to have his portrait taken near a curtain! The curtain (and the rug) are what he has that's valuable, that he wants to show off to the world, not the marble stonework behind him that is shadowed and hidden. Francis, meanwhile, takes a slightly less ostentatious but no less luxurious approach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Francis1-1.jpg. Note how he avoids having any paintings or stonework at all, by just making his backdrop out of fabric. More importantly, look where the painter's eye is focused: on conveying the beauty of that white fabric and its folds. The clothes far outshine the man, on whom rather less attention has been lavished (this is even more severe in sculpture, where artists would barely even sketch out a generic face, but agonise over the smallest little detail of how a fabric draped).
Or here's Margaret Beaufort, the queen mother: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Margaretbeaufort.jpg. She herself is almost incidental, in plain clothes and a barely sketched-out face - what matters is her carpet, and the tapestries to either side, and the cloth on the table, and most of all the canopy of state above her that shows her royal status. Those are the things (along with her piety) that she wanted to show off, and those are the things that would have cost her the most money.

'Clothes maketh the man' was almost literally true - many countries had sumptuary laws precisely regulating which clothes could be worn by which people - textiles were so symbolic that the desire to prevent social climbing focused on preventing oiks from getting good cloth.

The paintings, of course, exist just to document the fabrics - many copies would have been made, and the two Henry portraits I've linked are anonymous, though the second is probably derived from a Holbein.

You shouldn't confuse anonymity with insignificance. Indeed, precisely one reason why paintings are relatively un-anonymous is that they often weren't important. You got a painting, and kept it around for years, even generations - it was probably there just to remind you of someone, so it wasn't embarrassing if it was old. Cloth was much more important. At the royal court, people were expected to get entirely new outfits every three days or so. The sheer volume of clothing being produced, and its short life-span, is part of the reason why the fashionable costumiers of the day are little remembered - they weren't handed down for people to remember.
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