How Art Made the World
A KCET / BBC Co-Production
How do the images we surround ourselves with today come from a world that is thousands of years old?
Dr. Spivey takes viewers on a quest to comprehend mankind's unique capacity to understand and explain the world through artistic symbols. Speaking in colorful, non-technical language and aided by state-of-the-art computer graphics, Spivey explores the latest thinking by historians, neuroscientists and psychologists regarding the deep-seated and universal human desire to create art.
Each one-hour episode begins with a modern-day mystery that Spivey seeks to untangle through examinations of some of the most exquisite artifacts ever discovered. Combining aspects of history, archeology, forensics, sociology and aesthetics, Spivey leads an extraordinary video expedition that spans 100,000 years and five continents: from the vast galleries of prehistoric art in the caves of Altamira and Lascaux, to astonishing Native-American and African rock paintings, to the treasures of Ancient Egypt and Classical Greece, right up to the pop culture and advertising imagery that bombards us in the digital age.
More Human Than Human
Pictures of the human body fill our TV screens, magazines, billboards, almost our every waking moment. Through the ages artists have been obsessed with the human form. The range of bodies they have created is breathtaking, but yet they share one thing in common… none of these images resembles a real human being.
So why is our modern world dominated by images of the body that are unrealistic?
Neuroscientists theorize this has something to do with the workings of the human brain, and point to a neurological principle known as the peak shift. In essence our brain is hard-wired to focus upon parts of objects with pleasing associations. So if you were an artist, the tendency would be to reproduce human figures with parts that mattered the most to you.
Prehistoric artists were clearly caught up in peak shift tendencies, creating exaggerated statues like the famed Venus of Willendorf. For their part, the Egyptians perfected a more stylized, order-obsessed human figure, only to have the Greeks break out and create fantastically heroic — but totally unrealistic — images like the Riace Bronzes.
So why then are we moderns constantly inundated by unrealistic images of the body?
In reality, we humans don't really like reality - we prefer exaggerated, more human than human, images of the body. This is a shared biological instinct that appears to link us inexorably with our ancient ancestors.
The Day Pictures Were Born
We live in a highly complex world, one that requires many different skills and abilities to make our way through it. One of these skills is to look at lines and shapes that we see around us and give meaning to them. This ability to read images is an essential part of our lives. If we didn't have it, life, as we know it, would be impossible; our world would be unrecognizable. But at some point in our ancient past, that's what the world was like — imageless. And then something changed. At some point in our human history, probably about 35,000 years ago, we began to create pictures and to understand what they meant. Archeologist call this period the "creative explosion." But why did people suddenly decide to start creating images of the world around them?
The discovery of the prehistoric cave paintings of Altamira gave 19th century experts a clue to this question—they first theorized the obvious, prehistoric humans painted simply to represent the world around them. But that was not a real answer, for these early artists only seemed to paint one thing—animals. And they painted their pictures in dark caves, too, well away from the eyes of admirers.
Scientists who study altered states of consciousness suggest the answer lies in the hard-wiring of the brain. People didn't just one day decide to invent making pictures. Rather, prehistoric artists where experiencing sensory deprivation deep within their caves—in a sort of trance state—resulting in powerful hallucinations. These hallucinations were of such powerful emotional importance they felt compelled to paint them on the walls. According to this theory, these artists were simply nailing down their visions.
The Art Of Persuasion
The leaders of most modern countries exploit a powerful political tool - the power of images. These techniques, in fact, were invented thousands of years ago by the leaders of the Ancient World. But how do politicians actually use images to persuade us - often without us even knowing? How did they do it thousands of years ago?
An ancient gravesite near Stonehenge revealed an important man buried with beautifully crafted gold ornaments - probably the only such gold objects in Britain at the time. This gold, so impossibly rare, would have dazzled the locals, creating the image of a leader. So clearly it was learned early on in human history that art as personal adornment enhanced your status.
In other parts of the ancient world, however, many leaders had vast empires with many disparate conquered people to rule, and possessing fine jewelry was not enough to get their kingly message across. Darius the Great, King of the Persians, came up with the first art political logo, with Alexander the Great later expanding on the concept by imprinting his face on coins that flooded his empire. Augustus of Rome, forty years before Christ, fabricated the first political lie by creating a series of statute portraits that made him appear to be a man of the people, while ruthlessly exterminating the competition. Modern politicians use techniques similar to those invented by rulers of old, but instead of paint and marble, they use digital technology. But whatever the final form, people remain as vulnerable now as ever to the persuasive power of art.
Once Upon A Time
When we watch a good film, something extraordinary happens. We become so involved with what's going on that we feel we are living the story ourselves. Films enchant, terrify and inspire us, yet their visual storytelling techniques are not a modern phenomenon; in fact, they go back to the ancient past. But how did film really get its ability to transport us to other worlds? Where did the ingredients of visual storytelling come from?
The first story ever written is four thousand years old, and tells the tale of Gilgamesh, the legendary lion-killing king who is the world's first action hero. This story is unique in that it's the first narrative to exploit the universal human desire for a hero. But just having a hero in words is not enough. An ambitious King in Assyria wanted to capitalize on the heroic popularity of Gilgamesh, so he created the first complete visual story in stone relief - for people who could not read. The frieze not only had a hero, but it also had a story structure, a beginning, middle and end. Unfortunately, it was hard to get emotionally involved in the tale.
It took the Greeks to come up with a visual storytelling style that made you really care; that had psychologically credible characters. The Romans took storytelling one-step further; they combined the three elements of a strong heroic lead, a gripping storyline, and emotionally involving characters into a single visual narrative. Trajan's Column in Rome (see Storytelling Interactive) is perhaps the best example of this type of visual communication.
In the end, however, as impressive as the column may be, it's still missing something - it still lacks the power to captivate. But this missing piece can be found in the non-classical civilization of the Australian Aborigines, whose storytelling combines the visual, as well as music and singing. It is this soundtrack that provides the power for the Aboriginal story to have survived thousands of years, and which is so critical to the success of modern film's ability to transport us into other worlds.
To Death And Back
In our daily lives, we are bombarded constantly by images. But there is one image whose power over us is strangely mesmerizing. It terrifies and yet reassures us — it is the image of death. We build grave yards, and we even carry pictures of the dead. But why? What makes us surround ourselves with constant reminders of death? Experts think this preoccupation is rooted in the human mind; unlike animals, humans understand the inevitability of their own death and in fact can imagine a world in which we are no longer alive.
It was in the famous Holy Land city of Jericho, 9,000 years ago, that archeologist believed people first surrounded themselves with images of death. The so-called "Jericho Skulls" were human skulls decorated as portraits of the deceased, and prominently kept in people's houses. It was reasoned if an ancestor's memory lived on through these skulls, so, one day, would theirs. And for the living, this provided comfort. But there are other images of death that are the opposite of reassurance.
The Moche civilization of Northern Peru excelled at performing horrific acts of sacrifice and then creating images of them in their temples. Theirs was not art as fantasy, it was art as documentary. But the Moche were not alone. The Aztecs of Mexico City also performed human sacrifice - but on a colossal scale, literally slaughtering captives by the mile. They even went so far as to create walls of human skulls, that were designed to frighten and drive people into supporting their values.
On the other hand, the Etruscans, in 400 BC Italy, were the first to bring together images of death that both reassured and terrified. The underworld Blue Demon, and happy afterlife pictures painted on Etruscan tombs, offered Etruscan warriors fighting the Romans a stark choice—'would you be damned or saved?' For the first time in history these conflicting images had been combined, and by doing so the Etruscans had invented a new and powerful image — the image of redemption.
[Text from PBS]
How Art Made The World - Extras
How Art Made The World Source: MVGroup
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