An Intellectual History of Pre-Historic Man
by Robert Tracinski
A few months ago, we offered the first semester of Sandra Shaw's course on the history of art. From Ms. Shaw's previous work, I knew this new course would be excellent. But now that I am well into the first semester, I have discovered that it is eye-opening in ways that exceeded my expectations.
At this point, I have listened to the first five lectures (in a digital audio format, accompanied by images available on the course website). We have just finished looking at the art of the early Mesopotamian civilization of Sumeria. Most of the art we have discussed up to now is from prehistoric peoples. Because the pre-Sumerian peoples left no written records—no indication of their ideas, their religion, their rituals, their social organization—these are people whose mental life and development is almost completely obscure to us. But they did leave art—and Ms. Shaw shows that this is a powerful record of the intellectual development of pre-civilized man. The value of her lectures is best expressed in a seeming oxymoron: Sandra Shaw provides an intellectual history of pre-historic man.
I do not want to give away the details of her discussion, nor could I do justice to the material; the reader is best off discovering the lectures for himself. But I want to make this point for the benefit of those who might have looked at the initial description of these lectures, and perhaps seen some images of the artworks she refers to. If you have been turned off because these early examples seem so hopelessly crude and primitive as to be utterly uninspiring—think again. By the time Ms. Shaw's lectures are done, you will see these crude figures as man's first, crucial steps toward a concept of success, happiness, and human efficacy; as man's first steps in developing his power of abstraction; as man's first projections of a heroic ideal.
Sandra Shaw is able to achieve this because she has a unique combination of abilities as a lecturer on art.
My general experience is that most discussion of early art falls into the "armchair" school of art history. These historians are able to discuss in often excruciating detail the historical, economic, and social context within which a given work of art was produced—but there is usually something too abstract and general about their comments on the art itself. The best of these historians are able to notice the broadest artistic developments—the use of shading or foreshortening, for example, to imply the representation of objects in three dimensions—but there is a lack of detail in their understanding of the choices the artist makes. They view art as a scholar views it, not as an artist does.
Sandra Shaw looks at art with an artist's eye—or to put it more precisely, she understands art from the perspective of an artist's psycho-epistemology. That is, she sees art in terms of the mental processes the artist must have been going through—the precision of his habits of observation, the degree to which he is attempting to draw abstractions from concretes, the exact techniques of modeling the figure, the specific choices of what to emphasize. I have what I think is a better than average education in the history of art (which is not making too great a claim in today's context), but I am not an artist, and I have been constantly struck by the fine subtlety of detail Ms. Shaw is able to draw to her listener's attention. Her lectures are unique, in my experience, in their ability to analyze and explain the artist's mind, and I think this is because Sandra Shaw is herself an artist who has clearly devoted a lot of effort to understanding the process by which she creates her own works.
This is a very rare thing to discover. Most artistic types tend to be relatively inarticulate when expressing themselves in words. I mean this without censure; the ability to express oneself clearly is a skill that has to be learned and developed, and the development of an artist's skill in one medium—in paint, say, or bronze—is often pursued at the expense of his skill in the medium of words. Frank Lloyd Wright once began a lecture by saying that he felt more comfortable expressing himself "with a hod of mortar and some bricks"—and given what he accomplished in bricks and mortar, who can blame him? So it is rare to find an artist who is able to explain art in clear, precise, philosophical terms.
Sandra Shaw is that rarity. She looks at art from the artist's perspective, but she draws deeply from the scholar's erudition, introducing each era with an essentialized overview of what we know about man's development in technology, religion, and all other areas of his life, giving us important clues that explain the intellectual development we see in his art.
The result really has been an eye-opening series of lectures that have left me feeling, not only that I understand prehistoric art for the first time, but that I truly understand prehistoric man for the first time.
I mention all of this not only to encourage you to discover the first semester of her course, but also to announce that we are now offering for sale the second semester: twelve lectures on the history of art from fifth-century, BC, Athens—the height of Greek heroic sculpture—to the fall of Rome. Because the second semester is several lectures shorter than the first, it is available at the reduced price of $160.
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(Students: this course can also be purchased at a deeply discounted student rate through Ms. Shaw's website.)
For those tempted to skip the first semester and start at the exalted pinnacle of Greek art, I recommend listening to both series of lectures. Your appreciation of Classical art will only be heightened by seeing how far man had to climb, over how many millennia, and through what chain of earlier discoveries and achievements, to reach that summit.