Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Parable of the Cave

Today is the 72nd anniversary of the discovery of the cave paintings at Lascaux. There are other paleolithic paintings, and many were known prior to Lascaux, but the sheer volume, the imagery, the immediacy, and the "signatures" (traced hands) at Lascaux are still sui generis.

Here we have a time tunnel to 15,000 BC, to see how humans thought, how dominating the world around them was, as they still clung barely to survival of the species. The depiction of animals and the stars has often been attributed, without much evidence, as being part of the cosmology or religion of people at large. For all we know, it could just as easily have been some lone artist, grooving on his or her own aesthetic. Maybe they just loved drawing. Perhaps the artists' (artist's?) contemporaries considered the activity weird, or maybe it was the center of recreation, or a contest, not a religious rite. Who knows? The "art" may have been the birth of science: taxonomy of animals, depictions of recognizable clusters of stars. (At Lascaux, we have human witness to the truth of evolution: disappeared species are depicted, their bones available for inspection and confirmation of their existence nearby; surviving species are shown in earlier forms. We have evolved since then as well.) In any event, it's (now) a monument to human creativity that predates any surviving building or written record, and more to the point, the drawings are still just fun to look at, without any context. With the context, they're fairly jaw-dropping.

But the cautionary tale of Lascaux is not in the creation of the paintings, or the mysteries of the art, but what's happened to the paintings since.

I have always loved the fact the paintings were rediscovered by a group of teenagers, goofing around, with their dog (named Robot). In terms of the cycle of rebirth and rediscovery, I find this more heartening than if they'd been discovered by an academic expedition or some official organization. Of course, the site, even during World War II, was quickly taken over by "authorities" and "experts", who have held sway ever since.

And this brief 72-year history of modern supervision has been a disaster for the paintings. First thousands of visitors a day tromped through: I don't blame them, I'd love a chance to see these in person as well. Their gaseous emissions -- carbon dioxide, of course -- started degrading the paintings that had sat for 170 centuries relatively well preserved almost immediately, to the point they had to close the caves off to the public in 1963. In the ensuing years, attempts to "preserve" the caves with humidity control, the use of lighting, and simple disturbance of the soil have kicked up lichens, formed crystals, and introduced various forms of toxic molds that are destroying the art fairly efficiently, considering the time frame involved. The laws of unintended consequences certainly apply, but such consequences should be expected, because it's our way to leave a path of dissolution in our wake.

Our footprint is heavy: how many of those extinct species depicted did we extinguish ourselves through hunting? Is the quest to understand ourselves worth the destruction of our own heritage? What responsibilities do we have to our posterity?

Talk to the hand.